Basic Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, Part 1

Build a Strong Fueling Foundation for Victory, Blog Series Part 1

Over the next few months we will discuss the basics of nutritional needs for endurance athletes. In order to optimize performance through nutrition we need to start with the basics and build a solid foundation. Similar to how base training builds a foundation in which top end efforts and season-long fitness is built off of, a well-balanced eating pattern provides the necessary nutrients the body needs to function and support health and training. 


Endurance exercise is defined as physical activity which requires the aerobic (oxygen) system. Think exercise with breathing. Running, cycling, rowing, and triathlon are typically sports we think of when we think endurance. Sports like power lifting are performed without breathing and use energy systems which do not require oxygen, but some types of training for power lifting require aerobic systems. Endurance exercise can apply to any type of activity which involves breathing during the physical activity above a resting heart rate. Whether it’s a hike through the woods an ultramarathon or a game of soccer, this article discusses the basic requirements for individuals completing these activities. 

Macro Level:

A well-balanced diet cannot be undervalued. Without a healthy nutritional daily diet, athletes cannot reap the benefits of some of the more advanced nutritional strategies which help to boost performance. Scientists have been and continue to investigate the bioavailability of nutrients from food versus supplements or fortification (adding them to foods). Bioavailability is defined as the ability of nutrients from an intake source to be absorbed in the gut and utilized by the body. This is an important topic in nutrition because not all foods are created equal in their nutrients to be able to be utilized by the body. One commonly utilized idea is that the way plants and animals grow allows for better absorption of macro and micronutrients in the gut and therefore are more available for the body to use for metabolic processes. The short answer is nutrients are better to get from whole foods than from supplements and fortified foods like cereal or shakes.

Carbohydrates, the nutrient:

As efforts become more intense, the body relies more heavily on carbohydrates for fuel. Carbohydrates are the cornerstone of endurance performance in sports nutrition. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel for any activity above a talking pace and longer than 30seconds. This is where most sports lie. Carbohydrates are available as glucose in the bloodstream and stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. One can find carbohydrates in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products. They are most important to eat before, during, and after workouts to maintain and replenish glycogen and supply glucose to the muscles and brain for fuel. 


Protein, the nutrient:

In addition to needing to fuel workouts, athletes also need to build and maintain muscle mass. Protein not only helps to build muscle, but is involved in building enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is also important building blocks for bones, skin, cartilage, and blood. Protein is found in all plant and animal foods but in varying degrees of bioavailability.  Best sources include meat and seafood, eggs, dairy products, lentils, and soy.

Fat, the nutrient:

Fat is essential for life. Without fat there are many bodily processes that do not function properly and shut down. Fat is essential in providing energy to the body, support cell growth, protect organs, produce hormones, and absorb certain nutrients. Fat is most often found in animal foods, nuts, seeds, and avocados.


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Read Basic Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, Part 2: Micronutrients, What are They and Why Athletes Need Them and Basic Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, Part 3: Foods to Boost your Fitness, Putting it All Together.

About the author: Kristen Arnold MS, RDN, CSSD is a level 2 USA Cycling coach as well as a Registered Dietitian (RD) specializing in sports nutrition and is a board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). With Kristen’s nutrition expertise and diverse experience in the sport of cycling as a racer and a mentor, she provides a comprehensive approach to her coaching. She works with athletes from the beginner to elite ranks in road, cyclocross, and mountain biking disciplines. Kristen is professional road racer racing with ButcherBox Pro Cycling, and seasoned mountain bike and cyclocross racer. Learn more about Kristen.