“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.

“What Do I Eat on Race Day?” Daily Nutrition for Optimal Endurance Performance (Part 1)


“What should I eat on race day?” This is probably one of the most common question asked of sports dietitians and coaches by athletes. My answer is, “tell me what you eat everyday.” Probably not the response you were expecting. But it does make you stop and wonder how dietary habits and nutrition contributes or even impacts endurance performance.

What, when, why and how much one eats during the months of training leading up to race day has everything to do with what and how often the body requires energy in the form of calories, specifically carbohydrates (or as we call it in the field of sports nutrition, “fuel”) on race day. Moreover, the composition of ones macronutrient intake (meaning, the ratio of carbohydrates to proteins) plays a key role in building a broad and efficient aerobic foundation and metabolism. The efficiency enhances usage of fats (fatty acids) for energy, optimizes body composition, and can improve one’s weight and overall health! Now that’s sustainability!

When I first began racing triathlon in 2000 (Wildflower Long Course being my first!), there was one general rule of thumb to follow: eat carbs! In fact, eat up to 60% of your daily diet as carbohydrates. Carbs were king! And so I ate, we ate, carbohydrates, lots of them, all the time. Personally, this eventually led to an increase in hunger, weight, fatigue, GI distress during racing, and poor recovery. I learned a lot that first year.

Fast forward to 2018, triathletes seasoned and new are dipping into the low-carb/high-fat, Paleo, and nutritional ketosis diet approaches. With so many approaches, which is the best approach to follow?

Whether your goal is to PR or simply cross your first finish line, understand that your dietary habits and food choices during the aerobic base phase of training have everything to do with race day performance. That’s because there are three times as many opportunities to nail your nutrition in the day than there are to train.

The “25/75” Rule. Nutrition is 75 percent of the performance, body composition and health equation; training is the remaining 25 percent. Let’s break down what this means.

Training 25%. The purpose of establishing an aerobic foundation is to create a “base” from which to build sustained strength, speed, and power in the weeks and months that follow. During this phase, intensity is low, what my athletes relate to as “embarrassingly slow” with a few, not many, high-intensity intervals. “Training low” improves upon the body’s aerobic endurance and fat-max. This is, the maximum amount of fats (fatty acids) the body burns at a specific intensity over time. How much and at what point ones maximal fat utilization occurs is highly individual. It is influenced by both training and nutrition.

Figure 1: Crossover/Metabolic Efficiency Point

Figure 1: Crossover or MEP
Figure 1. Crossover or Metabolic Efficiency Point (MEP). MEP occurs at approximately 138 beats per minute and 160 watts for this 52 year-old male.
Photo credit: © 2017 Nutrition pH, Dorette Franks, RDN

Improving individual fat-max improves one’s “crossover” point, or as Bob Seebohar, MSc, RD, CSSD notes, a “Metabolic Efficiency Point” (MEP, Figure 1). That is, the point in which the body uses both carbohydrates and fats equally. With just the right amount of intensity and a few tweaks to the diet, the crossover point or MEP shifts to the right leading to more efficient metabolism; the body burns fats (stored in an abundant supply) and spares precious stores of carbohydrate (muscle glycogen and blood glucose). That’s an efficient body and what Bob Seebohar, MSc, RD, CSSD calls, “Metabolic Efficiency”.

“Hitting the Wall” or “Bonking” are terms used to describe when the body’s carbohydrate supply runs low. You feel tired, irritable, unable to focus or concentrate, and the muscles even stop firing – there’s just no oomph!Dorette Sits

Nutrition 75%. Let’s face it – you eat more often through the day than train. As a result, blood sugar (glucose) levels rise and fall. Blood glucose is most influenced by the type and amount of carbohydrate eaten (Figure. 2). Control of blood sugar with regard to the hormone insulin improves endurance performance, body composition, satiety, and overall health. (High protein intake, above the body’s protein needs, can also cause a rise in blood sugar, but we’ll save that topic for another blog post.)

Figure 2: Various Carbohydrate Effect on Blood Sugar

BloodSuagar.KP copy
Figure 2. Hunger and satiety response in relation to blood sugar. Simple sugars provide rapid increase in blood sugar and response in satiety and a rapid decline. Complex carbohydrates, protein and fats increase satiety over a longer duration in time. Photo credit: © 2017 Regional Health Education. The Permanente Medical Group

→ Key Point! When blood glucose rises as a result of consuming carbohydrate rich foods the body secretes insulin, a hormone responsible for transporting the glucose into the cell to be used or stored as energy. The release of insulin blunts the body’s ability to burn fats and focuses on carbohydrate metabolism: fats are stored, carbs are burned. Even more, circulating insulin is correlated to increased hunger.


In laymen’s terms, eating carbohydrate-laden meals and snacks (including processed, “whites”, added sugars, and sugar substitutes) raises blood sugar. What goes up must come down – and hits rock bottom. What happens next is a desire for a “pick-me-up”. And who has ever reached for a stalk of broccoli to improve energy and satiety. Right?

The more carbohydrates consumed the greater the body’s need for insulin. The more often insulin is secreted, the greater the risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease…the list goes on and on. Triathletes are not immune to disease – and, we eat a lot!

In Summary. what we’re taking about here pertains to year-round daily nutrition for not only building an efficient aerobic foundation, but to also control weight and enhance body composition through the metabolisms efficient use of fats as fuel (over carbohydrates), while reducing the risk of disease!

Annual Training Plan. Photo Credit: © Training Peaks

Of course, carbohydrate requirements change. In fact, carbohydrate, protein, and fat requirements will change based upon one’s annual training plan (ATP) phase and individual goals.

Whether your approach is low-carb/high-fat, Paleo or Keto (nutritional ketosis), bare in mind that carbohydrates play a key role in “fueling” the muscles and brain during quality training and race day performance. Sure, being in nutritional ketosis has its benefits (which I’ll discuss in a later blog), but when it comes to being at your performance best, carbs are still king – or queen – at the right time and in the right amounts.

If you are the type to preload with a gel or carbohydrate drink 15 minutes before and/or again 30 to 45 minutes into a 60 to 75 minute aerobic run, then your body is carbohydrate dependent. If you are able to sustain yourself for 60 to 75 minutes or longer for aerobic training, then you’ve been doing your work…and there’s always room for improvement!

“So what do I eat for daily nutrition?” Great question! Coming right up –  stay tuned!!