A Meal Plan for Endurance Athletes

To achieve optimal performance and recovery, endurance athletes depend on proper nutrition. If their nutrition is not up to par, athletes can be at risk for serious health consequences that impact their hormones, bone mass, strength, energy, and risk of injuries. Therefore, endurance athletes must consume sufficient calories in the correct ratios of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to sustain their daily activities.

Carbohydrate Recommendations

Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for endurance athletes during exercise, so they need sufficient stores and an external supply. Athletes who work out for one to five hours a day should consume 6 to 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight daily, with the amount increasing as the duration of exercise goes up. Clinical Sports Nutrition recommends that endurance athletes consume 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrates before working out to replenish their stores and prevent hunger. During exercise, athletes should consume 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates every hour. The American Dietetic Association suggests that energy drinks, gels, or bananas are good sources of carbohydrates. After exercising, it is important to consume carbohydrates immediately to aid in recovery. Examples of foods rich in carbohydrates include bread, oatmeal, chocolate milk, and fruit.

Protein Recommendations

Protein plays a minor role in supplying energy for lengthy exercise, but its importance lies in its support for muscle growth and recovery. It is necessary for maintaining a balance between muscle breakdown and synthesis, preventing injury, and promoting muscle repair. Endurance athletes should aim to consume 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day, with a focus on consuming protein within one hour after exercising. However, consuming protein-rich foods right before or during exercise may result in gastrointestinal discomfort. Athletes should prioritize high-quality protein sources like meat, milk, and soy products.

Fat Recommendations

According to the American Dietetic Association, athletes typically need to consume dietary fats that makeup 20 to 35 percent of their daily calorie intake. Both athletes and non-athletes need to focus on consuming monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from sources like vegetable oils, fatty fish, and avocados. On the other hand, they should limit their consumption of saturated fats from foods like butter and bacon, and completely avoid trans fats which are commonly found in commercial baked goods and margarine. Before participating in a sports event, it is advisable to steer clear of high-fat foods to prevent gastrointestinal disturbances.

4 Surprising New Insights on Fueling for Endurance Sports 

There can be a disconnect in sports science between researchers in laboratories and those who work with elite athletes in the field. Sports nutritionist Louise Burke refers to those working directly with athletes as being “at the coalface.” Although both groups have valuable insights, I believe the most valuable advice comes from individuals who can work in both settings.

I recently attended a conference in Toronto where Jennifer Sygo gave a presentation. Currently, Sygo works as a dietitian for the Canadian track and field and gymnastics teams, along with the Toronto Raptors basketball team. Additionally, she is pursuing a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, where her research involves gymnasts. During her talk, Sygo discussed sports nutrition specifically for endurance athletes. I found her ideas and perspectives to be quite unique and they left a lasting impression on me. Here are some noteworthy highlights from her presentation.

Dial Up the Carbs

Endurance athletes require a significant amount of carbohydrates. Sygo discussed research findings that indicate low-carb ketogenic diets do not enhance performance in Olympic-distance endurance events like marathons. However, she recognized that ultramarathoners may opt for different choices. Sygo highlighted that elite marathoners obtain approximately 85 per cent of their energy during races from carbohydrates, primarily sourced from glycogen stored in the muscles and glucose in the bloodstream.

To maintain a full supply of carbohydrates, she provided elite runners with specific carbohydrate intake goals for different distances.

  • The day before a 10K, fill up your muscles with glycogen by aiming for 7 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (g/kg). On race day, take in 1 to 4 g/kg between one and four hours before the race. If you weigh 155 pounds, that works out to between 70 and 280 grams of carbohydrates—a pretty wide range that reflects the individual variation in how well people can handle a meal before exercise. For reference, a breakfast of? cup of oats, a cup of berries, and a cup of fruit juice gives you 100 grams of carbs.
  • For a half marathon, follow a similar approach, and then—an approach I hadn’t considered—top up your carb stores with a gel or sports drink after your warm-up. She also suggested considering taking in some carbs during the race, or at least rinsing and spitting some sports drink to get the brain benefits.
  • For a marathon, increase the pre-race loading to 10 to 12 g/kg for 36 for 48 hours beforehand. That’s an enormous amount, which you’ll probably only achieve by drinking some juice or sports drinks in addition to carb-heavy meals. Top up in the morning, and again after your warm-up, and then aim for somewhere between 30 and 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour during the race. 

