Carolinas HealthCare System
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Eating for Endurance Sports

We all know balanced nutrition is essential to leading a healthy lifestyle, but for long-distance runners and other endurance athletes, a carefully regimented diet could be the difference between finishing in the middle of the pack and breaking the tape at the finish line.

Whether you’re a “weekend warrior” or a serious competitor, your diet choices leading up to an event are crucial to maximizing your performance. The right balance of carbohydrates (both fast and slow digesting), proteins and fats in your daily diet is one of the most important ways to make the most of your training.

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Fuel for the Road

Carbs have received a bit of a bad rap on recent years, but they are your body’s most important fuel source. Your body converts the sugars and starches in carbs to energy (glucose) or stores it in your liver and muscles (glycogen), which gives you both “slow-release” energy for endurance and “fast-release” energy for power and short spurts of intense exercise.

If you don’t have adequate carbs stored up for exercise, your body will turn to protein and fat stores for energy, which are less efficient sources of energy. As a result, your body has to work harder to burn fuel, resulting in a decrease in performance as well as the potential breakdown of your hard-earned muscle.

To avoid hitting the wall midrace, many endurance athletes load up on carbs before an event. During a carb loading cycle, athletes stock their muscles with glycogen by consuming easy-to-digest carbs –pasta, bread, fruits, rice, potatoes – to help ensure their muscles don’t deplete of energy stores mid-race. Most experts recommend athletes begin carb loading two to three days prior to the event, but there are various theories of specific timing and carb ratios. It’s also important to exercise less than normal the week before the event so your body can conserve energy.  As always, talk with your physician before altering your diet and consider working with a sports dietitian to assist in planning your nutrition regimen.

Proteins and Fats

It’s also important to include an adequate amount of protein and fat in your diet – especially during the training leading up to a race. Eating the right amount of protein is important because it helps your body maintain muscle mass and serves as a backup source for fuel.

The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine recommends allocating about 12 to 15 percent of your diet to protein and 20 to 30 percent to fat.

General pre-competition guidelines:

  • Eat a meal high in carbohydrates three to four hours before your event
  • Drink a sports drink within one hour of the event
  • Start drinking fluids two to three hours before the event to ensure proper hydration. (The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine recommends drinking 20 oz. of water one to two hours before exercise, an additional 10 to 15 oz. within 30 minutes of the event, and up to 6 oz. every 10 to 20 minutes throughout competition.

For additional information on sports nutrition, contact Alicia Fogarty MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, at 704-512-4742 or