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post-natal sports nutrition special: Part 2


Last week in the first instalment of our post-natal sports nutrition special. I chatted about basic nutrition considerations to make when adjusting to life as a new mum. This week I will provide you with some information about how to best fuel your body when the time comes to return to training, particularly when it comes to injury prevention and continuing recovery from the birthing process.

This part of the special was very relevant to Leah as she lost a significant amount of blood during the birth process, and given her iron levels were quite low before she gave birth (as is common with female endurance athletes), this became a number one focus for her and the main protagonist behind this whole post-natal special.

For this part, Leah asked me some important questions around preparing her body for a return to training and eating to increase her iron levels. 

Leah: "As an athlete preparing my body for a return to training, what are some key things I should be keeping in mind with my nutrition?"

Eating well can go a long way in helping you to regain your strength, maintain your energy levels, support your immune system and ensure that your body is in top shape for training. Some key points include:

  • Along with sleep deprivation and stress, starting any new training block puts pressure on the immune system. Eating well to support your immune system can ensure that you stay well to look after yourself and your bub and continue to train. To do this, eat quality carbohydrate after a training session, enjoy different coloured fruits and vegetables every day, eat to prevent iron deficiency (see below) and make the most of fermented foods such as yoghurt, fermented milk drinks (such as Yakult and Kefir) and kimchi (a traditional Korean side dish that is made from fermented cabbage).
  • Have some good quality protein at each main meal and within 30 minutes of training. This will help to support muscle growth, maintenance and strength. Some good food examples include:
    • 200g of ChobaniTM Greek yoghurt.
    • A smoothie made with milk and yoghurt.
    • Ricotta cheese on toast.
    • An omelette.
    • A sandwich with hardboiled eggs, chicken, tuna or salmon.
    • Fish, poultry or beef with dinner.
  • Include some good quality carbohydrate after training and at each main meal. Having regular carbohydrate will help to maintain your muscle glycogen (your energy) reserves with the amount required depending on your training load and help to support your immune system as previous discussed. If your muscle glycogen stores are low when you ramp up your training, your risk of stress fractures can increase. Quality carbohydrates include:
    • Barley.
    • Quinoa.
    • Oats.
    • Brown rice.
    • Potato.
    • Sweet potato.
    • Fruit.
    • Milk.
    • Yoghurt.
    • Sourdough, rye or grainy breads and wraps.
  • Since you are juggling mum duties with training and sleep deprivation, you will benefit from a pre-training snack to top up your muscle fuel stores, especially for harder training sessions. Adding a source of calcium to this pre-training snack may also help to reduce the risk of stress fractures. As we discussed in part 1 of this series, when blood calcium levels drop, the body will ‘borrow’ calcium from our bones if dietary intake is low. Because we loose calcium in sweat, athletes may be more prone to bone calcium loss during training and therefore increase their risk of stress fractures.  Adding some calcium to the pre-training meal or snack MAY help with this. This may include a milky coffee, a smoothie, flavoured milk, yoghurt and banana or toast with ricotta and honey. Timing this meal and snack well is important to assist with gastrointestinal comfort and make sure that carbohydrate is available to fuel you correctly.
  • If you are breast-feeding, make sure that you stay on top of your fluid requirements as making breast milk uses extra fluid. Training when dehydrated cannot only make you feel pretty terrible, but compromise your training performance. Everyone’s fluid requirements are different so just try to drink regularly and be guided by your thirst and colour of your urine. Dark means that you need to drink more and clear means that you can probably pull back on the fluid intake.

This may sounds like A LOT of information. But you will notice that its all about eating (and enjoying) real food, and just considering the timing of some key nutrients  to support your training load.

For any new mum and athlete, finding the time to prepare and eat well-balanced meals and snacks can be almost as demanding as the training itself. As we chatted about earlier, make the most of opportunities to prepare meals and snacks ahead of time, and say yes to any help that comes your way!

Leah: "I lost a significant amount of blood and already had a low haemoglobin count in the late stages of pregnancy. How can my food choices help rebuild my iron levels (I am also taking supplements under midwife instruction)?"

This is a really important question as female athletes are more prone to iron deficiency, even when they haven’t had a baby!

Hard training stimulates an increase in the number of red blood cells, meaning that there is a higher demand for iron in the body. This demand is particularly high for endurance athletes (such as yourself). In addition to an increased demand for iron, we  loose iron through sweat, menstruation and damage to red blood cells when running on hard surfaces.

To optimise your diet, you need to focus on foods that contain iron that is more readily absorbed, and food combinations that will optimise the absorption of iron. Iron found in animal sources such as beef, lamb, kangaroo, chicken, turkey, seafood, egg yolks and liver is called haem iron and is more ‘available’ for absorption by the body compared to iron found in plant foods, which is called non-haem iron. Plant sources include legumes, dried fruit, nuts and wholegrain bread and cereals that have been fortified with iron. The iron doesn’t absorb as well in these foods due to different properties within plants that block this absorption.

Combining iron with foods rich in vitamin C can boost the absorption of iron from the digestive tract.  Rich sources of vitamin C include oranges (and orange juice), kiwifruit, red capsicum, broccoli, dark leafy greens, berries and tomatoes. Here are some tips to bump up the iron absorption from your diet:

  • Try to have red meat three times a week with vegetables such as red capsicum, broccoli and spinach. Lean red meat actually has three time more iron compared to white meat, meaning it is the richest source.
  • If you are looking for a convenient training recovery option, Sustagen Sport is a good source of iron and will also provide plenty of protein and carbohydrate for recovery.
  • Have baked beans on toast with a piece of vitamin C rich fruit for a convenient meal.
  • Have eggs on wholegrain toast with spinach for breakfast or lunch.
  • Make a snack of almonds with some dried apricots.

Let us know if you have any questions around this topic - feel free to comment below.