Diet for endurance athletes

Written by angela lang
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Diet for endurance athletes
Endurance athletes can reach peak performance with the right diet. (running image by Byron Moore from

Endurance athletes optimize their performance with extensive training and conditioning, and optimal nutrition. Athletes can run hundreds of miles burning countless calories, but their body must be properly fueled for peak performance. The elite athlete benefits most from carbohydrates stored in the body. Proper intake of fat and protein to balance the body's needs ensure calories are available when needed. The right nutrients at the right time are critical.


Athletes simply need more calories and nutrients than people who are less active, according to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Nutrient needs are greatest for those who participate in the most intense sports and activities. The athlete focused on achieving maximum performance should discuss their diet with registered dietitian to carefully plan the optimal diet. Failure to understand the diet can harm the body and affect achievement.


Endurance athletes benefit from carbohydrates stored for use during intense exercise. Carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen. During exercise, the glycogen is converted back to glucose and used for energy. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver in limited amounts. When the athletic event lasts 90 minutes or less, the stored glycogen provides adequate calories for energy. The Mayo Clinic recommends a high carbohydrate diet for two to three days prior to an event lasting longer than 90 minutes, such as marathon running.


The Mayo Clinic recommends a diet of 70 percent carbohydrates for three days prior to the event. Carbohydrates should come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy products to ensure glycogen stores are at their max. Consuming a continuous high carbohydrate diet is not recommended as it modifies the way your body uses energy. The extra carbohydrates may cause water retention leading to sluggishness or muscle stiffness. This should resolve at the end of the three day period. Protein is also vital to the diet for muscle development and repair. Protein, an inefficient use of energy, should contribute no more than 12 to 15 percent of calories.

Other Components

You should focus on starting any event well hydrated, consuming six to twelve cups of water in the hours leading up to the event. Ideally, water should be chilled for faster absorption and to decrease body temperature. Some athletes develop electrolyte imbalances as a result of sweating. Take advantage of available salty snacks or sip on fluid replacement beverages. You should also monitor calcium levels as intense, training sessions can cause hormonal changes which can lead to osteoporosis.

Pre-Game Meal

In the three to four hours leading up to the event, a pre-game meal providing 500 to 1,000 calories is recommended by Colorado State University. This time frame allows for optimal digestion and energy supply. The meal should be high in complex carbohydrates, like pasta, cereals, fruits and vegetables. This type of carbohydrate breaks down easier than proteins and fats and can be emptied from the stomach in two to three hours. Avoid foods high in sugar or fat and stop eating carbohydrates one and a half hours before the event. Include adequate fluids and avoid caffeine.

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