Diet Tips for Endurance Athletes

Half Marathon? Full Marathon? Ultramarathon training? The aim of this post is to give guidance on what the best plan of action might be to keep yourself properly fueled for your training needs. I hope you enjoy reading, please share this on social media if you can.

Foods are made up of carbohydrates, protein & fat. People who partake in a high level of exercise everyday or regularly should consume foods HIGH in Carbs. Other foods should be moderate in protein and LOW in fat. Another key nutrient that is a must for athletes is water. Being properly hydrated is vital for the best possible performance.

Carbs Explained…
If you give your body Carbs to train on it will thank you, it is the best form of fuel for your body. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate. If muscle glycogen breakdown exceeds its replacement, glycogen stores become low. The result is fatigue (Hitting the wall) and will result in a reduced intensity of training/racing. In order to replenish and maintain glycogen stores, the athletes diet needs to be high in Carbs.

What amount of Carbs are needed?

Carbs should provide 60-70% of your total daily calories. To work out the amount that’s right for you, multiply your weight in kilograms by 7, or multiply your weight in pounds by 3.2 – this will give you the number of grams of carbs you should aim to consume everyday.

The highest carb foods are wholegrain foods such as, bread, rice, cereals and pasta, as well as, fruits, vegetables and lowfat dairy foods. Food labels tell you how many grams of total carbohydrate are in a serving of that food. Each day, an endurance athlete should aim to eat at least 15 servings of grain products, at least 6 servings of fruits and 6 servings of vegetables, and at least 5 servings of lowfat dairy foods.
In general,

  • Getting your 5 or 6 a day is vital for a balanced diet

    1 serving of grain product, such as a slice of bread or 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta, and a serving of fruit, such as a piece of fruit or 3/4 cup fruit juice, each provides 15 grams carbohydrate

  • 1 serving of dairy, such as 1 cup of lowfat milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese provides 12 grams carbohydrate
  • 1 serving of vegetables, such as 1 cup of leafy raw vegetables, 1/2 cup chopped vegetables, or 3/4 cup vegetable juice provides 5 grams carbohydrate.

Be aware that starchy vegetables such as peas and corn, as well as dried beans such as lentils or garbanzo beans provide greater amounts of carbohydrates, about 15-20 grams per 1/2 cup serving. These should be the food of choice as they make it easier to get your daily allowance in.

I hear Protein was important…..?

Protein explained….
Protein is needed for muscle growth and repair. Regular physical training tends to reduce muscle protein breakdown and protein loss from the body. While some protein breakdown may occur during exercise, protein build-up is enhanced during the recovery and the effectiveness of protein synthesis is increased. When muscle glycogen stores are high, protein contributes no more than 5% of the energy needed. However, when muscle glycogen stores are low, due to inadequate calorie and carbohydrate intake, protein is used for energy rather than for muscle growth and repair and may contribute as much as 10% of the energy needed for exercise. Such use of protein for fuel is expensive and inefficient.

Lean meat, fish & Eggs are a great source of Protein

How much protein do I need to eat?

Endurance athletes need up to 50% more protein than sedentary adults. Protein should contribute 12-15% of total calories per day. To figure out the amount for you, multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.3, or multiply your weight in pounds by 0.6 to calculate the number of grams of protein you should consume per day.

Good sources of protein include lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products which contain all of the essential amino acids and thus are complete proteins. Other good protein sources are tofu, nuts and dried beans. As with carbohydrates, food labels tell you how many grams of protein are in a serving. An endurance athlete should consume 3-5 servings per day. One serving of lean meat, fish or poultry is 3 ounces, roughly the size of a deck of playing cards.

In general,

  • a 3 ounce serving of lean meat, poultry or fish, e.g. 1 medium pork chop, 1 small hamburger, 1/2 of a whole chicken breast, or a small fish fillet provides 21 grams of protein
  • a 1/2 cup of cooked beans, 1 ounce of cheese, 1 egg, 2 egg whites, 4 ounces of tofu or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter each provides 7 grams of protein
  • one cup of lowfat milk or yogurt provides 8 grams of protein
  • one serving of grain products (preferably whole grain) such as a slice of whole wheat bread provides 3 grams of protein

 What are the consequences of eating a high protein diet?
When an athlete eats more protein than he needs, he either burns it for energy, or stores it as fat. Carbohydrates are a more efficient and less expensive source of energy. In addition, consuming too much protein increases the body’s water requirement and may contribute to dehydration, because the kidneys require more water to eliminate the excess nitrogen load of a high protein intake. Also, a high protein, high fat diet after heavy training will cause incomplete replacement of muscle glycogen and impair performance. Such a diet is hard to digest and may lead to feeling sluggish. A high carbohydrate diet, on the other hand, is easy to digest and quickly restores muscle glycogen.


