It’s no secret that endurance athletes have special nutritional requirements to keep them performing at their peak. They need a carefully balanced diet to meet their energy needs which tend to be very high- both during training and in competition. In fact, it is estimated that elite endurance athletes can use up to as much as 40% of their total daily energy expenditure during training and this increases significantly during competitions.
To meet this high energy demand, endurance athletes need to ensure that they consume enough energy-yielding food, mainly from macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fat and protein. Sports nutritionists are divided on the exact perfect balance of macronutrients needed to optimize endurance-training performance with some vouching for a carbohydrate/fat/protein ratio of 60/20/30 and others recommending a slightly more balanced 40/30/30 diet.
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to balance the carbs, fat and protein in your diet. What matters is the total amount of calories you consume. Calorie needs vary widely among endurance athletes and are dependent on the amount of training as well as the individual goals of each person. What works for one might be disastrous for another.
However, it’s important to emphasize that macronutrients are not created equal. Carbohydrates and proteins give 4kcal per gram while fat gives 9kcal per gram. But this does not mean that athletes should automatically consume more fat to get more energy. Other factors are at play as explained below:
Carbohydrates are broken down to produce glucose- the body’s preferred and cleanest source of energy. Numerous studies done on endurance athletes have shown that a diet that has inadequate carbs may reduce an athlete’s training capacity, affecting their ability to perform at optimal levels. Endurance athletes need a variety of carbs with low and high glycemic indexes to fuel their bodies.
Unlike carbs, fat isn’t a readily available or efficient source of fuel, even though it gives more energy. The reason is that fat also has structural functions in the body- as adipose tissue and in muscle cells and it requires more oxygen to be broken down compared to carbohydrates. Nonetheless, elite athletes have an increased capacity for fat metabolism thanks to their training. They, therefore, require foods rich in healthy fats to balance their diet and meet their energy needs.
Proteins, just like fats, are structurally used in the body, mainly to build and repair muscles and skeletal tissues. To minimize the metabolism of proteins and to preserve them for their primary structural roles, athletes are advised to consume enough carbohydrates. This way, proteins will only be broken down as fuel when there is a dire need. Still, elite athletes need protein-rich foods to build up and repair muscles and this should be factored into their diets.
So to find the right nutritional balance, athletes have to ensure they consume a high-quality diet that includes the most nutrient-dense foods available.
Kevin Jones writes for a number of sites across the web sharing his wisdom and expertise in the health and fitness industry. He has written extensively for NordicTrack offering out of the box workout plans and nutritional advice. During his free time, he likes to be very active with his wife and two children hitting the slopes of Park City, Utah or chasing down Salt Lake City’s Korean food trucks. Connect with him online; LinkedIn - Twitter