Sports Nutrition: A Basic Guide for Endurance Athletes

Whatever sport we train for, we should be aiming to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. When we’re physically active, our bodies use up more energy (or calories). Eating well for this activity or chosen sport has many benefits including improved performance levels, reducing the risk of injuries and allowing the best possible recovery after exercise. Dietary requirements will vary depending on the individual, the activity, and the intensity and amount of training, therefore one size does not fit all. For anyone looking to gain more personalised nutrition advice, a qualified sports nutritionist will be able to give you the support needed and really delve into your specific macronutrient requirements.


Carbohydrates During Exercise

For endurance exercise lasting 30 minutes or more, one of the biggest contributors to fatigue will be carbohydrate (glycogen) depletion from the muscles.  Individualised nutrition strategies can be developed that aim to give enough carbohydrate to the working muscles at a rate that is dependant upon the intensity and duration of the event, however, these plans take time to make and a professional is needed to calculate specific macronutrient needs.

For long-distance events such as cycling, marathon running or swimming, consuming around 30- 60 grams per hour of carbohydrates (if more than 90 minutes in duration) has been shown to improve performance (Burke et al., 2011). This is even more important if the individual has not carbohydrate-loaded prior to the event, or has not consumed a pre-exercise meal. For events more than 3 hours, 60- 90 grams per hour can be consumed (Burke et al., 2011).

Some great examples of highly palatable foods and sports drinks include Lucozade, sports gels like SIS GO, a banana, a couple of jaffa cakes, a handful of jelly babies and energy bars. All of these can be carried easily by the athlete during the event, and having a combination of solids and liquids will help to maintain the athlete’s motivation for consumption.


Protein Post-Exercise

Endurance athletes have higher protein requirements than the general population due to the need to repair their damaged muscles. Consumption of 20- 25 grams of protein 30 to 60 minutes post-exercise has been shown to enhance recovery time (Moore et al., 2014).

Over the next 24 hours, a range of 1.2- 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight has been recommended previously (Areta et al., 2013). The higher range values are recommended for athletes doing strength or power work (ACSM, 2016).

Examples of high-quality protein sources include chicken, pork, beef, spinach, beans, lentils, eggs, salmon and tuna.


Fat Intake

To maintain good health, endurance athletes should consume at least 20% of their diet from unsaturated fats, as restricting this will negatively effect calorie intake and vitamin uptake (Jeukendrup, 2010). 20- 35% of total calorie intake is currently recommended with no more than 10% of that coming from saturated fats (ACSM, 2016).

Fats should be avoided 2- 3 hours before exercise, and during exercise, with fat intake being focused on post-exercise and during recovery. This will help to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and provide fuel for the athlete for future events. Fat intake during exercise may cause stomach upsets and will not help to optimise performance (Burke, 2015).

Some examples of good quality fats include oily fish such as salmon and tuna steaks, avocados, olive oil, unsalted nuts and seeds.


Hydration During and Post-Exercise

Dehydration is another of the biggest contributors to fatigue during exercise for endurance athletes. Sweat rates between athletes vary, and opportunities to consume fluid during training or competition might be limited. Therefore starting an event as close to euhydration (a normal level of hydration, not dehydrated) should be aimed for (Jeukendrup, 2010).

During exercise, most individuals can tolerate 0.4- 0.8 litres per hour with a mixture of water and electrolytes, ideally something palatable and that has been trialled before competition to avoid any stomach upsets (ACSM, 2007). Post-exercise, the athlete should focus on replacing fluid loss to improve hydration and sodium levels. Electrolyte drinks can easily be made at home by adding salt, lemon juice and squash to flavour.




  • 10 grams: one slice of bread or one digestive biscuit
  • 20 grams: one apple or a handful of jelly beans
  • 30 grams: one cereal bar or one sports gel
  • 40 grams: one large banana
  • 50 grams: one medium bagel
  • 60 grams: two sweet potatoes
  • 70 grams: a large bowl of pasta with a handful of broccoli
  • 80 grams: a large bowl of rice with a handful of spinach
  • 90 grams: one Lucozade, three Jaffa cakes and one sports gel

American College of Sports Medicine, Sawka, M. N., Burke, L. M., Eichner, E. R., Maughan, R. J., Montain, S. J. and Stachenfeld, N. S. (2007) Exercise and Fluid Replacement Position Stand. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. D. T. Thomas, K. A. Erdman and L. M. Burke. (2016) Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science and Sports and Exercise.

Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Camera, D. M., West, D. W. D., Broad, E. M., Jeacocke, N. A., Moore, D. R., Stellingwerff, T., Phillips, S. M., Hawley, J. A. and Coffey, V. G. (2013) Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. Journal of Physiology.

Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H. and Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011) Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences.

Burke, L. M. (2015) Re-examining high fat diets for sports performance: Did we call the ‘nail in the coffin’ too soon? Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(1): 33-49.

Moore, D. R., Camera, D. M., Areta, J. L. and Hawley, J. A. (2014) Beyond muscle hypertrophy: why dietary protein is important for endurance athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

Jeukendrup, A. E. (2010) Sports Nutrition: From Lab to Kitchen. 2nd ed. Maidenhead, UK: Meyer and Meyer Sport Ltd.