It doesn’t matter whether you’re a half-marathon runner, triathlete, or long-distance swimmer. If you’re an endurance athlete, you’re no stranger to working out for long stretches of time.
You also know that because you put in far more miles than your average gym-goer, you need a lot of fuel to get you through your workouts and to recover properly.
What’s the difference between endurance athletes and other active adults?
Endurance athletes are mainly doing aerobic activity. That means that they have somewhat different dietary needs compared to a bodybuilder or sprinter, explains Natalie Allen, R.D. at Missouri State University and the team dietician for student-athletes. “Endurance athletes may need to adjust their diets slightly to have more calories and more carbohydrates than other active individuals,” she says. “Aerobic exercise burns glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates, so people exercising for a long time need to refuel regularly.”
Allen also says that hydration is more of a factor for endurance athletes. “They may need to drink more fluids, depending on the climate where they’re exercising and their sweat rate,” she says.
The Danger of a Low-Carb Diet
Endurance athletes may be tempted to start diets that limit carbohydrates like keto, Whole 30, or Atkins. But, carbohydrates should be part of every endurance athlete’s daily intake, says Shari Portnoy, R.D., M.P.H. and nutritionist at Food Label. “Carbohydrates are your fuel and are needed constantly during endurance training or you’ll conk out,” she says. “You can’t run on empty like a car can’t run without gas. Carbohydrates and fluid keep an endurance athlete going.”
That doesn’t mean that endurance athletes should only eat pasta and potatoes. Whole grain carbohydrates will fuel you, too. Just make sure that you are getting enough variety. “Carbohydrates should make up at least 50 percent of an endurance athlete’s diet,” Allen says. “A good guide is to look at your plate and make sure [that] half is covered with carbs, such as fruits, starchy vegetables, rice, noodles, or whole grains.”
High-Calorie vs. Low-Calorie
Endurance athletes who are hoping to slim down or are in training for an important race and trying to get a faster time may look to lower-calorie diets. Allen says this isn’t doing you any favors when you’re training hard, though. Instead, you would be better off figuring out the ideal number of calories needed per day to fuel your lifestyle, she says. (Of course, too many calories each day isn’t good for your body, either.)
“A general rule of thumb for endurance athletes is to consume about 40 calories per kilogram of body weight,” she says. “For most people, this is around 2,500 calories per day, but it can vary. The more muscle and bulk you have, the more calories you can eat. Men also generally need more calories than women.”
She says to spread out your calorie intake evenly, try to have three meals and three snacks per day. “At each meal or snack, include a carbohydrate, lean protein, and healthy fat. Good examples for snacks are apples and peanut butter or chocolate milk and a banana. Balanced meals would be chicken and rice with broccoli or a tofu veggie stir fry with quinoa.”
How much protein is too much?
Endurance athletes don’t need to go overboard on protein to get enough to build lean muscle, Portnoy says. “Protein for endurance athletes is the same as a regular diet, which, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is only 10 percent, or a small fraction, of our daily diet,” she says.
If you prefer a high-protein diet, that’s fine. Just make sure that you are getting plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains on your plate, too.
Plant-based diets, which involve eating lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, with less meat, may be ideal for endurance athletes, according to a recent study from George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, which was published in the journal Nutrients. Researchers found that plant-based diets improved the heart health of endurance athletes, who are at an increased risk for heart damage and atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up in the arteries. Plant-based diets are also anti-inflammatory, which is beneficial for athletes who are constantly pounding the pavement.
“Plant-based diets tend to be lower in fat and higher in fiber,” Allen says. “More antioxidants, found in colorful fruits and vegetables, are good for everyone, especially athletes, as they help reduce inflammation. An endurance athlete could certainly follow a plant-based diet successfully and have the energy needed to compete.”
It may take some trial and error for endurance athletes to figure out their optimal meal plan. If you need help, work with a registered dietician or nutritionist. They can help you determine the best diet for your active lifestyle.