Nutrition for Endurance Athletes
Sample Pre-Workout Meals
These options meet the high-carb, moderate protein, low-fat, low-fiber criteria:
Bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter
Pasta with red sauce
Chicken and rice
Ideally, you’ll want to eat your pre-exercise meal about one to three hours before long or intense workouts.7 Eating too close to your session can cause gastrointestinal upset, while eating too far out can leave you lacking energy. Try different foods and timing during training to nail down exactly what works best for you, both in terms of gastrointestinal comfort and energy levels.
Fueling During Exercise
During exercise, your nutrition concerns should focus hydration, electrolytes, and fuel.
Hydration and Electrolytes
For exercise lasting less than an hour, drinking plain water works just fine. If you’re exercising for over an hour (or it is very hot outside), you’ll want to take in both fluid and electrolytes—specifically sodium. Though several electrolytes are lost in sweat, sodium is lost in the largest amounts.7
The rate at which you sweat and the sodium that is lost varies from athlete to athlete. Research has shown that high sodium losses in sweat can lead to slightly lower blood sodium levels. This, combined with fluid overload, may increase the risk of hyponatremia—a dangerous drop in blood sodium levels. You can meet your sodium needs during exercise. Instead of drinking water for long sessions, you can drink a commercial sports drink. You can also use fizzy electrolyte tablets that you add to water. Or, you can drink water and use a salt replacement product designed for athletes.
Fuel Types and Timing
If you’re training for longer than one hour and 15 minutes, you’ll also want to add some carbohydrate-based fuel during exercise. Your muscles are working hard, and keeping a steady stream of carbs flowing gives them the energy to continue to do so.
Aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate for every hour of exercise. Start fueling around the 30- to 45-minute mark. Even though your body doesn’t necessarily need fuel yet, it’s helpful to get a steady stream of carbohydrates flowing to get your digestive system used to processing the fuel and to prolong the amount of time before you hit the wall.
Fuel can come in many sources, but they should be rich in easily digestible carbohydrates. You can choose options specifically manufactured for sport, or you can choose grocery store options that will also meet your needs. For example:
What this looks like in practice: Say you’re going on a 3-hour bike ride. You might decide to consume a gel (25 grams of carbohydrate each) every 45 minutes of your training ride, or 1/3 cup of raisins (38 grams of carbohydrates) every hour. Either of these options would fuel you at that rate of 30 to 60 grams per hour.
Post-Workout Nutrition is a key part of the athlete diet. You’ll replenish energy stores in your muscles and start the muscle fibre repair process, both of which will help you arrive at your next session in optimal condition.
Take in carbohydrates along with some protein within 30 to 60 minutes of completing your workout. You can wait up to two hours for maximum results, but it's ideal to consume carbohydrates and protein ASAP after you finish your workout. Just how much carbohydrate depends on your body weight.
Aim for 1 to 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight after your training session.
For example, let’s say you weigh 72 kilograms (160 pounds). Using the calculation above, that would mean you’d aim for 72 to 86 grams of carbohydrate after your workout. This may seem like a lot, but it can easily be built into a filling post-workout meal. Along with that carbohydrate, most people should include 15 to 25 grams of protein.
Remember, for shorter sessions you don't have to worry about these amounts. You can maximize recovery after short workouts with a small carbohydrate and protein snack—for example, Greek yogurt.