Eat Right for Endurance Sports

Reviewed by Jill Kohn, MS, RDN, LDN
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Marathons, day-long adventure races and triathlons are gaining in popularity. The difference between just simply participating and actually succeeding in these longer endurance events can be directly tied to your nutrition.

Energy Needs

The energy needs of endurance athletes are high. Every athlete's calorie needs are different, depending on gender, age, body composition, training regimen and daily activities. During heavy training and racing cycles, you should avoid extreme changes in weight. Smaller athletes in light training may need a minimum of 2,000 calories per day; larger athletes and those in heavy training may need well over 5,000 calories per day. Calories should come from a variety of sources. Have a sound nutrition program that meets your energy and weight goals during the early phases of training. This will prepare you for the rigors of heavy training that precede race day. A sports dietitian can assist you in developing personalized eating plans to meet the needs of your sport.

Carbohydrate Needs 

Carbohydrates provide the perfect fuel for most endurance activities — easily digested and quickly used by your body. A diet that includes enough carbohydrates can prevent early fatigue and injury. Carbohydrates are a primary fuel for exercise and sports, especially those of moderate to high intensities. Adequate carbohydrates spares protein use as a fuel source during exercise.

Your carbohydrate needs will depend on the type of training you are doing. Recommended amounts of carbohydrates include:

Type of Training

Daily Carb Needs per Kilogram

Daily Carb Needs per Pound

  (per kilogram body weight) (per pound body weight)
Moderate duration and low intensity
5 to 7 grams per kilogram 2.3 to 3.2 grams per pound
Moderate- to heavy-training load and high intensity 6 to 10 grams per kilogram 3 to 4.5 grams per pound
Extreme training and high-intensity races (longer than 4 to 5 hours) > 8 to 12 grams per kilogram > 3.6 to 5.5 grams per pound

Fat

Fat is a vital source of energy for lengthy, lower- to moderate-intensity exercise and sport training. Healthy sources of fat include fatty fish, nuts, nut oils, vegetable oils, avocados and olives. Limit your intake of saturated fat, which comes from dairy foods such as whole milk, butter and high-fat cheese and animal products, including lard and highly marbled cuts of meat. However, since dairy and animal products contribute energy and nutrients to your diet, opt for leaner options, such as low-fat or fat-free milk, low-fat cheeses and lean, trimmed meats. This way, you get calcium and protein with much less saturated fat. Minimize consumption of foods that contain trans fats such as hydrogenated oils.

Protein

Building and repairing muscles, protein aids in fluid balance and promotes immune function. Protein also is used as a minor fuel for endurance exercise and sport. While the protein needs of athletes are highly debated, most researchers agree endurance athletes need more protein than non-athletes.

Protein needs depend on the type of training. Recommended amounts of protein:

Type of Training

Daily Protein Needs per Kilogram

Daily Protein Needs per Pound

  (per kilogram body weight) (per pound body weight)
Light to moderate training 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram 0.55 to 0.8 grams per pound

 

Following a nutrient-dense, well-balanced diet, you can easily meet your needs for endurance training and racing. Eat a diet high in quality carbohydrates, moderate in healthy fat and adequate in lean protein.

Your diet and eating plan needs to adjust to meet changing energy and macronutrient demands as you progress through various cycles of training and competition. Once you have an eating plan in place for a particular cycle, keep steady eating habits. By doing so, you can meet your energy needs and give your digestive system time to adapt to a pattern of eating. This way, your nutritional needs will be met for peak performance on race day.

For a tailor-made nutrition plan, visit an registered dietitian nutritionist.

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