Exercise does not completely eliminate the health dangers associated with eating a high-fat diet, such as increased risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

How much fat can I eat?
Endurance athletes as well as all people should consume less than 30% of total calories from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. If, as an athlete, you eat 3000 calories per day, less than 1000 of those calories should be from fat.

High-fat foods include chocolate, fried foods, ice cream, bacon, hot dogs, and cookies. Food labels tell you grams of fat and percentage of calories from fat per serving. Choose foods with less than 30% of calories from fat.

Will a high-fat diet impair my performance as an athlete?
Muscle glycogen is preferred over fat for fuel for high intensity exercise of long duration because fat breakdown cannot supply energy fast enough. In addition, fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and thus should be limited in pre-exercise meals.

While this is only a guide you should consult your Doctor before undertaking regular exercise and always before changing your diet dramatically.

Nothing is set in stone and I wouldnt worry about missing the odd day or two, you have to reward yourself for all that hard training sometimes!

Comments appreciated,


About Mark Cooper

My name is Mark Cooper, I am an ultra runner, motivational speaker, expedition consultant and public relations rookie. I help people achieve greatness in their lives. For bookings or more information you can email
This entry was posted in Personal, Training, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Diet Tips for Endurance Athletes

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Diet Tips for Endurance Athletes | Run With Mark --

  2. Caitlin says:

    Thanks, this is really useful, though it would be really great to see a sample daily menu as it’s hard to estimate the percentages of everything!

  3. Mark Cooper says:

    yeah thatd be great, thanks. I know Annabel Lee from 2010 and an expedition we were going to work together on. Hope she is doing well.

  4. matthewll says:

    really helpful information for someone like me who’s haphazard at best in the way I eat.

    is there a chance you could comment on how to adjust this in order to lose weight as you train for an endurance event. i’m trying to shed a few pounds on the run up to the VLM, and i want to know whether you simply consume proportionately less of everything (and what a safe reduction is with an intense training regime) – or you focus avoidance on a particular group of foods. please excuse me if i’m asking a question with an obvious answer!

    • Mark Cooper says:

      Hey Matthew, glad you found it useful. In terms of losing a few pounds for race weight, I am doing the same thing just now. Since last years run across Europe I have found that my body went into survival mode and unfortunately clung onto every ounce of fat that I consumed. I would recommend reducing the number of fats in the diet but not to much as they are just as important as carbs. Maybe incorporate a couple of weekly interval sessions, high intensity work outs, short, fast and fat burning. A lot of reseach around training with no breakfast, i.e. running on your fat stores only, the jury is pretty much out on this method of training. I would go with higher intensity sessions and a reduction in fat consumption and see how that goes. I might add, I am not a qualified nutritionalist, compiled this on my own experiences and research online.

      • matthewll says:

        that’s great – again, really helpful! i’ll give the intervals a little more prominence in the schedule then.. I’d heard of the fat-stores-only approach as being something the elites train themselves to do – don’t know if i could face life without breakfast though.. thanks v much!

  5. @pyllon says:

    Hi mark, good post – thanks. Where I struggle a little, is effectively planning the intake for rest days, lighter training days vs. Long runs / race day. I know everyone is different but it’s always useful to see how others plan their diet to cover the obvious fluctuations in calorie expenditure.

  6. Jon Burgheil says:

    Great stuff. While I’m not quite the endurance athlete you are I do love training in general. I recently went thru being made redundant and when you ‘clear the table’ so to speak and start to eat right and work out it’s Amazing how much better you feel about yourself. My goal is to run a 1/2 marathon later this year and that would be a great feat in itself. Thanks again for the great info.

  7. Pingback: Athlete Recipes | girls cooking

  8. Lee says:

    Nice one Mark good content

  9. Ross says:

    Hi there, please may we kindly use your image of fruit and veg for non-financial and non-profitable purposes in an institute of higher learning? Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s