Fuelling the Postpartum Athlete: Athlete Nutrition Part 2

Aug 24, 2020

Alicia Edge, Advanced Sports Dietician


As we discussed in Part One of this series, nutrition is a core component in supporting and thriving during your fertility, pregnancy and mum-life journey. If you are wanting to know more about nutrition for pregnancy, head back to the Part One, however, if you are here approaching birth or have a new bub in arms – congratulations, you are going to love this article!

Part Two: The Changing Fuelling Demands – from Athlete to Athlete Mum

Your Nutrition Focused Recovery After Birth

So much of the lead up preparation through pregnancy is focused upon the birth, however it is the weeks following that that we wish would see so much more discussion.

As your body recovers, there are fluctuations in hormones, the development of your milk supply, sleep deprivation like you have never known, and adjustments as you work through this new identity as a mum. Alongside all of this, there can also be the pressure placed upon us to ‘bounce back’ to our pre-baby weight as soon as possible.

During this time, it is normal to feel out of rhythm and out of control. Babies do not follow the manual, so some days will be more chaotic and stressful than others.

Always focus on the basics and know that there is no ‘wagon’ you have fallen off – rather a lag from your previous habits being broken due to a newly arrived pooping, screaming, sleep-pirate. Rebuilding new habits takes time. Try not to try and change everything all at once or hold yourself to the same nutrition and training standards you had pre-baby – you are different, your time looks different and your days are less predictable.


The Demands of Breastfeeding 

Firstly, I am a big believer in choosing the path that allows you to be the most confident and resilient mum you can be. Breastfeeding can be a really challenging journey, and for us high achievers, not excelling straight away can be a real challenge. If breastfeeding is something you are passionate in pursuing and you are having challenges, surround yourself with the support network that will help progress you, but also the one that will prioritise what is best for both you and bub the whole way through.

Breastfeeding uses a significant amount of energy and fluid. Of course, the more milk you are producing, the more energy and fluid you are therefore needing to replace. Aiming for a severe energy deficit for weight loss via a restrictive diet, at the same time as trying to breastfeed, re-enter training and not get sleep is really not a good mix. Performance is more than just your weight. Being present, patient and energetic is worth so much more than a number, so prioritising energy being available for living, feeding and training is an important step for both mental and physical health. Overrestriction can also be one of the main causes to overeating sessions or binge episodes associated with guilt and anxiety.


If we average out the amount of milk you are producing daily to around 800mL per day, you are needing an extra 2500-3000kJ (600-700cal) per day. An amount that equates to warranting some bigger portion sizes at meals, more frequent snacks, or (if you are also a brekky lover like me) a second breakfast! Appreciate that the hunger you feel is real and honour that you need to pay attention to it. 


Finding the Nutrition Balance Between Performance as a Mum and Performance as an Athlete 

As you return to training, finding the right balance between training and nutrition can be a lot trickier than it used to be. The sleep deprivation can impact our food choices due to changes in how our hormones work and as we look for fast energy fixes. Leptin (our fullness hormone) reduces and ghrelin (our hunger hormone) increases - making it increasingly difficult to manage our food choices and portions. Alongside this, you are having to become a time management ninja to even fit training in between feeds, let alone plan what you are going to eat around these sessions.

So, let’s first acknowledge and sum up the challenges so that we can then work through the solutions: you will be tired; that fatigue will impact your appetite and food decisions; your energy needs are increased with breastfeeding and training; and there will be days where finding a moment to eat with two hands feels impossible.

Your Home Environment:

With all of this, setting up a home environment that encourages nourishment and progress is one of the key things you can do. Make changes or improvements feel easy by making them obvious and enjoyable – e.g. if you are wanting to reduce how often you are heading to the biscuit jar for fast energy, don’t try to have a ‘piece of fruit instead’ if this isn’t what you enjoy or what satisfies you. Have options within your pantry that encourage you to eat enough and nourish (even if one-handed). 

Fuelling ideas for feeding and training:

With your added energy needs but reduced time for cooking, keep this simple and prep in advance at any possible opportunity.

  • Breakfast could be porridge, bircher muesli, eggs or chia puddings. 
  • Snacks to have on hand could be roasted nuts, bliss balls, yoghurt, fruit, crispbread or even cereal/oats.
  • Lunches can be one of those meals that gets skipped too often, so if you can find a rhythm with something simple, then that’s a win. Options that work well due to their one-handedness are salad plates (e.g. veggie sticks, crackers, cheese, hummus), sandwiches or wraps.
  • Dinner...there is no other way to put this other than dinner time being nicely synchronised with the witching hours. So, if you can prep dinner during the day, you will be more likely to eat a solid variety of food without calling on UberEats once bub is finally asleep.

Can I use supplements for fuelling and recovery?

For all our athletes we always aim for a food first approach. However, getting adequate energy in can be also a game of convenience and boosting current recipes – and this is where supplements can be handy. Keep to the basics and limit herbals or stimulants as much as possible. Including things like sports drink, gels or portables during training are very low risk.

The question around protein powders while breastfeeding is also a common one. We don't have any research to suggest it is unsafe. What we instead consider is if it is necessary and then ensure the safety of the supplement. Choose a whey protein that has been third party batch tested as a low risk option (HASTA, Approved Sport or Informed Choice on the packet). Plant-based proteins are also ok, however, some have been shown to contain heavy metals simply due to the soil they are grown in (including organic options) – so limit doses to be on the safe side.

Acknowledge that this is a game of progress over perfection:

Even on those days where you feel you have achieved nothing other than nappy changes, bouncing and feeding, you have done amazing. This transition is not for the faint-hearted, and letting go of perfection in training and nutrition is a really important place to finish this article. As athletes, we can thrive in structure and list-ticking – but babies really show us that that isn’t what they are about.

On the hardest days, feel ok in just focusing on the basics or leaning toward convenience when needed. There is no wagon to fall off, just an invitation to choose your best option in that situation and returning to progress as soon as you can.

If you are feeling guilt or anxiety around food, or struggling with your change in body shape, it is really important to reach out for support. When everything else we knew feels out of control, it is normal to try and locate control elsewhere – and often that place is in food.


Alicia Edge owns CompEat Nutrition, is the Performance Dietician for The Matildas, The Australian Women's National Soccer Team, and is also a mum of 3 little ones under 5.

Their team at Compeat Nutrition are all Sports Dietitians that understand not only performance nutrition in your sport, but also the importance of balancing this focus with performance in life as well. They offer a free assessment if you would like to start the conversation with their expert team anytime.

CompEat Nutrition also deliver a lot of info (infographics, live Q&As and interviews) on their socials (@compeat_nutrition) and on an awesome podcast each week, so head on over to follow them if you don’t already.


If you missed Part One: Fuelling your Fertility & Pregnancy, catch it here. 


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