Endurance Athlete Nutrition: 8 Tips To Create Your Own Plan

What does endurance athlete nutrition look like?

If you're looking for a way to dial in your diet to be a better runner, registered dietitian, personal trainer, and marathon runner Holley Samuel can help you go the distance.

  • Hit the wall? 
  • Felt like vomiting? 
  • Run out of gas before the finish line? 
  • Or maybe your recovery after a tough workout tends to be slooowww...

These 8 endurance athlete nutrition tips will help boost performance, speed recovery, and keep going...

Hungry to be a better runner or endurance athlete?

Runners—regardless of our competitive level, experience, age, or gender–can usually agree on one thing: 

  • Running is more than a hobby. It’s a passion, a lifestyle, and often, part of who we are as individuals. Whether we’re casually jogging the local 5k or training to run at an elite level, we want to be able to keep progressing and doing what we love. 

Ensuring proper nutrition as an endurance athlete—and yes, if you run, you’re an endurance athlete—is one of the most effective ways to support your:

  • Performance
  • Mood
  • Motivation to train, and...
  • Overall health

Eating enough, eating the right foods, and timing your nutrition accordingly can be a game changer when it comes to endurance athletics. 

But with all of the nutrition information out there — some of which is questionable at best...

Where does a hungry runner start?

Fortunately, you’ve landed in the right place (don't stop here--check out this article for even more running nutrition & hydration knowledge)!

🏃‍♀️WeeViews’ February giveaway partner, Holley Samuel—a marathoner, dietitian, certified personal trainer, and coach–gives her top tips for creating your own endurance athlete nutrition plan! 

Keep reading if you want the rundown on:

  • How to eat to improve recovery (if you want information about recovery drinks, click here!)
  • How to eat to optimize performance
  • When to outsource for support
  • Additional nutrition resources 

Start with this simple strategy: Eat to recover

There’s no way around it...

The unavoidable fact that running is tough, even for the fittest athlete.

The mechanical, cardiovascular, and neuromuscular stress from pounding pavement (or trail for that matter) takes a toll on the body.

As we train and stress the body, we must:

  • Allow it to recover in between sessions and promote favorable performance adaptations. 
  • While “rest” might sound like plopping down on the couch in front of your favorite Netflix series, there’s more to it, and it starts with food!

Hungry for more? 

Here are 8 tips to help you maximize endurance athlete nutrition...

Tip #1: Eat Enough!

Tip #1: Eat Enough!

This first tip might seem obvious...

But in Holley’s professional experience with endurance athletes:

“If you’ve never been super intentional about eating enough, you’re probably not eating enough.” 

Undereating results in: 

  • Low energy availability
  • Nutrient deficiency, and...
  • RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport)
  • And increases the risk of injury, mood disorders, poor performance, and reduced recovery

How can you make sure you’re eating enough?

Holley suggests that runners eat every 2-4 hours to:

  • Ensure that lean muscle mass is maintained, and...
  • Recovery between workouts is optimal. 
  • It’s also important to pay attention to your hunger patterns throughout the day. 

Ask yourself:

  • Am I more hungry at certain parts of the day than others?
  • Is my appetite lower in the morning?
  • Am I restricting food intake to a certain window of time?

Here's some food for thought:

“Restriction is the number one predictor of a binge,” according to Holley, and a large body of evidence in the nutritional science field. 

While you might not always be hungry at a scheduled meal time, it’s an act of self care to fuel your body properly. 

Tip #2: Quality Counts Too

Tip #2: Quality Counts Too

Once you’re sure that your daily caloric needs are met, it’s time to look at where the calories are coming from.

Holley suggests that endurance athletes focus on:

  • Protein intake
  • Carbohydrate needs
  • Healthy fats
  • Anti-inflammatory foods

With the right ratios and intentionality, you can optimize your recovery from training. 

