Nutrition for the Endurance Runner
by Helen Cully
Nutrition is crucial for all athletes, but for endurance events and training, timing is important too. For competitions and training, getting nutrients into your body at the right times can make a huge difference in your performance.
Basic Nutrition Rules
No athlete can afford to ignore nutrition: the simple fact is, your body needs fuel to perform, and it also needs fuel to help it rest and recover in between training sessions and events. Endurance events put a lot of stress on the body, and when you refuel it with high quality food, you're giving your body what it needs to recover from the effects of that stress. Good nutrition helps your body recover from injuries and illness more quickly, and in general, a diet that gives your body all the nutrients it needs to repair tissue damage is an essential part of training.
The basic nutrition rules are very simple: the core diet should consist primarily of whole foods, with complex carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fats, and plenty of fresh produce.
Macro Versus Micro Nutrients
Macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. They all provide the body with energy, but energy can be extracted much more readily from carbohydrates than from the other macronutrients, which means carbs are typically the primary fuel source for endurance athletes. USDA dietary regulations recommend people get 45% to 65% of their energy needs from carbohydrates, but for endurance athletes that figure can be as high as 70% to 80% during training or competition periods.
Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, and cofactors that don't supply energy directly, but which are essential in countless bodily processes and functions. They support the health of every organ and bodily system, and several micronutrients are essential in the metabolic processes that extract energy from food and transport it to where it's needed in the body.
Generally, if your macronutrient intake comes from fresh unprocessed food, you're likely getting plenty of micronutrients to; however, it can be useful to track your intake of macro and micro nutrients to ensure you're getting enough of everything you need. Micronutrient requirements for endurance athletes are mostly the same as for everyone else, with a couple of exceptions: most athletes need additional B vitamins, because these vitamins are involved in energy metabolism, and many also need additional electrolytes-sodium, potassium, and magnesium-as these minerals are lost in sweat during heavy exercise.
Timing Your Energy Intake
To train and compete to the best of your ability, it's important to ensure you're getting the right mix of nutrients at the right times.
For example, eating prior to exercise makes some people feel sluggish and low in energy, but without that energy, you can end up fatigued and unable to complete a training session. Small, regular meals can help solve this problem, but on heavy training days and for events, it's necessary to organize your energy intake a bit more stringently.
- Before an event, a low-GI meal high in quality complex carbohydrates, with a little protein and a small amount of fat.
- During an event, you're ideally snacking on high-GI carb-heavy nutrition at regular intervals. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source, but a small amount of protein should also be included, to help prevent muscle tissue breakdown.
- After the event, try to eat a high-carb low-fat meal within around an hour of finishing, and a low-GI meal of carbs, protein, and fat around three hours later.
Although sugar provides an easily digestible source of energy it's better to avoid relying on it for a quick energy boost, because digesting sugar requires a relatively large volume of water: too much sugar can actually lead to dehydration. Complex carbs are still the best possible option for an endurance athlete, and as long as you stick to a regular schedule of nutrient intake you're not at risk of fatigue due to a lack of metabolic energy.
- American Family Physician. "Common Problems in Endurance Athletes." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Institute of Medicine. "Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Ironman. "6 Nutrition Rules for Endurance Athletes." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Hammer Nutrition. "The Top 10: The Biggest Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Health Stand. "Best Food & Nutrition Apps for 2014." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Kwikmed. "Sugar: The Sweetest Poison." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Linus Pauling Institute. "Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements." Accessed March 28 2015.
- Super Tracker. All-in-one site for tracking food and physical activity. Accessed March 28 2015.
Posted: April 8, 2015
AC100 co-RD of 29 years, Hal Winton, passed away May 24, 2017 at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center. His family was at his side. He'll be deeply missed.
2011 AC100: Runners on Mt Baden Powell at 9300 ft elevation
1988: The Original First Five 100 Milers Compared in UltraRunning Magazine