Don’t OD on Veggies

Over the past decade, a major trend in sports nutrition has emerged, suggesting that rather than having a fixed diet, it is preferable to modify your food intake to align with your energy exertion. Sygo presented images of the Athlete’s Plate, a concept created at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in collaboration with the U.S. Olympic Committee. This provides a visual reference to guide individuals on their eating habits during periods of light, moderate, and intense training.

On the easy training plate, half of the plate is occupied by vegetables and fruits. However, on the hard training plate, only a quarter of the plate is dedicated to vegetables as there is no space for fruits. The intention is not to criticize vegetables, as they are actually vital. On the contrary, they are essential. Nevertheless, if you are undergoing intense training, your need for calories is significantly high. Depending solely or predominantly on vegetables, even though they are not calorie-dense enough and their high fibre content makes them quite filling and difficult to consume, would not be sufficient for meeting your requirements.

Sygo highlighted a common trap known as the “big salad” that often occurs when health-conscious endurance athletes come together. Although it may seem like a substantial meal, it may not provide as many calories as your stomach might suggest if you’re not cautious. Taking into consideration the increasing awareness of the negative effects of unintentional underfunding, it is important to remember calorie density. Options such as grains and fats are beneficial, and making subtler adjustments can also help. For instance, the simple training plate includes solely fresh fruit, while the moderate and hard plates incorporate stewed and dried fruits.

Eliminate Dead Weight

There is no gentle way to put this: there is approximately one to two pounds of waste in your colon, and eliminating it before a competition might provide you with a negligible advantage. Athletes in weight-sensitive sports have traditionally employed a temporary low-residue diet for this purpose. “Residue” refers to the undigested fibre, bacteria, and water that remains after the digestion of nutrients. In practical terms, this entails significantly reducing fibre intake for a few days.

Earlier this year, a study conducted by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in Britain examined this method. In the study, 19 participants were asked to reduce their usual daily fibre intake from 30 grams to below 10 grams for four consecutive days. However, the overall calorie content and macronutrient distribution of their meals remained the same. The outcome of this experiment revealed an average weight loss of 1.3 pounds, largely due to the increased excretion of faeces. Additionally, the participants experienced firmer stools and a lower frequency of bowel movements, although 18 out of 19 volunteers expressed their willingness to repeat the intervention.

There are additional reasons why you may want to consider a low-residue diet before a race. According to pro cyclist Mike Woods, he adheres to a low-fiber diet similar to that of a five-year-old to reduce digestive issues, rather than for weight loss. Even though losing a pound may not be worth the trouble for most people, it is still only a minor concern for elite athletes, as noted by Sygo.

Pump Your Iron Up

Sygo does not promote supplements. She identified four ergogenic aids that have been supported by evidence for track athletes: beta-alanine, sodium bicarbonate, creatine, and caffeine. Of these, only caffeine has shown consistent effectiveness for long-distance events. This aligns with the recent consensus statement from the International Olympic Committee, although they also included nitrate in their recommendations. Additionally, Sygo highlighted the importance of monitoring vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron levels regularly.

Endurance athletes are well aware of the risk of low iron. Sygo advises aiming for ferritin levels of at least 30 micrograms/L for women and 50 micrograms/L for men, which are similar or slightly higher targets. She also suggests a minimum haemoglobin level of at least 130 g/L for both genders. Although the usual minimum threshold for haemoglobin in healthy women is slightly lower, it is unclear if this is truly optimal or simply a result of women typically having lower haemoglobin levels due to menstruation, which may not be ideal.

Athletes face a particular challenge when it comes to heavy exercise and its effects on their hormone levels. Specifically, the hormone called hepcidin is elevated after intense workouts, which hinders the absorption of iron for up to six hours. Sygo suggests taking supplements at a different time than when training, preferably on an empty stomach and with the addition of vitamin C to facilitate absorption. Another important point made by Sygo is that hepcidin levels can also be triggered by not consuming enough calories to replenish what has been burned during exercise. This serves as another reason why it is important to avoid underfunding.


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