Pay attention to your protein

Protein is an essential macronutrient for:

  • Tissue repair
  • Enzyme activity
  • Cell signaling
  • Hormone and neurotransmitter production, and...
  • Immune system function

When you take a closer look at protein and what it’s made of, you find smaller building blocks called amino acids. 

  • The human body produces 11 amino acids, but requires us to eat protein-rich foods to obtain the 9 other essential amino acids.

Holley notes that endurance athletes require more protein than was initially thought. 

  • The most recent recommendation for endurance athletes is 1.4-1.6g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. 

If you are trying to increase muscle mass or are an over-40 athlete:

  • It’s recommended that you consume 1.8-2g protein per kg body weight each day. 
  • Holley explains that “as we age, muscle mass declines every decade. Instead of 20-30g of protein per meal, you’ll want to increase it to 30-40g. We need to consume more protein for it to ‘stick’.”

While meeting the daily protein quantity for your goals is important, the quality matters too.

Holley emphasizes this concept particularly for plant-based athletes. 

“A good pool of amino acids is necessary,” says Holley. 

  • This means that eating a diversity of protein sources throughout the day is important, as some foods lack certain essential amino acids. 
  • For example, legumes are rich in leucine, but poor sources of methionine. 
  • To compliment your beans and create a more balanced meal, try including a whole grain like quinoa, which is rich in methionine. 

It can be tough to get enough protein in your diet from food alone...

Although Holley takes a food-first approach with her clients, she recognizes the occasional need for supplementation, especially when plant-based athletes are trying to build muscle. 

Many plant-based protein sources lack enough of one particular muscle-building amino acid: leucine. 

Holley suggests that, “if you’re going to spend the money, aim for a supplement that contains at least 2g or 4g of leucine per serving.” 

If you aren’t sure where to start when shopping for a protein supplement, Holley advises that you look for 3rd party tested products that are screened for ingredient potency, accuracy, and contaminants. Consumer Lab is Holley’s go-to source for supplement research. You can also check out our article on supplements for runners for more tips on finding out what is right for you.

Holley’s Protein Supplement Picks

Don’t Fear the Carbohydrates

While protein shakes are popular post-workout meals, carbohydrates shouldn’t be neglected. 

Why?

  • Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source
  • Endurance athletes have a higher demand for carbohydrates than those who are not physically active. 
  • Post-workout carbohydrate replenishment not only helps restore muscle glycogen, but it also helps the body retain water to assist with blood flow and recovery. 

Holley warns that runners who do not meet their carbohydrate needs are putting themselves at risk for RED-S related issues like:

  • Disruptions in reproductive health and mood
  • Increased risk of bone injury
  • Decreased metabolism and immunity
  • Poor cardiovascular health

And who wants any of that? 

Seek Out Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Exercising for long periods of time at high intensities can trigger inflammation from the oxidative stress.

  • Fortunately, it's a state we can combat with antioxidant-rich foods. 

As a general rule, Holley encourages her clients to “eat things that stain.” 

  • Berries
  • Cherries
  • Beets
  • And other highly pigmented fruits and vegetables

These types of foods help tame the exercise-induced inflammation we generate as endurance athletes.

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish also decrease inflammation and boost recovery.

  • If you aren’t a fish person, find a quality fish oil supplement. 
  • For plant-based athletes, an algal omega-3 supplement is the next best option. 

Unfortunately, plant-based foods touted as high in omega-3 fatty acids (chia, flax, etc.) do not contain enough of the bioavailable form that the human body can use. 

  • While the body can convert the plant-based form to one we can use, the rate of conversion is too low.
  •  You’d have to eat a half of a pound of chia seeds to get 1,000mg of EPA and DHA–the minimum daily recommendation. 
Tip #3: Time It Right

Tip #3: Time It Right

Next up on the hierarchy of nutrition is timing.

  • You’ve covered the quantity and quality–how about the “when”? 
  • You’ve probably heard about weightlifters slamming protein shakes in the gym locker room

But how does that relate to your fitness as an endurance athlete? 

“People often think that post workout fuel is the most important, but they don’t realize that eating before and during your workout actually helps your body break down less,” says Holley.

