the female athlete triad: are you training too hard?

Sarah Pacheco
March 29, 2022

Competitive athletes push their bodies to extremes to rise to the next level of fitness. They train harder, longer, and often in conditions that would prompt many others to sit on the sidelines.

There are benefits to pushing yourself, but also risks if athletes aren’t careful about their diet. In female athletes, these elevated expectations coupled with a lack of adequate caloric intake can lead to a disorder called “the female athlete triad.”

First coined in 1992 by the American College of Sports Medicine, this complex condition is so named because it involves irregularities in:

  • Energy levels.
  • Menstrual cycle.
  • Bone mineral density.

Like eating and body image disorders, the female athlete triad is spurred by the pressure to achieve an ideal weight or physique.

However, some athletes may develop the disorder accidentally if they don’t eat enough calories to replace the energy they put out after long training sessions.

A negative caloric balance leads to low energy levels and fatigue. In addition to affecting athletic performance, it can also lead to the body shutting down other major functions. In women, this includes the second part of the female athlete triad – amenorrhea, or irregular or loss of periods.

And when an athlete restricts calories for a long period of time, her bones begin to leech minerals in an attempt to nourish her body. Low bone density can result in fractures, broken bones, and, ultimately, osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Other health complications can include:

  • Loss of muscle mass.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Low heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Gastrointestinal problems.
  • Kidney complications.
  • Vaginal and breast atrophy.
  • Infertility.

Here are tips to prevent the female athlete triad:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet rich in nutrients that will replenish what you lost during training.
  • Exercise in moderate amounts to prevent overtraining or overexertion.
  • Take a day off to rest or add days of active recovery to your schedule.
  • Find ways to reduce stress.

If you think you might have one, two, or all three parts of the female athlete triad, talk to your doctor for help and treatment options.

Learn more about disordered eating in the spring 2022 issue of Island Scene. 

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