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Endurance Athlete Nutrition

Updated on February 20, 2014
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The Basics of an Olympic Diet

Nutrition for a Regular Day of Training

Most marathoners participate in two runs per day as part of their training. As an athletic trainer and having developed a runners’ training program it is common and encouraged to run twice a day several times per week. Generally in most programs and for non-elite marathoners this means one run every day and two runs per day that add up to 12-16 mi a few times a week. For the non-elite marathoners twice a day runs are done 1-2 times per week and does not include a long run which is generally on Saturdays and consists of running approximately 12 miles at one time. The question often arises as to what to eat for the first morning run after not eating anything for at least 8 hours. Based on Jeukendrup and Gleeson suggestion for pre-competition, it can be extrapolated that the runner should consume a low glycemic index (GI) food such as an apple, orange, or glass of orange juice (2010). Because these foods have a low GI, they digest slower and avoid spikes in plasma glucose. This should be consumed at least 30 minutes prior to running to allow for digestion. The easiest way to do this would be to eat this prior to getting dressed for running and stretching. If the runner notices he or she is having a hard time pushing past the approximately the four mile mark then the amount of plasma glucose is low leading to fatigue (Coggan & Coyle, 1987). This can be remedied by the ingestion of a variety of runner’s gels that contain high amounts of glucose around the two-mile mark in the run. The rise in plasma glucose levels should allow the runner to push past the four-mile mark and complete approximately seven to eight miles. After this morning run the athletes then needs to eat a breakfast that is high in carbohydrates; this is especially true if this person intends on running again later in the day. Equally as important is protein to aid in the recovery of the muscles. A good sample meal for breakfast would be oatmeal with bananas, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. While some amounts of fat are needed in the body to cover nerves and protect vital organs, it is shown that a high fat diet will hinder performance. By only consuming about 20 - 25% fat in a normal day it will give the runner the benefits from the fat with minimal to no negative factors of a high fat diet. During exercise, protein is not a source of fuel and only contributes less than 5% of total energy expenditure during exercise (Jeukendrup & Gleeson, 2010). The recommended intake for protein during a day is 30 to 35% of the diet. A great low fat source for protein is chicken breast. For carbohydrates, the recommended intake would be 45 to 50% of the total meal. For lunch, the amount of protein should be increased to aid in the recovery from the morning run. For dinner, a meal with a higher concentration of carbohydrates is ideal. A great example of a dinner meal is pasta with a meat sauce. Snacking is not only acceptable but also encouraged between meals. A great morning snack would be a protein bar. This will aid in the recovery process from the morning run. With a huge variety of flavors, Cliff Bars offer a great source of protein and have good flavor too. For those who are running again in the late afternoon or evening an afternoon snack is essential to fuel the body through the workout. For this snack, it is suggested that this be a carbohydrate rich food. A great option here would be a bagel. If the runner were looking for a post dinner snack, another protein bar would be a good choice because it again will help the body recover from the possible second exercise bout.

Nutritious Carb Rich Meal

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Week Prior to Competition

For the best results, the marathoner should be tapering his or her workouts in the week prior to the race. During this time, the diet should shift from the aforementioned suggestions to a high carbohydrate diet. This diet should contain 65% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 10% fat diet. Following this diet allows for the maximal amount of muscle glycogen storage. These stores can then be used during the race to delay the effects of fatigue and hypoglycemia. As cliché as it may be, the marathoner should increase the amount of pasta with meat sauce and other high carbohydrate foods eaten during this week prior to the competition.

Large, Carb Rich Pre-Race Meal

Large bowl of porridge with banana slices.
Large bowl of porridge with banana slices. | Source

Race Day Nutrition

Before Race


Three to five hours prior to the race, the marathoner should eat a large, carbohydrate rich meal. This does not affect the muscle glycogen stores but it does increase the stores in the liver. These liver stores regulate the amount of plasma glucose, which during a marathon becomes a main source of energy. According to Jeukendrup and Gleeson, a good meal would be “one large bowl of porridge with skim milk, one banana, one glass (250ml) of sweetened orange juice,” (2010). In the thirty to sixty minutes before the race, the marathoner should eat low GI carbohydrates such as a banana and yogurt.

Carbohydrate Sports Drinks

There are a wide variety of carbohydrate sports drinks. Most of them are very similar and come down to personal preference.
There are a wide variety of carbohydrate sports drinks. Most of them are very similar and come down to personal preference. | Source

During Race


During the race, the marathoner is encouraged to consume carbohydrate drinks as well as the carbohydrate gels that can be carried by the runner. This is done for several different reasons. Some of the reasons include maintaining blood glucose and elevated carbohydrate oxidation. This spares the glycogen stores in the muscles and liver, and promotes glycogen synthesis. Following this practice can allow the marathoner to run for up to an hour longer compared to not consuming carbohydrates during the race. This can be interpreted as to allowing the runner to compete at a higher intensity. The approximate amount this translates to is 70g/hour of carbohydrates or one liter of Gatorade per hour or 3 carbohydrate gels per hour (Jeukendrup & Gleeson, 2010).

Liquid Carb & Protein Drink

Chocolate milk is one of the best (and cheapest) choices!
Chocolate milk is one of the best (and cheapest) choices! | Source

After Race


For maximum recovery potential after the race, the runner needs to consume a liquid consisting of a carbohydrate and protein mix (Jeukendrup & Gleeson, 2010). Research shows that liquid carbohydrates are absorbed more quickly into the body than solid carbohydrates. The liquid carbohydrate should be consumed within 15 minutes of the completion of the race. There are many options on the market a runner can choose from and decide which he or she likes best in terms of taste. Some examples are muscle milk and the Gatorade Recovery drinks. After this, the runner can then eat solid carbohydrates like pasta or bread to rebuild up the stores he or she has used during the race.

© 2013 Trainer Joe

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