Fueling before, during, and after workouts allows you to get more out of your training and recover between sessions.

  • Holley has created a helpful guide for fueling–access it here for free!

In her coaching experience, Holley has found that some runners who come to her with injuries tend to avoid strength training because they feel it detracts from their running training. 

After Holley makes suggestions about nutrient timing for these athletes, they find that their energy and recovery improves, making it possible to complete and benefit from strength training due to increased energy from nutritional adequacy. 

Tip #4: Trust and Love Your Gut

Tip #4: Trust and Love Your Gut

Even with top tier nutrition, you're only as good as your gut health. 

  • Your gut has to be able to absorb the nutrition you’re feeding it. 
  • Endurance athletes often struggle with gut health as the result of oxidative damage from intense exercise. 
  • But this does not mean you have to resign yourself to unpleasant restroom experiences.

If you work with a dietitian like Holley, they can:

  • Order and interpret clinical stool tests that provide you with insight about what bacteria is populating your gut. 
  • But if you’re not in a place to take that step, eating enough is the simplest and most effective intervention to support your gut health. 

Holley describes the relationship between caloric intake and gut health this way: 

“Gut bacteria die off if they don’t have to digest a variety of foods. If you aren’t eating enough volume, the digestive system shuts down.”

—Holley Samuel

This means that you’ll produce less:

  • Bile
  • Stomach acid
  • Pancreatic enzymes

Plus, your gut muscles that help with peristalsis (the constriction/relaxation of the intestine that move contents forward through the GI tract) can atrophy if not being used as a result of caloric restriction. 

  • This culminates in slow motility (hello constipation) and other disagreeable downstream effects. 
  • If you’re eating enough, but still having trouble with your gut health, consider the context of your meals. 
  • When you get the chance to eat your meals, set external reminders to set yourself up to enter rest and digest mode, leaving the fight or flight state behind.

Holley’s 5 Steps for Entering Rest & Digest Mode:

  1. Close your eyes
  2. Put your hand on your stomach (this stimulates the vagus nerve which is responsible for prompting involuntary contractions within the digestive tract) 
  3. Take a big deep breath
  4. Open your eyes and look at the food you’re about to eat
  5. Chew thoroughly (aim for chewing each bite at least 20-30 times)

While it sounds nice to have a mindful meal, it’s not always possible for the busy endurance athlete to have a slow, intentional dining experience.

For Holley’s clients who work in demanding careers, she recommends they pack plenty of:

  • Snacks
  • Drinkable calories
  • Convenient meals
  • If possible, she also encourages them to, “reinsert some self-care back into the day.” 
Tip #5: Top Off Your Jet Fuel with a Pre-Race Carbo-load

Tip #5: Top Off Your Jet Fuel with a Pre-Race Carbo-load

The longer and more intense your event is, the more you should consider carbo-loading for optimal performance.

Holley simplifies the physiology:

“If you run out of carbs, you’ll know. Burning fat for fuel isn’t as efficient as carbs for long, intense events. Carbo-loading stocks muscle glycogen stores like a jet about to take off across the ocean.”

  • We all know the classic image of runners sitting down to carbo load with an uncomfortably portioned pasta dinner.
  • Or Michael Scott scarfing fettuccine alfredo in the parking lot just minutes before the Dunder Mifflin 5k. 

However, carbo-loading isn’t simply gorging yourself with pasta the night before a race.

Holley says that “carbo-loading doesn’t always feel great, but it’s not to feel great now–it’s to feel great at mile 20!”

Holley’s tips for pre-race carbo-loading:

  • Eat enough carbohydrates during training, so the carbo-load for your race doesn’t feel so terrible. 
  • Use carbohydrate-rich foods that digest well for you. Reduce your fat, fiber, and protein intake. 
  • Carbo-loading does not mean you are consuming a larger amount of total calories, but instead a larger proportion of your calories are coming from carbs than during training. 
  • Using liquid carbohydrate sources can ease some of the GI discomfort that can come with consuming large quantities of solid carbohydrates.
  • Consume 1-4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight the morning before an event. 
Tip #6: Spare Your Muscle Glycogen

Tip #6: Spare Your Muscle Glycogen

During the demands of a race, your body uses stored carbohydrates and fat as fuel.

