I was recently asked to put together my top 10 nutrition tips for endurance athletes to present at a triathlon training camp I was attending. After some careful consideration, I was able to whittle down the giant list I started with, to the following tips and thought why not share these with you as well.
For the most part we know that nutrition is important to our endurance sport journey, but I’ve found that for some reason it can be the last thing we really focus on. The gains from a good nutrition plan aren’t always as drastic as doing a hard run or bike where the sweat rolling off your chin makes you feel like you’re working in the right direction, towards your goals. But what I have found for myself and many of my athletes is that nutrition can make or break your training and performance more than any structured training plan.
So, if you are going to put all that time, effort and probably money, into developing your body into the performance machine you’re looking for, then why wouldn’t you add in the best possible nutrition and strategies to support all that hard work. And just to be clear, each person has their own definition of performance. You could be looking to go for a long ride and have the energy to get on with the rest of your day with no real impact to your body. You could be looking to hit a new FTP target, 5k run time trial time or get on the podium. Whatever your goal is, you should look to the following tips to help support your efforts to achieve that goal.
1. Fuel based on your activity level.
It’s important to support your current level of activity. We’ve all had a workout go longer than expected or we played harder than planned or in some unfortunate situations, dropped our nutrition bottle in the perfect place for a truck to run over it. Most of the time we are able to finish the workout just fine and carry on with our day. And once in a while, that is okay, as long as you have the appropriate recovery nutrition but, if this is common, by accident, poor planning or by choice, eventually your body will start to run out of available energy to support your training. And if it goes on long enough, you will have considerable impacts on your metabolism and all physiological processes.
What we are really talking about is energy availability, which is looking at energy in and energy out. We’re not talking about calorie in, calorie out as that’s completely different because each calorie has a different effect depending on what kind of micronutrient it is, but rather the amount of energy you take in and expend. Your daily energy expenditure is determined by the amount of activity you participate in plus the amount of energy each individual needs to just keep your body running (your base metabolic rate).
When we look at what energy availability is, you look at how much food you’re taking in, so your energy intake minus your energy expenditure from exercise, and this gives you your energy availability.
Now this is the number that we need to maintain in the positive, in order to keep healthy, to keep our endocrine system going, our heart rate going, our brains going, to maintain that resting metabolic rate, etc. We don’t want it to be a large positive number, that could drive body composition changes into an undesirable direction, but we do want it to be positive, so we have the energy available to play and train to the levels that we choose. When we start adding in heavy training loads, this is where we start to get into the potential of a low energy state.
How can you tell your energy availability is low?
- You notice decreased endurance performance.
- You can’t hit your target wattage, pace or your heart rate per workload is off.
- Cardiac drift starts a lot faster.
- You’re not recovering well or adapting to your training.
- You start getting some bone stress injuries.
- You end up more prone to infections.
- Your gut malfunctions, you’re having a lot of IBS symptoms, bloating, gaseous, distress, feeling nauseous, not being able to eat well, when you do eat you feel this is just not right.
- Your gut microbiome is impacted because of the chronic inflammation that’s happening from the inability to pull in enough nutrition to counter inflammatory responses that happens with exercise.
- There is a higher oxidative response in the body because you’re not taking in enough phytonutrients and other whole nutrients to counter that for adaptation.
- You notice an increased injury risk because you’re off-balance, your cognition or reaction time is slightly off, you feel more fatigued, and are slower in all of your responses.
- You have become more irritable, depressed.
- Your hunger cues are completely gone. Possibly you don’t ever feel really hungry or feel really hungry at inopportune times.
These last few points demonstrate the cascade effect of low energy availability. If your digestive system is not functioning optimally, even if you are eating enough to support your activity, you are unlikely to be absorbing all of the nutrients and will further contribute to the energy deficit. And to add to that, it’s very hard to train or race well when you’re struggling with digestive distress and fatigue.
Keep reading to find out how to get in the energy you need based on your current activity level.
2. Eat enough carbohydrates.
What we are looking at here is the amount of carbohydrates needed in your everyday meals, not including your exercise nutrition. The idea is to focus on getting in these carbs before and after your training sessions, so you have the energy to achieve the objective of your session and to recover well afterwards. Each person is individual on what the timing will look like for when you take in your pre-workout meal or snack. It may also be different depending on the type of training you’re doing but here are a few guidelines on how many carbohydrates to eat daily based on your current training volume and some ideas on when and how much to take in before you train.
Endurance athletes should eat 4 to 7 grams (g) of carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) of body weight (BW) per day. This will depend on the duration of their endurance event. For endurance training lasting 4 to 5 hours, endurance athletes should consume 7 grams per kilogram of body weight.
