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What is the Female Athlete Triad and How Does it Affect Swimming Training?

There are many reasons to love the sport of swimming. It offers great physical training, an opportunity to make lifelong connections with coaches and teammates, and the chance to do something positive for your health. And what's even better about swimming is that everyone can participate and today there are many programs, scholarships, and swim clubs that help both male and female athletes. But being a female athlete brings with it some challenges, one of which is the female athlete triad. We'll discuss what it is and how it can affect your swim training.

What is the Female Athlete Triad?

This condition can affect women at any age and occurs when a female has irregular menstrual periods, low bone density, and disordered eating. Known as the "female athlete triad, though more common in the athletic population, can also occur in the nonathletic population"1 and often takes a team of coaches, physicians, and parents to diagnose.

Why does this affect female athletes?

A few factors make female athletes more susceptible to this condition. First, female athletes are participating in strenuous physical training, which as we've discussed in previous posts, requires a larger food intake than a non-athletic peer. While swimmers are definitely expending these calories in rigorous training sessions, female swimmers are sometimes under societal pressures to stay thin or look a certain way. Second, female athletes will modify their eating habits to adhere to these peer pressures, which often compromises their overall health. Finally, during a woman's menstrual cycle, they need extra nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to stay healthy. When females are restricting their food intake, they often will miss or delay periods, known as amenorrhea. "Amenorrhea can be caused by a variety of diseases and genetic abnormalities, as well as energy deficiency and even stress."2

The Ultimate Masters Athlete Guide

How do I know if I have this condition?

Diagnosing female athlete triad often takes a team approach from people who interact with the swimmer on a daily basis, like a parent or family member, a coach or teacher, or maybe even another teammate. Pay attention to the following warning signs:

  • exercising frequently and excessively, beyond the normal training protocol
  • skipping family or team meals
  • excessive or rapid weight loss, or sudden weight fluctuations
  • missed periods
  • lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • frequent sore throats, dental cavities, or foul breath, which are all symptoms of self-induced vomiting
  • withdrawn or defensive attitude when asked about food or diet habits

How will this affect my swimming performance?

The female athlete triad will affect your athletic performance and swimming training in a number of ways. Frequent stress fractures are one of the first ways that your body will show signs of this condition. Because your body is not getting proper nutrition, your immune system is weakened and you are more prone to injuries. Your swim performance will also be impacted by your low energy reserves and you'll be less likely to power through those demanding practices.

But what's even more dangerous that the immediate impact on your swimming performance is the long lasting effects on your health. Prolonged cases of female athlete triad result in osteoporosis, heart problems, and since they are "often difficult to recognize, the female athlete triad can have a significant impact on morbidity and even mortality in a relatively young segment of the population."3

As mentioned earlier, detecting female athlete triad is a team effort and early detection is key. For tips on how to get the best nutrition for swimmers and stay healthy all season long, subscribe to our blog today!

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