All in a Day’s Eating: Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete

Nutrition for endurance athletes
This meal features a homemade black bean patty with guacamole on toasted Ezekiel bread, steamed green beans w/ balsamic drizzle, and a tofu-veggie scramble.

I can eat some food.

Upon seeing my plate of food after a long day of working and training, some have remarked that I have the appetite of a football player. Or a triathlete. Either way.

I carry a cooler of snacks with me almost everywhere I go. At work, my colleagues have yelled “SNACKS!” just to get my attention.

Suffice to say, endurance athletes burn a lot of calories, so we need to eat a lot of calories.

If I didn’t do any training or exercise, a woman my size (5’3″, 125 lbs) and age (39) would need a base of about 1500-1800 calories a day. Depending on how long or intense a training session is, my calorie expenditure could be in the 1,000-3,000 range. Add these numbers together, and I could consume 4500-4800 calories on my biggest training days and still break even on the calories burned/calories consumed scale.

Naturally, the temptation is to fill that calorie deficit with any foods I want.

A brownie topped pizza sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

But, nutrition for the endurance athlete is about more than just calories in, calories out. Where those calories come from and the nature of the nutritional quality is just as important – if not MORE important – than the calorie counts themselves.

Over the past few years, John and I have made a series of gradual changes to our diet, a process I’ve discussed here. In the process of making these changes, we’ve researched much about the health advantages and disadvantages of various foods and nutritional lifestyles.

None of this research or experience makes me a nutritionist. But, I am very aware of the ways in which nutrition for the endurance athlete is not “in addition to” training – it is a part of training. This post offers 5 of my top tips for making sure that I eat food that fuels my endurance lifestyle. (5 additional nutrition tips can be found here.) After a general description of the tips, I offer some specific food options you can consider for including your weekly menu. 

nutrition for the endurance athelte
Roasted asparagus, parsnips, sweet potatoes, and carrots. Yum!

1. Eat Nutrient Dense Foods

Nutrient density refers to the balance of micro-nutrients found in what we eat, such as various essential vitamins and minerals that sustain energy, help prevent injury, and support endurance. The most nutrient dense foods pack a high number of these nutrients into a small calorie package.

For the calorie count, you can select no better nutrient dense foods than vegetables. And, if you select fresh vegetables, eat them raw or cooked only lightly, then you will be sure to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. Fruits are also a good choice, but depending on the type of fruit, you may need to be careful of high sugar content, especially if you are looking to lean out for race season.

For example, kale is an exceptionally nutrient dense food, as I’ve written about here. A bag of potato chips is not. Eating the kale will not only give you more essential nutrients, it will also keep you feeling full for a longer period of time than that bag of greasy potato chips.

2. Diversify Food Choices

If you eat the same foods all of the time, even if those are healthy, nutrient dense foods, you will not get a well-rounded profile of micro-nutrients in your diet. So, be sure to diversify your choices – and have fun with it!

John and I like to play a game each time we go to the grocery store; we purchase a food that we’ve either never had before or never prepared before. This has led to some really amazing food finds, and creative recipes.

Additionally, diversifying your food choices keeps your daily nutritition fresh and interesting, ensuring that you won’t get “bored” with your healthy eating options.

Green machine.
Green machine. Think there are some leafy greens in this juice?

3. Protect against inflammation and free radicals

Exercise is good for you, right? Of course. However, the amount of training that many distance athletes engage in can produce some negative side effects, including inflammation and the production of free radicals as a consequence of the oxidative stress that comes from lots of training. (For a basic overview of oxidative stress, click here.)

So, what’s a marathon runner or triathlete to do?

Well, use your nutrition to help address those side effects and promote recovery, of course!

Many foods offer anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. If you eat lots of nutrient dense foods, and diversity your food choices, chances are you are consuming these options already. For example, berries and leafy green have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Spices such as ginger and turmeric are wonderful anti-inflammatory fighters.

4. Understand Optimal Timing for Nutrients

I’ve written about nutrient timing before (see here). This is an important component for recovery, achieving optimal body composition, and enhancing performance. Nutrient timing relates to when we eat certain macro-nutrients–fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.  For example, you should ideally eat your carbohydrate-rich and high glycemic index foods earlier in the day and/or before, during or after your workouts.

John and I work with a “window.” For example, we have a 2-hour workout, then we know we can eat these types of foods for about 2 hours following our workout. After that, we stick with low glycemic load meals, such as lean proteins, vegetables, certain fruits, and beans are a major staple of our diet.

5. Log Intake

If you are having trouble determining your overall nutrition profile and its relationship to your training, I recommend keeping a food log – even if it is only for a few days. And, guess what? There’s an app for that!

My favorite app for keeping a food log is My Fitness Pal, which allows you to easily track both your macro and your micro nutrients. You can access the site via your computer, your phone or your tablet. The site and the app has an impressive database of almost every food you can think of, which makes it easy to log your foods. You don’t have to manually add all of the details. Just search for the food, and select it. And, if you use your phone, it allows you to scan barcodes of the foods you eat for easy logging.

Incorporating these tips into a day of eating

Understanding these principles in the abstract is easy enough. But, what does it look like in a single day of eating? Here’s a sample of my day.

Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete
This is a typical breakfast after a big morning of training: a veggie and egg white omelet topped with sriracha, along with ezekiel toast, and a veggie smoothie.

