“What Do I Eat on Race Day?” Daily Nutrition for Optimal Endurance Performance (Part 2)


As we learned in Part 1 of Daily Nutrition for Optimal Endurance Performance, what, when, and how much we eat plays a role in both endurance performance and long-term health. We also learned that carbohydrates (stored as muscle, liver glycogen and blood glucose) are the preferred “fuel” source that feeds nailing those high-intensity-training intervals or sustained race pace.

Can one train in a fasted state? Sure. For those attacking an early morning workout, this approach may be preferred. But for others, eating a light breakfast, such as a hard-boiled egg on a slice whole grain bread with some avocado is the right combo to kick off a morning workout.

The low-carb/high-fat and nutritional ketogenic diet approaches also have their merits. But again, if you are honing in on higher intensities that build in duration, or surging ahead with sustained effort, then carbohydrates have the competitive edge.

Inversely, the consumption of carbohydrate-laden meals and snacks, including a frequent use of gels, bars, and carbohydrate drinks, can also leave the body in carb-deponent state. Consequently, this can lead to GI distress on race day – anything from belching, stomach cramping, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea on race day. (Yes, dietitians talk about it all and we’ve seen it all!)

Fueling the body for endurance performance is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

In this blog, we’ll strike a balance between the two approaches. No matter what your event or when your race, it’s never too early or too late to modify your meals  – for seasonal performance and long-term health.

salmon-dish-food-meal-46239.jpegDaily Nutrition: “The Rules”. 

What I’m going to tell you is nothing you haven’t already learned. There are five basic rules that that can be applied to improving one’s daily nutrition for endurance performance. 5 Rules. That’s it. It’s pretty easy and very basic! If you remember anything at all, remember the rules:

→ Rule No. 1. Eat real, unadulterated, whole-foods – as in fresh vegetables, whole grains, and fruits whenever possible and as much as possible.

→ Rule No. 2. Eat at regular intervals during the day; every two to three hours as meals and snacks. Then follow rules No. 3 and 4.

→ Rule No. 3. Eat and enjoy lots of non-starchy vegetables – half the [9-inch] plate. Fresh or frozen – it does not matter!

→ Rule No 4. Combine carbohydrates with lean protein and healthy fats (more on this below).

→ Rule No. 5. Eliminate processed foods, including “whites” (rice, flour, white bread-pasta, etc.) and added sugars from the diet. Bars, gels, carbohydrate drinks – save them for the training and racing when duration is greater than 60 to 90 minutes at a moderate to high intensity.

Why Care. 

By controlling the consumption amount and frequency of various carbohydrates the body:

  • Improves oxidation of fatty acids during rest and training (the cross-over point or Metabolic Efficiency)
  • Optimizes body composition
  • Reduces the hunger response and improves feelings of “satiety”
  • Controls the “roller coaster” effect associated with blood sugar “highs and lows”
  • Reduces the risk for intestinal distress
  • Reduces the risk of disease

Daily Nutrition: The Performance Approach.

Individual calorie and macronutrient (carbohydrate, proteins, and fats) requirements increase as volume and intensity rises. This increase not only happens within the annual training cycle, but within the week as well. When it comes to eating to support triathlon endeavors, the tactic is, “eat to train” not “train to eat”. Calories consumed are meant to replacing calories lost so you can get out there and train all over again.

Carbohydrates – In my books, there are no “good” or “bad” carbohydrates. But there are “complex” and “simple” carbohydrates. Simply put, wisely select carbohydrates that support the timing and purpose of the nutrition required for your training needs, recovery, and health goals.

Complex carbohydrates contain more fiber and are broken down and absorbed more slowly in the intestine; they slow down the rise in blood sugar. These are optimal for daily nutrition, but can upset the stomach when eaten during one’s event.

Complex Carbohydrate (examples)pexels-photo-248509.jpeg

  • Whole grains: quinoa, brown rice, faro, barley
  • Starches: beans, legumes (lentils, pinto beans, soy beans), sweet potatoes
  • Vegetables: broccoli, kale, spinach, cucumbers
  • Various fruits*

*Those with greater fiber have a lower glycemic index, GI, response on blood sugar.

Simple carbohydrates (also known as “simple sugars”) contain little or no fiber; they raise blood glucose rapidly; we feel focused and energized after eating or drinking them. They are great for adding a *kick* to one’s power or pace. But what goes up must come down. And you guessed it. Shortly after eating, the body desires more – or if training or racing, will need more.

Simple Carbohydrates (examples)pexels-photo-273773.jpeg

  • Sports bars & drinks, gels
  • Added sugars: honey, sugar, fructose, sucrose, maltodextrine
  • Dairy: milk or “milk”, yogurt
  • “Whites”: flours, rice, pasta, bread, boiled potatoes, tortillas
  • Processed foods: breads (including whole wheat), cereals, crackers, cookies, pastries
  • Sweets: cookies, cakes, ice cream
  • Various fruits*

When carbohydrates are eaten alone, even the healthiest of whole grains still affect a rise in blood sugar. A large serving of quinoa or brown rice is just as responsible for signaling the release of insulin. Yes, portion size matters!

→ Key Point! If reaching a race weight is of importance, reduce the serving size of carbohydrates on days “off”, for active recovery, or low intensity. This not only reduces calorie intake but also decreases the signaling for insulin. If you’re within two to four weeks of that A-Priority race, now is not the time to actively shed  weight!