The amount of carbohydrates to take in before you workout will depend on the intensity and duration of your activity. If it’s a short and easy (these two words together is important) then you don’t really need any or maybe a small, low glycemic load snack or meal if you haven’t eaten in a while. If your workout is intense or will be over 90 min then take in approximately 1-1.5g/ kg BW around 1-3 hours prior to exercise. You should choose easily digestible foods that will sit well in your stomach. The time before is individual and will also depend on the type of workout. If it’s a really hard session like a track workout or VO2 max intervals, you may want to eat closer to the 3-hour mark but if it’s an easy endurance ride you may be able to eat even up to 30 min before. It’s important to test what will work for you.
3. Dial in your protein intake.
Just as important to your performance as taking in the right amount if carbohydrates, is eating sufficient protein. Whether running sprints, swimming long distances, or lifting weights, athletes expend more energy than the average person and their bodies need additional nutrients to recover from intense physical activity. Protein plays an important role in an athlete’s diet as it helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and amino acids are the main building blocks of our muscles, bones, skin, tissues, organs, and the enzymes needed for metabolic and physiological processes. Without these enzymes your body cannot function optimally. When we consume protein, our body breaks it down into individual amino acids during digestion and then uses these amino acids to create new proteins throughout the body. It is essential to consume an adequate amount of protein; otherwise, the body will have to break down its own muscle tissue to obtain the amino acids that it needs to function.
Athletes should aim for 1.5 -2.0g/kg BW/ day. The lower end is generally recommended for exercises of low intensity/duration and the higher is recommended for frequent, prolonged, or intense endurance exercises, resistance workouts and novice athletes that are likely to have more body composition changes towards lean muscle mass.
4. Add variety to your diet.
So, we’ve talked a lot about how much nutrition (energy) to take in but how can you do that? Adding a variety of foods to your diet will help you achieve your macro (protein, carbs and fat) targets as well as ensuring you’re getting in all the micronutrients that you need to support all of your bodily functions.
The goal for your everyday meals should be for each to include protein, carbohydrates and good quality fats. Before and during activity you can focus on your carbohydrates but during the rest of your day you can reach for the rainbow and eat a wide variety of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and a mixture of protein sources depending on your preferences.
Including a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet is one of the best ways to obtain the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals you need to support your training load and make the adaptations you’re working to achieve. You don’t need to love every type of veggie out there, maybe kale just isn’t your thing, but the more diversity the better. Each food offers a unique blend of nutrients, and especially beneficial to athletes are antioxidants and phytonutrients that are only found in plant foods. Eating plant based can be a challenge to get in the necessary protein you need but if you eat a wide variety of foods, you will be able to hit your targets while limiting meal boredom. Switching things up is a good way to ensure you’re covering all your bases.
5. Start your training well fueled and hydrated.
We’ve covered what and when to eat to prepare for your workouts, as well as how to support your body nutritionally during the rest of the day but we still need to address hydration. While coffee is a liquid, it does not actually contribute to your hydration needs!
As you exercise, your core body temperature rises. In response, your body sweats to dissipate excess heat so it doesn’t overheat. Staying hydrated replaces the water lost through sweating and is essential for thermoregulation, helping to prevent cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. You want to stay ahead of this by starting your workouts well hydrated. The more hydrated you are, the longer or harder you can go before you start struggling with the heat.
Water also helps with transport of nutrients throughout your body, maintaining appropriate blood pressure, lubrication of joints, and help eliminate waste and metabolites.
To ensure adequate pre-exercise hydration, athletes should drink 2-2.5 cups (500-600mL) of fluid 2 hours before exercise. If tolerated, drink ½ -1 cup (125-250mL) 10 to 20 minutes before exercise.
6. Dial in your during activity fueling strategy.
Now that you have sufficient food and water to get you started for your workout, what do you plan to do during each session. Your requirements will vary, again depending on the intensity and duration of your activity.
We are back to talking about carbohydrate intake here. If it’s short and easy (again, these two words together are important) then you don’t need to fuel during your activity as long as you eat well balanced meals throughout the day. If you plan a session with intensity or are going for longer than 90 minutes, you will need to plan to take in some nutrition during your workout.
If your workout will be hard or long, aim for approximately 30g of carbohydrates per hour and consider adding electrolytes to your hydration strategy if your workout will be longer than 90 min. More on hydration during activity coming up next.
Ideally you want to time your intake so that you will ingest small doses of carbs, evenly spaced out throughout the entire workout. I suggesting you start fueling within the first 15-20 min of starting your workout and keep a steady flow every 15-20 min after that. This will be an individual process, but these smaller doses will allow you to process what you’ve taken in before adding more to your digestive system. While you are exercising under intensity or for a long time, you have limited blood flow to your digestive system to allow for absorption and distribution of the nutrition that you take in. If you take in too much at one time you could get a back up and potentially digestive distress, and no one wants that. Try different options and see what works for you and the best timing system based on the activity you’re doing.
