#196: Supporting Your Girl Athlete Through Puberty + Her Menstrual Cycle w/ Dr. Lisa Spencer

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Let’s be honest, those teenage years can be a whirlwind, especially for our girl athletes.

Suddenly, they’re dealing with changing bodies, unpredictable moods, and maybe even their first period – all while trying to perform their best in their sport. It’s enough to make any parent feel a little lost about how to support them.

If you’re worried about how these changes can affect your daughter’s athletic performance, or find yourself struggling to understand the emotional ups and downs, know that you’re not alone.

That’s why I was so excited to interview Dr. Lisa Spencer, a certified nutritionist specializing in empowering female athletes. Her insights on the big changes happening during puberty and the different phases of the menstrual cycle were a game-changer. She shared practical advice on fueling, managing energy levels, and understanding how these bodily changes can influence everything from mood to injury risk.

As parents, we want our girls to feel confident and unstoppable on the field, court, or track. Understanding the physical and emotional shifts they’re facing is the first step in providing the best possible support. So, are you ready to dive in? Dr. Spencer’s insights will help you navigate this new terrain and empower your athlete to thrive!

Understanding the Big Changes of Puberty

Remember those awkward middle school years? The growth spurts, the clumsiness, the inexplicable mood swings? Now imagine adding intense athletic training into the mix! That’s what our girl athletes are facing as they go through puberty. 

If you wonder why your daughter suddenly seems out of sync with her sport or struggles with unpredictable emotions, it’s not just “being a teenager.”  

Dr. Spencer explains that puberty brings major changes for girls:

  • Physical development. “We change our bone structure, we change our cue angle, we change. So that means everything in sport – how a girl runs, how she kicks the ball, how she might have her strokes in swimming – all of that changes as she goes through puberty.”
  • Metabolic shifts. “You might see phases of really increased metabolism, where she’s just really hungry for a couple of weeks, or you might see phases of really not very hungry for a couple of weeks.”
  • Mood swings. “We really are going to see some mood changes. That’s natural, it’s gonna happen. And you might even pick up a little bit of a pattern, although it’s not a hormonal cycle pattern yet, but you might pick up a little bit more of a pattern.”

Knowing that these changes are normal can help our athletes feel less alone. We can also encourage them to get comfortable with this new phase of development.

As parents, the most important tool in our toolbelt is patience. Validating their feelings and reassuring them that this is part of becoming a woman goes a long way.

What to Expect: Bone Density and Weight Gain

As a parent, you want your daughter to thrive in her sport, but you also want her to have a long, healthy life. That’s why building strong bones during puberty is so important. 

Did you know that an incredible 25% of bone mineral density develops during those four years around a girl’s first period? This is a time when we can give our athletes an incredible boost for their future health. Dr. Spencer explains, “25% of your bone mineral density occurs in the four years around puberty.”

To support that healthy bone development, Dr. Spencer recommends:

  • Vitamin D and C
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Calcium-rich foods
  • Plyometrics (such as jumping rope or trampoline exercises)

Another common physical change is weight gain. Girls may notice their bodies distributing fat differently, becoming more characteristic of a woman’s form. It’s helpful to remind them that this is a normal and healthy part of development. It’s important to encourage a healthy body image and emphasize the incredible things our bodies can do.

What Changes You Can Expect as Parents

Dr. Spencer offers helpful insight into some of the changes parents might see in their daughters during puberty:

  • Fluctuating eating patterns. Don’t be surprised by shifts in your daughter’s appetite.
  • Decreased energy. During these periods of rapid growth, lethargy is normal.
  • Coordination issues. It’s not a lack of skill; it’s just that their bodies are rapidly changing.

While these changes can be frustrating for athletes and parents alike, it’s essential to remain patient and supportive. Openly discussing these issues with your daughter can normalize the experience.

Optimizing the Menstrual Cycle

One of the positive things about a young woman getting her cycle is that it provides an important vital sign of health. While cycles can be irregular at first, they generally fall into three phases:

  • Follicular phase (low hormone). Starts on day one of her period.
  • Ovulation (in the middle). Opinions vary on whether women “love it or want to crawl under a rock”.
  • Luteal phase (high hormone). Generally, this is where symptoms of PMS occur.

