The Female Athlete Triad

image borrowed from The Daily Beast

Have you ever heard of the Female Athlete Triad? If not, don’t worry. I’m here to teach you about what it is, which females are at risk, and how you can help if you think it may be affecting a female athlete that you know! Let’s dive in.

First: What is it?

The Female Athlete Triad is the relationship between energy availability, bone mineral density, and menstrual dysfunction, and is somewhat common among female athletes. Energy availability is the cornerstone of the triad with an imbalance of the available energy leading to dysfunction of menses and possible decline of bone mineral density. These symptoms develop if the athlete’s intake of calories is not balanced with their energy expenditure. Low energy availability does not have to be intentional. The athlete at risk may be unaware that they are not getting enough calories. Even though it is called the Female Athlete Triad, the athlete does not need to show all three conditions to be affected by it.

Second: Who is at risk?

Female athletes who participate in lean body sports such as cross-country running or swimming more commonly have one or more aspects of the triad due to high energy expenditure. Prevalence of all three components of the triad is fairly low, while having one or two components is more common.

Third: What are Consequences of the triad?

There are both short term and long-term consequences of the Female Athlete Triad, with some irreversible long term consequences. Below you will find examples of both –

Immediate consequences of having low energy availability include:

  • Diminished ability to recover from injury
  • Diminished ability to build or maintain bone density
  • Impaired menstrual function
  • Diminished performance in sport

Long term consequences of low energy availability:

  • Increased risk of infertility
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk for osteoporosis or osteopenia at an older age

And lastly, what can you do?

Knowledge is power. Educate yourself about appropriate nutrition and caloric intake for an athlete. Adequate calories isn’t always enough, it is important to know appropriate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water intake to allow the body to participate in athletic activities. Talk to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you feel as if you may not be eating appropriately for your preferred activity.

If inadequate caloric intake is purposeful it may be necessary to seek professional help from a nutritionist, physician, or a psychologist. Care for the athlete with the triad is more successful with a multidisciplinary approach. Involvement of coaches, physicians, psychologists, registered dietitians, and even your physical therapist will improve the success of treatment of the female athlete triad.

If you’re concerned about any of your female athletes, Hulst Jepsen Physical Therapy offers free consultations at all of our 15 locations. Give us a call at 616.827.3010 today!


Learn More About
the Author

Marissa Thomas