General nutrition for endurance athletes is obviously a topic where different sources will offer significantly different opinions. On this page I just want to put out a general set of guidelines and ideas that I think are all generally reasonable, balanced, and should help most endurance athletes maximize their potential for health and performance. I try to briefly put forth the rationale I have for thinking certain choices to be better, and welcome any informed input you might have. Any thoughts, comments or suggestions you may have would all be welcomed, and I’d encourage you to email me at Nate@EnglishEndurance.com.
1. Eat balanced meals with real food.
Include a mix of carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats in each meal. Focus on vegetables, fruits, legumes, lean meats, nuts, lean dairy, plant colors and spices… Try to generally limit refined grains and starches, as well as added or refined sugars, except perhaps as recovery foods.
Be sure to have a medium portion of protein at each meal, probably in the range of 30-50g of total protein per meal on average. Lean meat, legumes, eggs or egg whites, fish or low-fat dairy are all great choices. (It may be best to limit dairy except after training sessions, though, because of the spike in insulin that milk and yogurt promote.)
Include some healthy fats a few times a day or at every meal, but not more than a few hundred calories per meal. Nuts and nut butters, olive oil, fats from fish, avocados, almond milk, or coconut milk, for example.
Include carbohydrates (CHO) in moderation at most meals, or in large quantities when necessary for recovery. Choosing nutritious starchy vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, fruits, and unrefined whole-grains will allow you to increase the quality of your nutrition while also stocking your glycogen stores. White rice, white bread, added or refined sugar, bleached/white pasta, and other refined sources of CHO should be limited or left only as recovery meals when you may need large quantities of easily digested CHO calories. Having large quantities on a regular basis will probably lead to unnecessary fat gain, because you will regularly have elevated insulin levels that will be actively storing both CHO and fat. Unless your glycogen stores are low after a long or hard workout or race, it’s probably best to have balance meals with slowly digested carbohydrates, which are usually also the ones with more vitamins, minerals and healthy phytochemicals.
2. Eat every 3-4 hours.
Starting within 30 minutes of waking, it can be a fine practice to have a meal that includes a good serving of protein, some healthy fats, and some slowly digested CHO. For example, fried eggs on toast with nuts, grapefruit and coffee. Or, oatmeal with some nuts, dried fruit, and protein powder or lentils added.
Eating some protein, fat and slowly digested CHO every 3 or 4 hours should provide a steady source of nutrition for your body to function well, recover lost energy from training, repair damaged tissue, and build up new enzymes for stronger workout sessions in the future. If you are training hard, it can be desirable to have a little protein and calories coming in somewhat regularly so that you don’t go hours on end without anything. Obviously, if you were living 5,000 years ago hunting on the plains for animals you didn’t always catch, or gathering berries you didn’t always find, it would be great for you to store extra fat for energy in times of need. And, in those circumstances, your body is very effective at dealing with prolonged periods without food, even to the benefit of your health. There may be good reasons not to eat a little something every 3-4h, but if you’re training hard and trying to make sure that your recovery is as quick as possible, then having protein and slowly digested fuel available is probably beneficial.
A key part of this is to choose slowly digested carbohydrates and to have them with some protein, fat, and fiber. When meals contain enough protein, fat, and fiber, and the CHO in them is slowly absorbed, there will be plenty of nutrients filtering into your blood, but not a massive rush all at once that would create a quick rise in blood sugar (and other nutrients), an associated spike in insulin, and then the resulting storage of most of that meal in the form of glycogen and more annoying fat… Unless of course, you just finished a workout, in which case this is often exactly what you would want (i.e. an abundance of CHO and protein filtering into your blood and a rush of anabolic hormones that will hasten recovery).
Again, this is running on the assumption that you are training pretty hard, burning a lot of glycogen in your training, and have performance as your goal. If general health, mental focus, and good body composition is your goal, then you may want to experiment to see whether or not having a little more fat and a little less carbohydrate in your diet may be better for you. There definitely appear to be health and body composition benefits to having increased insulin sensitivity and reduced production of insulin from reducing or avoiding processed or quick to digest CHO. Big swings in blood sugar and blood insulin are generally correlated with big swings in energy levels, so they may not be desirable for someone who is just looking to do an hour long spin class or run in the morning followed by 8 hours at an office having meetings and working on the computer, for example. So, consider your goals and what you want to do to align your activities with those goals.
3. Eat a good recovery meal right after each hard workout, including adequate fluid intake.
Appropriately proportioned recovery meals consumed within the first 30-60 minutes of finishing a hard training session will get your recovery started off right, and will make the biggest difference in how well and how quickly you recover. Taking in fluids and electrolytes to replace what may have been lost in training is also a key part of this process.
These meals should be about 3 parts carbohydrates and 1 part protein, should be easily digested, and should be consumed with adequate fluids. Any hard workout longer than 2 hours, should be followed with at least 400-500 calories in the first hour after finishing. The sooner, the better. Longer rides of 5 or 6 hours may be followed with up to 1000 calories within the first 30-60 minutes, and probably another, smaller meal a couple of hours afterwards to further recovery lost glycogen and stimulate recovery.
Often after longer rides or rides in hot weather, fluid replacement will be emphasized more. A drink mix or recovery shake/smoothie may be the best first step in recoverys in such cases. For example, a large bottle of mix right off the bike, followed by a meal with more fluids after the first round of drink mix has mostly cleared your stomach. Or, a large smoothie with lots of fruit, yogurt or milk, protein powder and ice could do the trick. I’ll often make a big shake after long, hot rides that will have a couple of bananas, a scoop of cocoa powder, 1-2 scoops of protein powder, milk, ice and a scoop of sugar, honey, or something sweet like that. That will usually yield 30-something ounces of fluids with 500-700 easily digested calories consisting of mostly CHO with a good bit of protein (40-60g). I’ll often mix in some sugary kid cereal for extra, easy-to-digest calories… Definitely a lousy food under basically all other circumstances, kid cereal can be a great recovery food.
4. Limit or avoid processed or white carbohydrates, except when used for recovery in the hours after workouts.
Unless you just finished a 5 hour ride, or are in the middle of a stage race or series of hard days training back-to-back, there’s generally going to be no need to consume large quantities of refined or white carbohydrates. Most training sessions will be followed by an appropriately portioned recovery meal that will help facilitate the recovery of lost glycogen stores and stimulate the rebuilding of damaged tissues and increase in enzymes needed for intense exercise. The first meal or two after a hard session are the only times large quantities of white rice, bread, white potatoes, sugary cereals, etc. should be consumes.
At other times not immediately following hard training sessions, small quantities may be fine (<50g CHO), or choosing other more nutritious, slowly digested CHO will serve the need for CHO while increasing the nutritive content of your diet and minimize the insulin response of meals not immediately following training (and therefore, should help limit unnecessary fat storage). Most of the time, it’s better to get your carbohydrate intake from things like rolled oats, sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, legumes, fruits of all sorts, etc. These sources of CHO will provide a lot more vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that will probably enhance your general health, bolster your immune system, keep you healthy and help you adapt to your training better than consuming the relatively empty calories that white bread or white rice would offer. The minerals, in particular, are useful in buffering acidity in the body, which some would argue provides a significant health and performance advantage.