Carbohydrate Recommendations – The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that endurance athletes consume 5 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d). This range will depend upon the duration (1 to 4 or 5 hours/day) and intensity (moderate to high) of training. The intake is spread over the day and accounts to promote fuel availability before, during, and after exercise.

Another approach in dialing in carbohydrate (especially from the standpoint of optimizing fat-adaptation) is to combining carbohydrates with proteins**. For daily nutrition in the base phase of training, target a 1:1 to 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio as meals and snacks. A 3:1 ratio may be more optimal for longer training days and to support recovery. Remember, carbohydrates and proteins are equal in terms of calories, both containing 4 calories per 1 gram.

Ratio Examples:

  • 1:1 Ratio: Cottage cheese, 2% fat + 1/2 cup blueberries
  • 2:1 Ratio: 6 oz salmon + 1 cup cooked brown rice + 1 cup steamed vegetables + 2 cups dark leafy greens + 1 cup skim milk
  • 3:1 Ratio: 2 scrambled eggs + 2 corn tortilla (6”) + 1 cup sautéed bell peppers and broccoli + ¼ cp salsa + 1 medium orange

If the serving of carbohydrate contains more than 5 grams of fiber, then reduce half the fiber from the total carbohydrate to obtain the “net carbohydrate.” Then divide by protein.

Steps In Determining Carbohydrate to Protein Ratio Example:

  1. Total Carbohydrate: 65 grams. Fiber: 10. Protein 18
  2. Net Carbohydrate: 65 – 5 = 60 grams
  3. 60g/18g = 3.3 à 3:1 carb to protein ratio

For starters, begin by reading food labels by tracking your nutrition using an app, such as My Net Diary, Lose It, or My Fitness Pal. Just practice!

.**For complete information on macronutrient ratios, visit the Metabolic Efficiency resource page. Or stay tuned to the Nutrition pH blog!

→ Key Point! Carbohydrate Requirements For Triathlon Training. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends “30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate-rich fluids or foods during endurance sports and exercise lasting 1 to 2.5 hours.” Carbohydrate consumption is not “practical or necessary” for endurance training lasting less 45 minutes or less. In fact, a carbohydrate fluid as a mouth rinse in small amounts “may enhance performance during sustained high-intensity exercise lasting 45 to 75 minutes. 

Proteins – Among its many roles, protein helps to build and repair muscle tissue. It also aids in prompting satiety since it takes longer to breakdown and digest – another key point for combining proteins with carbohydrates for daily nutrition! Protein is not used as an energy source during performance. In fact, it’s very likely to cause GI distress.

Adequate protein intake for average adults is 0.8g/kg/day. For endurance athletes, 1.2 to 1.4g/kg/d is sufficient when energy (calories) and carbohydrate intake is adequate (amino acid breakdown can occur if energy and carbohydrate intake falls too low). 1.5 to 1.8g/kg/d is recommended for elite male elite endurance athletes.

Swim.Elke Peirtsegaele
Elke Peirtsegaele: Ironman World Championship Competitor; Sub 5-hour 70.3 racer.

As for female endurance athletes, their protein needs are slightly different. Generally speaking, women’s protein needs are 10 to 20% lower as compared to their male counter parts. However, during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, because women become more efficient at burning fats, the body is likely to break down its protein if energy and carbohydrate intake is not adequate. The female endurance athlete may require up to 1.6g/kg/d during this phase. Is it any wonder women have monstrous cravings this time of the month?

→ Key Point! Leucine is an amino acid that comprises muscle tissue. Because of the body’s high oxidation rate brought on by training, research has shown that eating foods rich in leucine can be of importance for the endurance athlete. Examples include: tuna, cod, chicken and turkey breast, eggs, soy protein, and seaweed.

Sources of Lean Protein (examples)

  • Tempeh, tofu, vegan protein powder blends
  • Salmon, sardines, shrimp, trout
  • Chicken or turkey breast, bison, beef, pork
  • Eggs (AA) and egg whites, Greek yogurt, cottage or ricotta

Fats The remainder of one’s daily energy intake is allotted as fat. Intake is generally based upon a range. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommend fat at 20 to 35% of total energy intake. For those triathletes being more fat-adapted, the upper range may be more desirable.pexels-photo-142890.jpeg

Sources of Healthy Fats (examples)

  • Salmon, olives, avocado’s
  • Extra virgin olive oil, organic extra virgin coconut oil (unprocessed), flax seed oil
  • Nut butters: almond, peanut, sunflower
  • Nuts & Seeds: Brazil nuts, walnuts, pine nuts, pumpkin, flax, chia, hemp

Disclosure: When determining the best nutritional approach, consult with a qualified nutrition professional, such as a registered dietitian nutritionist, to fine-tune your energy needs.

Training alone causes an inflammatory response to the body. Throw in lifestyle stressors related to work, family, lack of or poor sleep, and the inflammatory response increases. Some inflammation is good. It’s the body’s natural response to protect, repair, rebuild, restore, and revitalize the system. But, too much inflammation places the athlete at risk for poor recovery, injury, and even chronic disease. When it comes to being at your performance the best bet is to choose foods that support building a healthy body that lifestyle.

And as Hippocrates once said, “Let the food by thy eat medicine and medicine thy food.”

And as I always say, “Fuel Right!” …

Next up! Race Day Nutrition.