Breakfast

John and I have two standard options for breakfast. The first is a veggie smoothie, prepared in a blender (and hopefully some day soon a VitaMix). This smoothie includes variations of the following

  1. a leafy green, such as kale, beet greens or spinach
  2. a fruit item, such as berries or citrus
  3. bonus vegetable or fruit, such as beets, zucchini, radish, tomato or cucumber
  4. supplements, such as Vega One protein, spirulina, cacao powder, flax or chia seeds
  5. liquid to blend it all together, such as water or almond milk. (Choose water to keep calorie count down.)

The second option is to create a veggie omelet. The trick here is to think about having some eggs with your veggies. Pile on the veggies, then use 3-4 egg whites just to bind it together. I like to allow my eggs to set up quite a bit before flipping it (which you can see in the picture).

When breakfast comes after a workout, I will include some Ezekiel bread with it.

nutrition for endurance athlete
This salad features roasted beets, cucumbers, mung beans, wasabi peas, grape tomatoes, spring mix greens, goat cheese, goji berries, and a citrus-mustard vinaigrette.

Lunch

My lunch is almost always a salad. On high volume training days, such as my long ride or long run day, I may add an additional veggie smoothie, a sandwich, a bowl of soup, or some leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.

My salads include pretty much everything I can stick in there, which satisfies both nutrient density and diversity. When eating a salad, be certain to make or select a dressing that isn’t full of “empty” calories and saturated fat. I prefer balsamic dressing, or citrus-style vinaigrettes.

Dinner

Dinner typically includes at least two different vegetables, beans, and sometimes some tofu or tempeh. (Meat eaters: insert your favorite lean protein here!)

Depending on the training load of the current or next day, we may include a grain product, such as quinoa. I think dinner can sometimes be a tricky meal because we tend to have some emotional attachments to the way we ate as kids, or the idea of a rich, fulfilling dinner. Diversifying your food choices, and getting creative with your ingredients can really help to satisfy that aspect of our appetite.

nutrition for endurance athlete
A tempeh “cheesesteak” with daiya cheese and caramelized onions, steamed green beans, and backed sweet potato chips.

For example, John and I don’t eat meat anymore, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes we don’t crave some our old favorite dishes. For example, a cheesesteak. In addition to beef, cheesesteaks are not generally known for their health benefits, but with some creativity, we turned some tempeh and Daiya cheese in a satisfying meal that quenched our craving. (See picture.)

Snacks

So, what about snacks?

  • hummus & veggies (e.g., celery or carrot sticks, zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli, etc.)
  • Plain greek yogurt (if you do dairy) and some almonds or pistachios. To sweeten it a little bit, you can add some agave or honey. Be careful with the nuts – they pack a lot of calories. One serving is enough.
  • A piece of fruit with a serving of low-fat/low-sodium cheese, if you do dairy.
  • Veggie smoothie – kale or spinach, blueberries or strawberries, some chia seeds, water and blend. These are kind of gross at first, so if you aren’t into that, don’t do it… hahahah!
  • Small portions of dinner leftovers. I will frequently make more than we will eat for one night, and then snack on the roasted veggies the next day. Delish!
  • I don’t always finish my salad for lunch. So, 2 hours or so later, I’ll finish it as a snack.
  • Wasa crackers w/ a slice of cheese or fruit or a lean protein (like a little piece of chicken if you eat meat)
  • A hummus wrap – get a whole grain wrap (I like the Ezekiel brand – they are in the freezer section, so you need to defrost them in the fridge), spread some hummus on it, add some arugala/spinach/dark leafy green of your choice, some cucumbers, sprouts, whatevever. Wrap and enjoy! You can also add some lean protein or beans to this type of wrap and skip the hummus. Your choice.

*If you’d like recipes for any of the food featured in this post, please contact me.

What are your healthy eating tips? How do you fuel your endurance lifestyle? 

12 Comments

  1. Great post. This takes a lot of the guess work out of how to and when to fuel for an endurance athlete. I am thrilled that you point out timing as that is important as well.

    One thing about timing I would like to point out though is that you shouldn’t eat by a clock. Just because you have been eating dinner everyday at 5pm for the past three years doesn’t mean that is the ‘time’ to eat. The time to eat is when you are truly hungry and that involves knowing your hunger queues (rumbling stomach or light-headed and not thinking clearly) regardless of the time.

    You may not need an entire meal and a snack would suffice but be sure to be in tuned to your body.

  2. I am having a tough time finding *exactly* the right thing to have for lunch / afternoon snack when I have a hard club swim at 7pm. I find a salad (even a large one with lots of variety and cheese) leaves me feeling weak, so have been tempted to go down the baked potato heaped with veggies path. I know a burrito is too heavy, and am trying sushi today. Any thoughts on how you would best fuel?

    1. Hi, Donna! Late afternoon and evening workouts are tricky to fuel.

      How big is the salad? I eat a pretty enormous salad – hahahaha! I make it at home and it’s heavy enough to bench press 😉

      You could try to eat an early, light dinner or a bigger snack around 4. How about a sandwich or oatmeal? I also find hummus with some wasa crackers or veggies pretty filling as a snack.

      You could also pre-fuel the swim with a gel about 15 minutes before if you get really desperate.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experience!