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6 Essential Foods To Help Maximize Your Endurance Workout

by Ariel Johnston, RD, LD - April 26, 2021

It's a no-brainer that nutrition is important. But when it comes to endurance sports, what an endurance athlete includes in their diet can be the difference between success in an event or hitting the dreaded wall. 

With hopes to always achieve the prior, there are six vital nutritional factors to consider, according to an article by the NCAA: fluids, carbohydrates, protein, fats and vitamins and minerals.

If you're wondering how many calories an endurance athlete needs, that depends on the type of activity and duration. While it's important to take in enough calories to fuel your body — the type of fuel is also important.

Whether you're hoping to run a marathon, or just make it to the gym, read on for the insight on an endurance athlete's diet that can make all the difference in your sweat session.

Vital Note: This article has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Your licensed healthcare professional can best provide you with the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition and assist you as well in deciding whether a dietary supplement will be a helpful addition to your regimen.

endurance athlete diet

Do Endurance Athletes Need Carbs?

Aside from the foods listed above, carbs should be a staple in the diet of every endurance athlete. The American Dietetic Association also states formulation and the type of carbohydrates endurance athletes eat and drink are important because they're the body's primary fuel source. That said, endurance athletes' diets should consist primarily of carbohydrates to provide enough glucose in the blood to reduce the amount of glycogen pulled from the muscles. This prevents muscle fatigue and increases endurance. 

In terms of exactly what should be consumed daily, about 60 percent of calories should be carbohydrate-rich sources or:

  • 5-7g if training at a moderate intensity level for 60 minutes
  • 6-10g if training at a moderate to high intensity level for one to three hours 
  • 10-12g if training at a moderate to high activity level for 4 to 5 hours

Incorporating carbohydrates help fuel the body during training and events and may help improve speed and performance.**

What Should an Endurance athlete eat?

Protein

Unlike carbohydrates, protein does not significantly contribute to usable fuel during activity. However, it does help repair muscles that break down during prolonged periods of activity. It also helps maintain fluid balance and is necessary for nutrient transport throughout the body.

In terms of intake, endurance athletes need an estimated 1.2-1.4g of protein per kg of body weight per day, according to the NCAA. If the athlete is also strength training this need will be higher although more than 2g per kilogram of body weight has not been shown to increase benefit.

Fat

Healthy fats are also necessary to sustain prolonged exercise, in addition to promoting flavor and that feeling of fullness with each bite, according to the NCAA. The recommendation for fat intake is 20-35 percent of total calories. 

When it comes to which type, it's important to focus on ones that are unsaturated and contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help decrease muscle soreness post-workout. Examples of these include fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds.

Vitamins & Minerals

Eating a well-rounded diet should provide most people with the vitamins and minerals they need. That said, there are a few standout vitamins and minerals endurance athletes should focus on to ensure they are getting adequate amounts. 

Iron is a vital mineral that helps carry oxygen throughout the body, according to the National Institutes of Health. Endurance athletes, particularly females, are at greater risk of low iron status or iron deficiency anemia, according to the Mayo Clinic. This may lead to impaired muscle function, limited work capacity and fatigue. 

Other micronutrients that are important for endurance athletes are sodium and chloride. These electrolytes are particularly critical for athletes with high sweat losses. The nutrition goal is to prevent hyponatremia, a condition that can be caused by overhydration that occurs when sodium levels are abnormally low in blood. 

Additional nutrients of concern for endurance athletes are calcium, zinc, potassium, magnesium, vitamins B, C, D & E, beta carotene and selenium.

Fluids

Staying hydrated before, during and after training or an event is essential, according to an the American Dietetic Association. While hydration needs vary from person to person, general guidelines for fluid replacement are**: 

  • 16 oz. 2 hours before activity
  • 4-8 oz. 5 to 10 minutes before activity
  • 8-10 oz. for every 15 to 20 minutes of strenuous activity
  • 16-24 oz. per pound lost during activity

One important thing to keep in mind is to drink by schedule, not by thirst. Often, by the time you notice you are thirsty, this is a sign you are already slightly dehydrated.

Nutrition for endurance athletes

Specific nutrition needs can be evaluated by a registered dietitian. Just like athletes practice their sport, practicing refueling is an important part of training. An athlete's specific sport and needs may require them to snack and drink during the event which requires them to plan in advance. Especially for endurance athletes, a training plan should include nutrition for before, during and after the event. You shouldn't try anything new on race day, either. That could spell stomach trouble.

If you are an endurance athlete, making sure your nutrition intake is adequate is not only important for optimal athletic performance, but also helps to prevent other health complications that may arise from having low energy. 

To make sure you are getting the correct amount and types of foods, consult your licensed healthcare professional who's familiar with endurance sports and the nutrition needs of endurance athletes. 

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