There is no doubting the effect a nutrition plan can have on any athlete, whether the impact is negative or positive. If the athlete is eating the correct level of nutrients in relation to their size, sport and goals they will almost certainly see an improvement in performance. Sure enough, if their diet is all over the place their performance won’t be as impressive. Even if you excel at your sport and your diet is poor, I encourage you to try a new and improved approach to your eating plan to see the how much better you can become as an athlete.
With a mind-set fixated on muscle, strength and power I wanted to switch the emphasis today and talk about something totally different - eating for performance as an endurance athlete.
Before you read on and discover my opinions and advice on nutrition specifically for endurance, may I remind you that there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat. This is simply the way I would recommend you eat for an endurance event whether that is a marathon, triathlon or cross-country bike ride.
There is plenty to cover with this topic so we best not waste any more time with pleasantries, let’s cut the bull and make you a better athlete by changing the stuff on your plate.
Calories - To take your level of performance up a notch as an endurance athlete you must consume the right level of calories. Anybody who tells you eating X amount of calories is probably wrong because everyone one of us is different. However, there are guidelines and I will share with you my personal opinion.
Let’s work on the basis that we have a 200lb male athlete who is running 3 times a week, moderate distances at varying intensities to train for a triathlon. Say he is also swimming 3 times a week and cycling twice a week. His BMR (basal metabolic rate – this is the level of calories required just to maintain your current body weight) would be in the region of 4,000-4,500 calories a day depending on the intensity and time he is training for.
With that said, I would recommend eating 4,000-4,500 calories a day. This may sound a lot, but when you consider you could be easily burning over 1,500 calories a day via this kind of exercise it is necessary in my opinion. To qualify this, the athlete I am using as an example would have in the region of 12-14% body fat.
As a basic yardstick to begin with I would aim for anywhere between 18-22 calories per pound of body weight. From hear you can govern how your performance is changing, what your energy levels are doing and if your body fat levels are increasing or not. If they are, cut back your calories by 5-10% a week.
Calories are just one small part of the puzzle, what about the nutrient sources where you will be getting your calories from?
Carbohydrates - The problems I often see with endurance athletes are that they under eat, denying their body proper sources of healthy carbohydrates. Then, their body finally hits rock bottom and needs food so they over indulge themselves with crap! To maximise performance for endurance sports it is essential that you feed your body with the correct kind of carbohydrates at the right time of the day.
Speaking in vague terms, you have fast digesting (High GI) carbohydrates and slow digesting (low GI) sources. Fast digesting carbohydrates will flood your blood stream with energy within 30-60 minutes of consumption, cause a large influx in insulin secretion and eventually lead to a blood sugar crash after temporarily boosting energy levels. Many endurance athletes will load up on simple sugars for energy and energy drinks before their event, but in my opinion this can become counter-productive. However, before you remove fast digesting carbohydrates from your shopping list they do have a very good function for endurance athletes. They can help sustain energy levels once you have been exercising for at least 45-60 minutes when your muscle glycogen levels become depleted. Have you seen pro footballers who have just come back from injury munching on chocolate as they go into the second half? This is why; the fast digesting sugars will give them an elevation in blood sugar levels where it is beneficial to their performance.
Post-exercise they are also essential because they help shuttle amino acid rich proteins into the muscles which are going to be in a fairly bad state after all of that exercise. This is fantastic for promoting effective muscle recovery, combatting the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) you always suffer with after intense or prolonged exercise.
Ultra-fast digesting carb sources – sports drinks, pineapple, kiwi, oranges, white bread, chocolate, sweets
Slow digesting carbohydrates are your bread and butter as an endurance athlete. In my opinion you should be eating between 3.5-5g of these carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Low glycemic carbohydrates feed your body steady levels of energy over a 3-4 hour period, and they can also help stabilise blood sugar levels more effectively than high glycemic carbohydrates, as mentioned above.
Slow digesting carb sources – brown rice, sweet potato, brown bread, brown pasta, oats, banana.
Protein – just because shirt tearing muscles are not what you are after doesn’t mean to say protein isn’t important. As an athlete who is constantly pushing the boundaries with continuous prolonged exercise, your muscle fibres are going to be broken down and it is essential you feed them protein to help them recover.
