Nutrition for Endurance Athletes

The following is the summation of notes I took while attending the Playtri Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3 Triathlon Camp. It is important to note that this nutrition is recommended for endurance athletes, not just anyone. There are three aspects of this nutrition: general, training and racing.

Nutrition is the foundation. It allows you to reach your potential. There are five essential components: carbohydrates, protein, fat, water and minerals.
  • Carbohydrates: eat a minimum of 50% of your calories from carbohydrates. The body has 2,000 calories stored up. Always keep at least 300-400 calories of carbohydrates in your body. This is the minimum amount of calories that your liver needs. Once that store is depleted, you will bonk.
  • Fat: eat roughly 20% of your calories from fat.
  • Protein: keep at the most 30% of protein in your body. At the most, you body will only take 15% of it during activity.
  • Water & Minerals: the combination of these two equals hydration. Anytime you lose or gain more than 1% of your body weight during a workout, your performance is starting to decline.
  • Sodium: endurance athletes need a higher level of sodium in their bodies. Take salt tablets as needed.
  • Other: do not buy regular Gatorade off the shelf. Buy the endurance formula.
60-20-20 Rule
For simplification, use the 60-20-20 rule. This means that on average, endurance athletes should eat 60% of calories from carbohydrates, 20% from fat and 20% from protein.
  • Fat Efficient: this is often referred to as a high metabolism. If you fall into this category, then you should stay with the same percentages listed above and increase the percentage of carbohydrates as your "A" race gets closer. Your "A" race is the main race you are training for. Three days before your race, eat 80% of calories from carbohydrates if able.
  • Fat Inefficient: if you fall into this category, eat a lower percentage of carbohydrates (but not below 50%) and increase this amount as your "A" race gets closer.
How to Lose Weight
Your body has a set of "starving" sensors. Have you ever eaten your target calories for a day and still been starving? Generally speaking, when you are starving it just means your body is craving something (e.g. protein). It may only take 1 or 2 slices of turkey to take you from starving to stuffed.

There are four things to keep in mind when trying to lose weight: Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), log intake calories, log workout calories and calories in < calories out.
  • RMR: get tested to find out your exact RMR for it is unique to everyone. This will tell you how many calories you should consume everyday.
  • Log Intake Calories: keep a food diary. Keep of track of what you eat and when you eat. There are a number of free websites that do this for you.
  • Log Workout Calories: you must also keep track of what you consume when out on a ride or a run.
  • Calories In <> at the end of the day, the only thing that matters in terms of losing weight is to consume less calories than your body is expending.
VO2 Max
Losing weight is not just for overweight people. All endurance athletes should consider losing weight, though not everyone should. VO2 Max is the biggest reason why endurance athletes should consider losing weight.
  • 80% of your VO2 Max is determined by genetics.
  • 10% of your VO2 Max is determined by training.
  • 10% of your VO2 Max is determined by your weight.
Research shows that if your VO2 Max figure is below 70, you will never be an Olympian or a Tour de France competitor. For benchmark sake, Steve Prefontaine was around 84 (one of the highest ever recorded) and Lance Armstrong is around 81. With Age Group triathletes, VO2 Max is not as important, but it still plays a role. Losing weight is one of the few things you can do to improve your VO2 Max.

Body Fat
As a recommendation for all endurance athletes, males should be at 8% body fat and females should be at 12%. Endurance athletes do not want to fall too below these figures. Male sprinters may have only 2-4% body fat, but they are sprinters. Endurance athletes go much, much longer and need to tune their body to do such.

The common misconception is that your metabolic rate slows down a significant amount over the course of your lifetime. People use this as an excuse for not being able to lose weight or maintain proper fitness. This is simply not true. Research shows that on average your metabolism will only decline at most 2-3% of the course of your entire life. Consuming alcohol is a sure way to slow your metabolism down. It is advised that endurance athletes do not consume any alcohol.

Empty Calories
Your body does not count the bad calories you eat as nourishment. For example, say your RMR is 2500 calories, meaning you should eat 2500 calories every day. Let's say you eat 2000 calories from chicken, pasta, etc. and 500 calories from ice cream. You hit your target RMR but your body says it is malnourished by 500 calories (empty calories).

Sweat Rate
It is important to know how much weight you lose on average during a workout. To calculate your sweat rate, weigh yourself immediately before a workout and immediately afterwards to determine your weight change.