Dr. Spencer explains that everyone experiences their cycle differently, and that how your daughter feels can be influenced by factors like sleep, fueling, and stress. These are the most significant changes to be aware of during the high-hormone luteal phase:

  • Metabolism and hunger
  • Temperature regulation. “If it’s hot out, our girls really need to stay hydrated – making sure they’re getting their electrolytes, making sure they’re absorbing their water, they’re sipping on it throughout the day, throughout training, etc.”
  • Perceived level of exertion. “It’s just harder for the body to regulate temperature for a variety of different reasons. That also relates to perceived exertion – practice might just feel harder.”

How to Track and Support Your Athlete’s Cycle

The easiest way to start tracking cycles is with an app. Here are a few Dr. Spencer recommends:

  • Clue (highly informative)
  • Life (great for tracking symptoms)
  • Wild AI
  • Fitter Woman

Encourage your daughter to take note of her energy levels before and after practice to spot patterns that may be associated with her cycle.

“You’re gonna show up to practice, you’re going to practice hard, you’re gonna work hard. It’s what you do before and after practice that you’re in control of.”

In addition to carbohydrate loading for demanding practices, your athlete could plan rest and recovery activities after intense training sessions during her luteal phase.

A Word on Injury Prevention

Dr. Spencer cautions that athletes may be slightly more susceptible to sprains and even concussions during the luteal phase: “Our body’s a little bit more lax during that luteal phase… So do we want to be super protective and be in a bubble during this high hormone phase? No. But the awareness, either for the parents or the girls, depending on the age is important.”

While we don’t want to create an atmosphere of fear or fragility, it’s wise to be mindful of these potential vulnerabilities and prioritize hydration and proper fueling.

Knowing When to Seek Help: Red-S and Irregular Cycles

If your athlete’s cycle is highly irregular, very short, or missing, Dr. Spencer urges you to seek professional help: “That’s a great time to just reach out for help… those are definite signs of needing some support.”

These irregularities can be a sign of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). Look for these other potential symptoms:

  • Moodiness
  • Lack of focus
  • Increased injuries
  • General fatigue

The best course of action is to consult a doctor or nutritionist who can advise you and your athlete on appropriate fueling practices.

Final Thoughts

The teenage years can feel overwhelming for everyone involved.  Remember, these physiological changes are a natural part of your daughter becoming a strong, powerful woman.  With the right knowledge and support, she’ll adapt, grow more confident in her body, and learn to manage the ups and downs of her cycle. This understanding won’t just help her on the field, but will empower her for life.

Knowledge is the first step toward empowerment for you and your daughter. If you want to learn practical fueling strategies, get personalized guidance, and help your athlete thrive through every phase of her cycle, I highly recommend connecting with Dr. Lisa Spencer. You can find her on Instagram at @LisaSpencerNutrition or visit her website at http://lisaspencernutrition.com/.

Let’s make sure these years are a launching pad for our girl athletes – on the field and off!

Episode Highlights: 

[00:00] Puberty and menstrual cycles in female athletes with a mental performance coach. Dr. Lisa Spencer discusses changes in girl athletes’ bodies during puberty and menstrual cycles, and how to support them.

[03:35] Puberty and menstruation changes in athletes, how to support girls during this time. Insights on supporting girls through puberty and menstruation.

[07:58] Puberty changes in girls, including physical and emotional changes, and how parents can support their daughters during this time.

[14:09] Menstrual cycles and their phases, with a focus on symptoms and how to optimize them. An overview of the menstrual cycle’s phases, including the follicular, ovulation, and luteal phases.

[18:54] Tracking menstrual cycles to optimize athletic performance. Hormonal changes during menstruation can affect athletic performance, hydration, and perceived exertion.

[25:09] Female athletes’ menstrual cycles and nutrition. The importance of being aware of the female athlete’s menstrual cycle and how it affects their performance and susceptibility to injury.

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