Sticking with the same example as above, I would recommend anywhere between 0.6-1g of protein per pound of body weight. The reason for big gulf between my two ranges is that it purely depends on your rate of recovery. If you find your muscles are in agony, and you are struggling to recover then you need to increase your protein intake. On the other hand, if your rate of recovery is good, your performance is improving and you are not constantly getting small muscle niggles then you are eating enough protein in my opinion.
In regards to protein sources it is important in my opinion you eat a range of protein rich foods. Some people will only eat chicken, or only fish for example. The problem with this is you are limiting your body to one or two kinds of amino acid profiles. Eating a cross-section of lean poultry, oily fish, lean red meat, game meat, eggs and protein powder is the best way to go.
Healthy fats – nobody needs to tell you as an endurance athlete your joints and connective tissues are going to take a beating. As you run, approximately double the amount of your body weight travels through your knee joints down to the sole of your foot. Now multiply that by the amount of hours you do a week. Healthy fats are so beneficial to your overall health in so many ways, but for athletes they are specifically good for joint health.
In relation to quantity, aim for around 0.5g of healthy fats per pound of body weight from foods such as oily fish and fish oil supplements.
Healthy fats do also help promote healthy hormone production, brain function and they also helps sustain the slow of release of carbohydrates. For a healthy range of fats eat things like macadamia nuts, almonds, avocado and whole eggs.
DO NOT EAT FATS IMMEDIATELY AFTER EXERCISE WITH YOUR FAST DIGESTING CARBOHYDRATES AND PROTEIN; THIS WILL SLOW DOWN THE RATE AT WHICH THE BODY CAN DIGEST THE CABOHYDRATES AND PROTEIN.
Minerals – foods which are rich in calcium and potassium for instance can be very beneficial to you as an endurance athlete. Potassium can help prevent muscle cramping, improve muscle performance as can calcium. Macadamia nuts, banana and lots of fibrous green vegetables are all good sources.
Water – with any athlete sufficient water intake is critical. So many people are dehydrated which is bad in several ways, but as an athlete it is the ultimate crime. Dehydration will have a massive negative impact on your performance and health. Aim for 1 litre per 50lbs of body weight every day.
Meal frequency – this is a key part of optimising energy output for an endurance athlete. Eating a meal based around slow releasing carbohydrates, some healthy fats and protein will digest over around 3-3.5 hours. After this period you need to top your energy levels up again with another meal.
What and when – there is no way I can accurately tell you as an individual what to eat and when, because we are all different. As a rule of thumb, I would recommend a range of slow and fast digesting carbohydrates for breakfast with some protein and healthy fats.
Throughout the day I would recommend slow digesting carbohydrates, with protein and healthy fats.
During exercise where it will last more than an hour I would recommend taking on a sports drink rich in fast digesting carbohydrates.
Immediately after exercise I would recommend a fast digesting carbohydrate source with fast digesting protein powder.
In the evening you can eat slow digesting carbohydrates, some healthy fats and protein. However, later in the evening I would recommend cutting complex carbohydrates out to help prevent unnecessary fat gain.
Before bed, try and take in some healthy fats and some protein to help promote recovery through the night. When you sleep your body is able to recover at the fastest rate so it makes sense to feed it accordingly.
Competition time – around 4 days before competition it is logical that you will have trained hard up until this point and planned for time off to make sure you are fresh. During this period it is ok to ‘’carb load’’ where you are still eating plenty of slow digesting carbohydrates. When you hit the starting line you want to make sure your muscle glycogen levels are saturated.
Post-competition – after a gruelling competitive event such as a triathlon you are probably going to take 10-14 days off training. During this time you can drop your complex carbohydrate intake to around ½ because you don’t need the same level of energy as when you are were training, and preparing for competition.
To conclude, as an endurance athlete it is essential that you are putting in what you burn. Being in a calorie deficit is not something you want because you will lose weight, and this could cause a decrease in performance. Eating for performance and eating for fat loss and two completely separate matters and I do not believe you can compete or perform as an athlete at the top of your game AND make fat loss a priority. It would be a bit like trying to win the F1 championship whilst making the average MPG a priority for the driver.