Here are some tips for endurance athletes with regards to general nutrition:
  • Moderation
  • Eat a wide variety of foods with lots of color on your plate (at least 6 colors per meal)
  • Choose unsaturated fats over saturated
  • No hydrogenated oils
  • Keep a food diary
  • Don't consume too much fat after training or racing as it can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and other nutrients
Nutrition takes a much bigger effect in activity lasting 2+ hours. Such nutrition is determined by your level of effort, RMR and hydration. In order to understand such nutrition, you must have a basic understanding of two broad zones:

Training Pace (Endurance): HR 60-80%
  • Fast recovery
  • Increase glycogen storage
  • More efficient in burning fat
  • Lactate = oxygen
  • High capillarization (ability to absorb food)
  • High mitochondria (ability to absorb food)
  • High enzyme production (ability to absorb food)
  • High endurance
  • Get slower
  • Get strong and slow
Race Pace/Hard/VO2 Max (Threshold): HR 80-100%
  • Increase lactate threshold
  • Increase VO2 Max
  • Gain speed
  • Improve lactate tolerance (ability to handle pain)
  • Higher risk for injury
  • Uses more carbohydrates
  • Slow recovery
  • Lactate > oxygen
  • Get weak and fast
Race Week
Race nutrition starts a week before the race. Here are some things to keep in mind:
  • Carbo-loading: this means adding 100 calories of carbohydrates to every meal 3-7 days before the race (but do not exceed your RMR).
  • Sodium-loading: add salt to your food if you need it.
  • Fiber-unloading: lowering fiber diet 3 days before the race will help minimize bowel movements during the race.
  • Hydration: ensure adequate hydration by monitoring your urine color. If it is clear, take less water and less salt. If it is a dark yellow, drink more water and add some salt to your food.
  • Glycogen: low glycemic foods are preferable during this week.
  • Last Big Meal: your last big meal should be 16-30 hours before the start of the race with lighter meals after that point.
  • Other: it is important that you do not try anything new race week. Weight gain of 2-3 pounds during this week is normal and expected.
Race Day
During a race, 20% of your energy is directed to your brain and 80% goes to the body. This is why you see athletes at the end of a race who are completely disoriented. To prevent such disorientation, it is important to get nutrition right. Here are the basic types of race nutrition:
  • Best nutrition is (1) liquid, (2) gel with water, (3) solid with water and (4) candy.
  • To be a liquid, a substance must have less than or equal to 8% carbohydrates.
  • Gels have greater than 8% carbohydrates.
  • For beginners to Ironman, start with solid foods (e.g. PowerBar) for the first 30% of the race.
  • Physically, most people cannot do liquid or gels alone for an entire Ironman.
  • At the end of a a race when you quickly need blood to muscles, consume liquids.
With the types of nutrition in mind, here are some tips for consumption amount and timing:
  • Breakfast: eat breakfast 2-3 hours before the race start (keep it around 400-700 calories).
  • Swim: eat a gel right before the swim start (remember to consume water with it).
  • Bike: do not start to eat on the bike until your heart rate settles down (15-45 minutes).
  • Run: finish the bike 100% hydrated so that you are ready to run otherwise you will perform lousily. You cannot recover hydration/nutrition lost while on the run.
  • Water: do not drink too much water as this can upset your stomach and will only add weight to your stomach.
  • Glycogen: consume high glycemic foods race day (e.g. white bread over wheat bread).
  • Other: follow your plan and make minor adjustments according to conditions. It it tastes bad or only OK in training, it likely won't work race day. If you go harder than planned, it is best to eat less calories due to absorption rate.
*If you are feeling lousy, the solution to every problem is slow down!*

Post Race
Thirty minutes after your race ends until 2 hours afterwards, this is the critical window to restore and repair the body. Here are some tips:
  • Carbohydrates: consume mainly carbohydrates during this critical window
  • Glycogen: moderate to high glycemic foods are best
  • Fat: do not consume too much fat after a race as it can slow down absorption of carbohydrates and the nutritional recovery process. Back-off fat for 2-4 hours after a race.
Given all that has been said above, here are seven tips for improving your nutrition as an endurance athlete:
  1. Get your heart rate zones through a blood lactate test.
  2. Get your calorie expenditure (fat and carbohydrates burned percentages, VO2 Max).
  3. Calculate sweat rate and find out how much water and electrolytes you need.
  4. Experiment with different nutritional products.
  5. Design a nutrition plan that aligns with your training plan and your goals.
  6. Always design a plan that would make you burn a higher fat percentage as you will always have enough.
  7. Take nutrition very seriously.
Coach Ahmed Zaner, Platyri

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