7. Take care to address your during activity hydration.
When you think about your fueling strategy, you want to think of it as two separate components. What you are taking in for energy, as we talked about above, and what you will take in for hydration. We have a tendency to think that if we are using liquid fuel options that that counts as hydration, and I suggest that you keep it separate. As mentioned above, if you don’t have enough water in your bloodstream, you will have a harder time to temperature regulate, manage blood pressure and very importantly carry the nutrients and electrolytes around your body to where they are needed. An even larger concern is, if the concertation of fuel that you take in, has a higher concentration than your bloodstream, you will not be able to absorb it, leading to lack of energy, cramps and eventual digestive distress. So, you want to make sure that you are hydrating as well as fueling.
A guideline to start with is 1/2 – 1 cup fluid every 20 minutes. In hot conditions, it could go as high as 2 cups every 20 minutes. Aim to drink fluids on a consistent schedule (set a watch timer), do not take an on-the-fly approach.
The amount of electrolytes that you need is also different for each individual. Factors such as, sweat concentration, sweat rate, temperature, humidity, individual body chemistry and body composition contribute to your unique electrolyte requirements. How much sodium you should consume during exercise will vary from athlete to athlete. So, experiment in training to dial in what works best for you. As a starting point, try consuming 300-800 mg of sodium per hour. I also recommend that you look into getting a sweat composition test and track your sweat rate over multiple types of workouts to really dial in your plan. I’ve used Precision Hydration (not affiliated to them) and found it to be a game changer, especially in the heat.
8. Utilize nutrition to support your recovery.
Now we come to what I think is actually the most important tip, recovery nutrition. We’ve all trained harder or longer than planned and our bodies are capable of letting us continue, but we have put ourselves into a depleted state. We want to correct this as soon as possible so that we can recover well, make the adaptations that we have just worked so hard for and so that we have the necessary energy available for the next session, and the one after that.
Ideally you want to consume your recovery nutrition, I like a good old-fashioned smoothie, within 30 min of finishing. This is when your body is most receptive to refilling glycogen stores. It helps to prevent excess muscle breakdown and stimulates muscle repair. And by adding foods that are high in antioxidants, you will also help to reduce inflammation and recover faster.
Combining a small amount of protein with carbohydrates has been shown to be more effective for promoting glycogen recovery than carbohydrate alone. Aim for 1g/kg BW plus protein in a 3:1 ratio (75 grams carbs: 25 grams protein).
9. Support your training and recovery with good sleep hygiene.
Sleep is an essential component of our health and well-being. There are significant impacts on physical development, emotional regulation, cognitive performance, and quality of life when we don’t sleep well. Sleep is also an integral part of the recovery and adaptive process between training sessions. Studies have shown that an increase in sleep duration and quality is associated with improved performance and competitive success. Adequate sleep may reduce the risk of both injury and illness in athletes, increasing performance through an increased ability to participate in scheduled training.
Given the significant implications for performance, health, and general well-being, it’s important to establish a good sleep hygiene routine and monitor how your new habits are supporting you. I suggest you keep a sleep journal and track alertness, rate of perceived effort, injuries, illness, etc.
Establish a Bedtime Routine – Aim for a routine that will allow you to do the same things every night before bed. This will help to establish the habit.
Set an Optimal Sleep Environment – Keep your room dark, cool, and quiet; it’s the best environment for producing Melatonin (your sleep hormone).
Manage Stress – Prepare your mind and body for sleep with light stretching, yoga, deep breathing or meditation.
Ditch Your Electronics – Stay away from all electronics at least one hour before bed. The blue light emitted causes disruption to your melatonin production (your sleep hormone).
Try Some Herbal Remedies – Add some essential oils to your diffuser. Try using calming oils like Lavender, Rose or Ylang Ylang.
Nourish Your Body for Sleep – You’ve already done your daily exercise, had your last meal 2 hours before bed and put away your electronics. Now you can add a final drink of tart cherry and magnesium bisglycinate to your routine.
You can read more on this topic in my recent blog post Sleep and Athletic Performance.
10. Practice, practice, practice.
The best way to know if your nutrition intake is enough or whether a certain food is going to work for you is to practice. This goes for everything mentioned above. Try new things and take some notes on what you did and how you felt. This way you can look back and determine your best strategy for sleep habits to recovery nutrition.
Enjoy and train well!
Sports Holistic Nutritionist
Strength and Conditioning Coach