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Nutrition for Endurance Athletes

Basics of Endurance Athlete Metabolism

For long-duration, paced athletic competitions such as running, cycling, and swimming, your body runs on a combination of fuels throughout the event including carbohydrate stores (in the form of glycogen), fat stores (consumed as fatty acids), and protein (in the form of amino acids).

Both the specific duration and intensity of a particular event dictate the exact fuel mix your body will use. However, even as your fat stores become more heavily used during ultra-endurance events lasting more than 6 hours, fat cannot be metabolized unless a continuous stream of carbohydrates (broken down into glucose) is also available. Therefore, muscle glycogen and blood glucose are the limiting factors in human performance of any type of intensity or duration.

The bottom line: you need to maximize your glycogen fuel stores BEFORE, you need to supply your body with a steady stream of carbohydrates DURING, and you need to replenish your glycogen stores AFTER each long training session or event.

Before Competition and Training

To best prepare yourself for a grueling training session or competition you need to maximize your glycogen stores and ensure you are well hydrated. This can best be accomplished by eating small carbohydrate-rich meals or snacks and drinking plenty of fluids within the few hours before an event.

In addition, you should not consume high-fat foods in the few hours before your event. Fatty foods or large meals take hours to digest and will divert blood flow from your muscles to your gut. Limit your fat intake to less than 5-6 grams of fat in the 2 hours before your event.

Good examples of carbohydrate-rich foods include: cereal, pasta, bread, fruit, vegetables, potatoes, rice, and energy bars designed for endurance athletes.

As a general principle, you should hydrate with water, juice, or sports drinks in 8-10oz quantities every 30-40 minutes until you produce urine that is light straw color or clear. If your urine is darker yellow or yellow, you have not yet hydrated properly.

During Competition and Training

Maintain proper hydration and light carbohydrate intake throughout your event or training especially after you are 45-60 minutes into the training session or competition.

Hydrate with water or a sports drink. As a general rule, consume 8 ounces of fluid every 20-30 minutes.

Consume carbohydrates at a rate of approximately 1 gram per minute, but do not exceed 100 calories every 30-40 minutes during exercise. Consuming more than 100 calories at one moment may divert a critical amount of blood flow away from muscle towards the gut to work in digestion.

Also be mindful of sodium and potassium intake during competition and training. On hot days or if you sweat more than average, you will need to consume sodium and potassium through a sports drink or solid food throughout your event.

After Competition and Training

The main goals after a tough training or event are to (1) replenish glycogen stores, (2) repair and rebuild muscle tissue, and (3) rehydrate.

Glycogen stores are best replenished by high-carbohydrate foods that have a high-glycemic index within the 30-60 minutes after the event.

Muscles tissue can be aided in repair by consumption of a moderate amount of protein and healthy fat. According to recent studies, in order to maximize the benefits of protein in the immediate post-workout period, endurance athletes should consume 5 to 9 grams of protein with every 100 grams of carbohydrate. This means that if you eat a snack with 30 to 40 grams of carbs, you need 2 to 3 grams of protein to receive the maximum protein benefit for muscle repair. The need for excessive protein consumption post workout is a myth. Excessive protein consumption can lead to diuresis and dehydration.

Hydration should be accomplished similarly to pre-event: consume 8-10 ounces of fluid every 30-40 minutes until you produce light-yellow urine.