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Victor Sailer, Photo Run

by Stacy Sims, M.S. Exercise Physiologist

Nutrition is a double-edged sword. 

Event nutrition is always a key factor but do you pay attention to general nutrition as well?  The breakdown of muscles is inevitable, but what do you do to facilitate recovery and repair?

Special supplements?
Should we eat mainly carbohydrates?
What about protein?
And calories? 
As a woman athlete, are you getting enough?
What are the answers?

Actually, there is not one true method for every athlete, just general guidelines and a lot of trial and error!

As an endurance athlete you need to fuel your body to meet performance demands. Remember, for every mile you run, you expend roughly 100 calories. On your training days, you should make sure you supplement your diet with foods rich in carbohydrates and protein (and low in fat). 

For example, after a hard training run, you should replace your fuel sources with some protein and carbohydrates (i.e. a sandwich). Research has shown that a ratio of 4 grams of carbohydrate to one gram of protein eaten within the first half-hour of recovery provides optimal means of refuelling. 

The carbohydrate will replenish your muscle and liver glycogen whereas the protein will be used to rebuild and repair the muscle damage you incurred. 

During the day, you should supplement your daily food intake with fruit, veggies, and lowfat protein (yoghurt, cottage cheese, are great sources of protein as well as providing a calcium source) this will help with hydration and supply your system with the fuel it needs. 

For example, instead of coffee and cookies, have some fruit with yoghurt and water. If you are hard pressed to get adequate calories, you may want to consider sipping on an electrolyte beverage.  

Another key factor athletes often neglect is water. Or rather, staying hydrated. It is well known that humans need minimum of 2.5 L of water at day. But an athlete needs between 5 – 10L! Just a small amount of dehydration can affect your performance greatly! Make it a point to sip water throughout the day.

Decaffeinated/herbal teas are great too, if you want something other than water. Even carbonated water goes down better than straight water (for those of us who don’t really like the taste!). Some people I know wake up in the middle of the night thirsty so have started keeping a water bottle by their bed for a quick drink.

Here's an example of a daily meal intake:

Breakfast: 1-½ cups untoasted museli, or lowfat cereal
½ cup skim or soy milk with 1 serving protein powder
1 slice of toast with 1tsp margarine and a banana
½ cup fruit juice
Midmorning: fruit bar/cereal bar or supplement bar (Promax, Met-Rx)
Coffee/Tea with skim milk
Lunch: Ham and veggie sandwiches
Fruit or veggies (i.e baby carrots, snow peas)
Water or herbal tea
Midafternoon: Lowfat cheese and crackers or Lowfat Cottage cheeseFruit
Water or tea
Dinner: Pasta in tomato based sauce with ¾ cup mixed veggies
Lowfat cheese and/or other lowfat protein (chicken)
Mixed green salad
Water or other noncaffeinated beverage
Night: Fruit or fruitbar or lowfat cookies
Water or herbal tea

Most endurance athletes put an emphasis on Carbohydrates. This is a very important macronutrient for endurance but with all the training we do, we also need protein for muscle recovery and repair. We also need fat to keep us going (essential fat is 12% in a woman, and around 5% in a guy—meaning this is the amount of body fat required for normal cellular function).

When we tend to leave fat out of our diets, primarily women are guilty of this, we lose out on essential fatty acids necessary for immune and nerve cell function! It also protects your inner organs and allows estrogen to function properly (regular menstrual cycles are very important---it means your body’s hormones are in balance) and in the long run, this will protect your bones. Keeping your fat intake to 30-50 grams/day with saturated fat >10% of daily fat intake will keep your body functioning at its best.

General Dietary/Daily Guidelines WITHOUT training. (See the working examples at the end of this article for more specifics for training needs.)

    1. At least 6 servings of breads and
    2. At least 2 servings of fruits and 3
      servings of vegetables
    3. At least 2 servings of lowfat dairy
    4. At least 1 serving of meat/meat
    5. At least 8 eight ounce servings of
      noncaffeinated fluid
Make sure you are eating at regular intervals:
(i.e. something every 3 hours.) This will keep your blood sugars from fluctuating and help stave off fatigue as well as preserving that well needed muscle glycogen!

Working Examples:


Did you know that:

  1. When muscle glycogen stores are used up, exhaustion occurs?
  2. Muscle glycogen depletion occurs after 2-3 hours of continuous LOW INTENSITY training? But occurs within 15-30 mins of HIGH INTENSITY training?!
  3. When liver glycogen is depleted, you cannot keep blood glucose levels normal-you hit the wall and cannot continue!
  4. With low blood glucose levels, you’re body will have to rely on fat for fuel, however this is a very SLOW process, bringing you down to a speed of 2km/hr….. Signs and symptoms of low blood glucose: lightheadedness, feelings of uncoordination, weak, unable to concentrate, blurry vision, and feeling "spacey".

How many Carbohydrates do I need in a day?

The general rules of thumb:

  • For moderate to high intensity training lasting 60-120 minutes, you need 7-8grams of CHO/kg.
  • For endurance training involving 2-5 hours of intense training per day (distance running, cycling, swimming) you need 8-10 grams of CHO/kg.
  • For extreme training involving >5 hours of intense training per day (i.e. Ironman or multisport events) you need 10grams of CHO/kg.

My activity per day is: ______________________________

My weight (in kg) is: ______________________________

My CHO need is: (kg) x (gms of CHO for activity level) = ________________


We have all heard the buzz of high protein/low carbohydrate diets in the fitness realm. But, does it hold for endurance athletes? In some ways, yes. Protein is VITAL for muscle recovery and repair and in activities lasting 2 hrs or more amino acids (the building blocks of protein) can lend from 5-10% of the fuel necessary to keep going.

The other aspect of Protein, is you need protein to facilitate fat loss. Although the PRIMARY and MOST IMPORANT fuel for endurance events is CARBOHYDRATES, if you consistently eat carbohydrates, you run the risk of not allowing your body to optimally repair. The body will use carbohydrates for refueling muscle and liver glycogen as it is supposed to, however, without adequate Protein, the carbs you ingest will go to assist in the repairing of muscles. This will not allow for optimal refueling of the muscle and liver glycogen. As for facilitating fat loss—you need protein to keep the muscles repairing and rebuilding, and allow Carbohydrates to refuel the muscles and liver—thus allowing fat stores to stay empty. There is a half an hour window post event/training in which you need to get protein back into your system for optimal repair and metabolism. (The window for CARBOHYDRATE refueling is 2 hours post event/training).

Why do you, as an endurance athlete need protein? For muscle growth, repair, and strength adaptations, the key for successes!

Did you know that:

  1. Hydration is key with endurance activity especially in view of the fact that PRO is a dehydrator?
  2. An endurance athlete needs on the upward of 2 grams of PRO/kg a day for optimal muscle repair, growth, recovery and fat mobilization.
  3. Whey and soy isolate protein powders are two very simple means of increasing your protein intake without increasing your fat intake.

How much Protein do I need in a day?

The general rules of thumb:

  • For strength/power phases of training you need 1.7-2.0 grams of PRO/kg
  • For endurance phases of training you need 1.2-1.4 grams of PRO/kg.
  • For optimal recovery, try to ingest 15 grams of PRO within the first half an hour post-event/training session.

My activity per day is:

My weight (in kg) is:

My PRO need is: 
(kg) x (gms of PRO for activity level) = ________________

This article was written by
Stacy Sims, M.S. Exercise Physiologist,
Triathlon Coach,SSNZ Physiologist Level 3, 
SSNZ Sport Nutritionist Level 1

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