Eating for Endurance - What every athlete & trainer needs to know

Understanding all about eating for endurance comes from my love of working with endurance sports.

Whilst I love working with athletes across all manner of sports, there’s no denying how much I love endurance sports.

I love watching them, I love competing in them (this year’s goal is an Ultra), and I love working with endurance athletes.

Though I believe all sports have their own specific fuelling needs, there are some challenges presented in endurance sports that you’re not likely to find elsewhere.

What is an endurance event?

How long is a piece of string? There are no clear definitions of endurance sports.

Throughout my research and studies as a practitioner, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the word “endurance” in sports; this is because there is no clear-cut clinical standardisation of the word.

Unlike other conditions seen in clinical practice, there is no set guideline or diagnostic criteria for an endurance athlete.

In research trials, ‘endurance’ has been defined as ‘prolonged events of >90mins’, bike time trails ranging from 105mins to ‘up to 3 hours’, and even a 10k walk event.

This wide variance in the term ‘endurance’ makes it difficult for athletes to understand:
  1. If they are an endurance athlete
  2. What fuelling system they are using, or
  3. Whether or not they need to fuel during the event.

Eating whilst exercising?

I’m sure we all heard the following at some point during our childhood:
You have to wait an hour from when you’ve eaten before you can go swimming or go play.
And yes, there is a certain truth to this as eating uses a different nervous system to exercise and they are opposite operating systems.

However, if you’re out running for 3 hours, competing in an IM, doing an overnight ultra, or a multiday bike event, time to digest isn’t a luxury.

When you are participating in these endurance events, if you don’t eat you WILL run out of fuel. Your body will start doing all it can to ensure your brain keeps getting enough fuel and will sacrifice other systems to do so. This is where muscle fatigue, cramping, getting wobbly on your feet, severe tummy troubles, problems with vision and speech can all start to happen.

If you want to go a bit deeper in the science behind energy systems and sports, check out Factors determining CHO intake in athletes and 'normal' populations and Different athlete, different diet?

A la carte, or buffet?

I wanted to take a moment and ask you to think about what your current (if any) fuelling strategy is for endurance events?
  • Are you nailing it?
  • Have you worked through a plan with a nutritionist/sports dietician/coach or have you read something somewhere that you’ve tried and just stick with?
  • How is your performance during an event, and equally important, how is your recovery?
  • What determines your choice of chews/bars/gels; is it taste, content, ingredients, price, or because it was recommended?
I think it’s important to take stock every now and then to reassess and answer these questions.

Your volume of training may have changed, you may have switched up events, gotten fitter, or changed your food philosophy. You may find that in hotter weather you need more salt in your fuel. Menstruating athletes may find they need a little bit more carb in the second half of their cycle. Your taste preferences may change, or your guts may have adapted to eating fuel more frequently.

All of these things determine what you’re eating for endurance preference is.

Choose the carbohydrate

So how do you choose what is best for you and your endurance event?

Ultimately what carbohydrate (CHO) you chose depends will depend on allergies, sensitivities, food philosophies, digestive comfort, your energy needs, taste, expense, portability and accessibility.

You also need to factor in how can you access the food during the event; are you carrying them, or can you bag-drop?

And finally, you need to factor in food safety and make sure your food choice will be safe in hot conditions, cold conditions, and maybe even wet conditions.

These days there are many companies that specialise in endurance nutrition; there is a lot of science going into single (glucose, fructose etc) versus multiple CHOS.

Products that provide multiple transportable CHO (combinations of CHO types) achieve high rates of oxidation of carbohydrate consumed during exercise. This can help with tummy trouble and increase availability for longer events.

As I say to all my endurance clients, the best way to see what type of fuel works best for you is to practice it.

Don’t wait to race day to see if a multiple transportable CHO gel sits better in your guts than a single.

Common food choices to fuel for endurance events

I’ve tried and tested a lot of gels, bars, chews, drinks, powders and shakes.

I’ve faced flavour fatigue, having my specials bag being misplaced, and chewed my way through more smashed bananas than I care to remember.

Having also worked with a lot of clients with a whole host of different tastes and needs, I've seen the foods that work for many.

So here is a list of some of the more common food choices to fuel for endurance events.

1. Dates

Sweet, juicy, small, compact, easy to chew. 6 small dates will give you about 30g of carb. Great for when you can chew your food, like cycling events or the bike leg of an IM.

2. Banana

Fresh, bright, and with the bonus of some potassium. 1 large banana will give you about 30g of carb. Also great for cycling, or at pit stops in overnight events where you can sit, chew, and change your socks.

3. Bounce Balls

Made by Australia company Bounce Foods, these individual-wrapped power balls are a great combo of protein and carb. Being wrapped means they are food safe and can be a great option on the bike for a flavour hit and power boost.

4. Pretzels

Chocolate-coated or plain? Either will do! The crunchiness really hits the spot on long events if you’ve only been mushing soft foods, gels, and drinks. The salty hit will also help replenish lost sodium and will aid in preventing hyponatremia. 5 pretzels (plain, approx. 28g) will give you 25g of carb.

5. White bread sandwich

With cheese and vegemite or peanut butter and jelly – the white bread and jam gives you carbs, whilst the peanut butter and cheese add a little bit of protein and fats. The peanut butter and vegemite also help to boost your salt intake, Great for multiday events where you can take a moment to eat, change socks/gear.

My golden rules for eating for endurance events

Here are a few of my golden rules when it comes to eating for endurance events.
  1. Practice your plan. Work out how much fuel you need, and practice the timing and feel. Use your long rides or long runs as a time to practice how often you’ll fuel, what pockets you’ll stash what snack in. You want to hit race day knowing the plan inside out so you don’t need to think.
  2. Know the event course and rules. Find out where they’ll have water stations, fuel stations, and drink stations. Some events will only allow specials for the elite athletes. Know if you need to carry everything, or if a support can meet you. Practice these situations in your training.
  3. Have a plan for if your 1st plan fails. Maybe carry an extra gel in case you miss a fuel station. Have a plan for if you experience tummy troubles. Have a plan for if you drop some fuel whilst trying to open a packet (it happens!).
  4. Lastly, my golden rule. Do not try anything new on race day!

Want to learn more about eating for endurance sport?

I’ve just launched a new e-book all about Fuelling for Endurance.

It’s a great way for you do take your performance in your own hands to the next level.

You can find it here.