Since carbohydrates are burned more efficiently than fat, the body defaults to carbohydrates during sustained, higher intensity efforts–like that of a marathon. 

  • Unfortunately, the human body has limited carbohydrate storage capacity.
  • Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen (a bunch of glucose molecules strung together). 

If you’ve ever “bonked” or “hit the wall” in a race or long run...

You’ve run out of stored glycogen. Fortunately, we can prevent that unpleasantness with intra-race fuel. 

Holley’s tips for intra-race fueling:

  •  For events that take 1-2.5 hours, ingest 30-60g carbohydrates per hour. You can do this by taking in a gel (~100 calories, 22g carbohydrate) every 20-30 minutes with a carbohydrate-rich sports drink. For events that take longer than 2.5 hours, ingest 60-90g carbohydrates per hour. There is research that supports up to 120g carbohydrate per hour with gut training (that’s a lot of gels)!
  • Look at the aid stations and research what is offered versus what is actually provided. Decide if you are going to rely on aid or if you’re going to carry what you need. 
  • Pay attention to your hydration and electrolytes too. Individual needs are largely based on your sweat rate. As a general recommendation, take in at least 300 mg sodium with 8-30 oz of water every hour.

Holley’s Intra-Race Fueling Picks

Tip #7: Don’t Forget the Post-Race Recovery Meal

Tip #7: Don’t Forget the Post-Race Recovery Meal

Picture this...

  • You’ve just run a personal best marathon effort. 
  • You nailed your carbo-load and intra-race fueling
  • And you managed to muster up a smiley grimace for the race photographer. 
  • But your appetite has already left the building. The last thing you want to do is eat.

Before you skip that post-race snack, consider how quickly you’d like to recover from this hard effort.

  • If you have another race or challenging run planned in the near future, kickstarting your recovery is so important. 
  • If you’ve traveled for the race, and plan to board public transportation or a plane, it’s even more imperative to eat after finishing: 

“If you don’t eat enough after, your immune system is already down and it can snowball into illness,” says Holley.

Holley’s recommendations for post-race recovery fuel:

  • Have a plan and stick to it. Fuel out of self-care even if you aren’t hungry. 
  • Stash your post-race snack in your gear check. 
  • Use liquid calories since they go down easier after a hard effort
  • Pick a snack that is high in both protein and carbohydrates 
  • Get a good dose of electrolytes 
Tip #8: Plan and Practice!

Tip #8: Plan and Practice!

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to race day fueling. 

What works for your friends or the elites might not work for you, so take the time to practice your intra-race strategy. 

  • Do you prefer powders, gels, or chews? Try them all! 

Holley encourages her clients to practice taking their fuel at race pace.

Why? Taking a gel at your easy pace will not translate to race day. 

Plus, training with your fuel will allow you to train your gut to digest and absorb carbohydrates while on the move.

Struggling with nutrition as an endurance athlete? Hire a coach.

When to ask for support:

If this seems like a lot of information, you are right! 

  • If you feel like you're drinking from a firehouse trying to figure it out, or you've tried and failed on your own, hire a coach who knows the intersection of nutrition and endurance sports.

“If you have questions about nutrition and are piecemealing stuff from the internet, consider hiring a coach," says Holley.

"If people want to fill knowledge gaps or have symptoms, or are not getting answers from a doctor, consider reaching out to a dietitian.”

Holley’s nutrition resource recommendations:

Looking for a little more help to dial in your nutrition as an endurance athlete?

Check out Holley's top nutrition resource recommendations: 

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Abigail Lock
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Endurance athlete with a proclivity for mountain running and high altitude desert dwelling. NASM Certified Sports Nutriti...

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