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How Much do I Need to Eat as an Endurance Athlete?

Clients frequently ask me how much they need to eat, especially endurance athletes who have increased needs and often struggle to fuel adequately. Many lead busy lives and don't always prioritize consistent meals and snacks despite logging many hours of training, while others only eat when hungry (not always reliable - exercise can mess with your appetite hormones). These types of dietary habits put you at risk of not having enough energy available for your body to maintain normal health functions, and will likely tank your performance too.

So how do we know if we're eating enough?

Everyone has different energy and nutrient needs that depend on a number of factors, including body weight and daily energy expenditure, among others. While we can calculate specific nutrient and energy goals, and I often do, the last thing I want is for my clients to count calories or macros. Tracking these for a day or two can be useful if needed to spot check where you're at, but this is no way to live and shouldn't be a long-term solution. Even the more descriptive food journaling I have my clients do initially is meant to be a temporary tool.

Instead, we aim to learn basic principles and visuals that guide us in building everyday meals and snacks. This is where Performance Plates can be helpful, specifically for meals and especially for any visual learners out there. They help get the point across that what's on our plate (or in our bowl) needs to change on different training days and during different phases of training. And it should go without saying - please, don't use a tiny plate. :)

Before we dive in, keep in mind that CONTEXT is everything. My clients know I love this word and say it at least once a session. Even the words "easy," "moderate," and "hard" that are used below need to be approached with caution, taking the bigger picture of your overall training and life into account.

The "Easy Day" Performance Plate

Easy day athlete performance plate

The “easy day” plate is for a rest day or a short easy training session (e.g. 30 min or less), but in the context of a fairly low weekly training (e.g. up to 20 miles or 4 hours a week). This could also work well when you're taking a break from exercise or during the offseason, as long as you aren't doing tons of other physical activity (I don't care if you're not doing your sport or you're not competing - if you're being active, you need to fuel - period). 

As you can see, 25% of the plate is carbs - think whole grains, pasta, bread, beans, starchy veggies (potatoes, corn, peas), etc. Half the plate is fruits and (non-starchy) veg - this is where you're getting antioxidants, fiber, micronutrients, and in the case of fruit, carbs. The remaining 25% is lean protein - meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, tofu, etc. 

Please don't stress too much about the actual numbers, but try to focus on what your plate might look like.

What's not shown in the pie chart but we must include are fats - nuts, seeds, olives, oils, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, avocado, nut butters, etc - and hydration - water, milk, 100% fruit juice, seltzer, tea, coffee (moderate intake) etc. 

The "Moderate Day" Performance Plate

Moderate day athlete performance plate

A “moderate day” plate is good for longer training session days (e.g. 60min cardio sessions or a 1 hr of strength) and higher levels of training - (e.g. 20-40 miles or 4-8 hours a week). You can also follow this on a rest day during higher volume training weeks

For a moderate day plate, we keep protein the same and increase carbs to about 37% and decrease fruits and veg to 37%. The takeaway is that we need more carbs, and thus we need to eat slightly fewer fruits and veg (primarily fewer“non-starchy” veg, as they’re not adding many carbs).

Fats and hydration will vary depending on your individual energy and hydration needs. We always need fat -  it’s crucial for hormone production, nutrient absorption, reducing inflammation (omega-3’s specifically), making food tasty, reaching total energy goals (fat has about twice as many calories per gram), and keeping you full ! But we also don’t want to consume so much fat that we crowd out carbs, or other key nutrients. 

A quick tip for hydration - divide your weight in lbs by 2 to get a rough daily goal of ounces to drink. This doesn't include any extra that you need as a result of sweat losses. Also, check out my sweat testing guide blog post to determine your fluid needs during exercise.

The "Hard Day" Performance Plate

Hard day athlete performance plate

Finally, the "hard day" plate is for high intensity or long training days (e.g. speed session or anything >60-90min), double workout days (e.g. swim + bike), and of course, race day. It’s also appropriate to follow even for shorter or easier training sessions during heavy training periods - for example, if you’re putting 40+ miles or 8+ hrs a week (hello, endurance athletes). 

Again, protein stays the same, but carbs increase to 50%, with fruit and veg dropping to 25% (emphasis is lowering those non-starchy veggies, which is pretty much everything except potatoes, corn, and peas). 

So the takeaway here is that we need a lot more carbs, and fewer low carb/high fiber veg, as our training volume and intensity increases, while protein stays the same.

What about snacks?

Keep in mind that we also need 2-4 snacks per day, with timing depending on your meal, workout and overall schedule. Include carbs (since we need more carbs with greater amounts of exercise) as well as some protein (to help meet our everyday needs and to keep us full), and whatever else you wish to include (fiber from fruits/veg, fats from nuts/cheese etc).

I'm still not sure if I'm eating enough

Obviously, you can make your meals follow these different visuals but not meet your individual needs. If you're not sure if you're eating enough to support health and performance, or you're not feeling your best and you're not sure why, I encourage you to ask yourself some of these questions.

  • Are you only eating when hungry? (e.g. not eating after a workout or for hours after getting up in the morning because not hungry)

  • Are you going more than 3-5 hours without a meal or snack?

  • Has your weight changed (up or down) over the last few months?

  • Have you recently gotten labwork done that showed any irregular values (e.g. low iron, Vit D, B12 etc)?

  • How is your sleep quality and are you sleeping adequately?

  • Are you recovering well after hard or long sessions?

  • Any current or recent injuries (e.g. stress fracture)?

  • How are your energy levels, during exercise and throughout the day?

  • Do you have any GI complaints (constipation, diarrhea, etc)?

  • Have you recently had any significant life events occur (good or bad)?

  • How are your stress levels, and how do you manage stress?

  • How are your moods (compared to baseline)?

  • For women, are you getting regular cycles?

  • For men, how is your sex drive and are you getting morning erections?

These are some of the questions you can ask yourself as a self-checkup. You can see we're checking into many different aspects of you as a whole person - medical health, mental health, nutrition, exercise, lifestyle and more. This is because if you're chronically not eating enough, your body doesn't have enough energy available and this has far-reaching negative effects on all different systems.

If you're struggling with any of the above, you may be a great candidate for 1:1 nutrition coaching! Please reach out or book a FREE 10min call to see if we're a good fit.

My 7-part self-paced course "Peak Performance for Endurance Athletes" is another great option to help you learn how to fuel yourself better to crush your health and athletic goals. You can listen for FREE to module 1 in this podcast episode, and you can also watch a free video preview and read a detailed course FAQ here.

Questions? Let me know!


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