Macros for Endurance Athletes: Understanding Your Macronutrient Levels

“Carbs lead to weight gain”
“Protein shakes make you stronger.”
“Fat is the enemy”

Right? Wrong! So wrong.

These are all things that I’m sure we have heard at one point or the other while on our athletic journey. So, we’re here to set a couple of things straight...

We aren’t here to talk about eating high protein/low carb or adding egg whites to your smoothies for aesthetics or to lose weight. We’re here to chat about how to maximize your performance through macro ratios so you can actually fuel, perform stronger in your races and recover from them properly, putting all myths and dangerous diets aside!

Whether you want a podium placement in your sport or to finish the race you’ve had your sights set on, taking on a nutrition plan is essential. It’s as important to establish high-performance eating habits and understand what is needed for endurance efforts, muscle repair, recovery, beating the “bonk” , etc as choosing the right pair of shoes to allow you to do your best.

Afterall, the aspect of your life with the most potential to influence your sports performance is actually your training diet.

This means we should be thinking about the fuel we put into our bodies before, during, and after exercise, day in and day out. Eating for an endurance athlete takes a lot of thought, planning, and trial and error but throughout this article we will help you identify caloric needs, beneficial macronutrient ratios, and overall how to eat smart and give your body what it needs to function optimally.

What are “Macros”?

“Macros” is the short-form of “macronutrients” and they are the nutrients we use to sustain our bodies in the largest amounts: Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins. “Macronutrients are the nutritive components of food that the body needs for energy and to maintain the body’s structure and systems” says MD Lindsey Wohlford. Every diet should contain these three macronutrients and all of them play different roles in energy and recovery.

Despite diet culture or what the bodybuilder might upload to instagram, NO macronutrient should be left out of our diet!

As a basic protocol for endurance athletes, you should divide your Macronutrients into a 60/20/20 split, especially in race season. This means, you should receive 60% of your calories from simple and complex carbohydrates, 20% of your calories from healthy fats, and 20% of your calories from high-quality animal and/or plant-based proteins. This is just an estimate and not a strict goal but it’s a basic framework to start with as you learn more about your body and how your diet is impacting your sport.

 

a plate with balanced nutrition symbolizing macros for athletes

https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/

 

What are Calories & Determining Your Needs:

Calories (kcals for short) are the amount of energy released when your body breaks down (digests and absorbs) food. The more calories a food has, the more energy it can provide to your body!

Determining the amount of calories (energy) you should be consuming is something that takes effort, awareness, and trial and error. We don’t recommend obsessively counting or tracking calories as it isn’t necessary and sometimes does more harm than good. However, simply estimating your needs will benefit you and your athletic career immensely. A rule of thumb for estimating the range of calories that you need daily is as follows:

Very Active: approximately 60 to 120 minutes a day of purposeful exercise (moderate intensity) most days of the week
Body weight in pounds x 16 - 20 kcals per pound = _______ kcals

Extremely Active: training for an ultraendurance event, such as an Ironman triathlon or 100 mile ultra run
Body weight in pounds x 25 - 30 kcals per pound = _______ kcals

 

Carbohydrates Provide Energy

Honey - a great carb for athletes

What are they: Carbs are fuel, absolute pure fuel for our body! Carbs are units of simple sugars, either in their smaller, easily digestible state, or strung together in large chains creating fibres that are broken down over time for absorption. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in our muscles and each gram of carb supplies us with 4 kcals of energy.

Sources of carbs are generally categorized in three ways based on their molecular complexity and digestibility: simple for quick energy (such as syrups and sugars), starches with energy release that starts from 20 min+ (think rice, potatoes, flour), and complex fibres (as in the plant cell walls that give structure) which take a long time to digest, and might not always yield energy.

What they do: As mentioned above, carbs provide energy for your body and muscles because your cells convert the glycogen stores (many single units chained together) into glucose (simple carb units) very quickly and glucose equals immediate energy. As an endurance athlete, the higher the intensity and longer duration of your exercise, the more carbs you will burn. It is also most efficient for your body to burn carbs instead of protein or fat.

How much you need: Carbohydrates should amount to ~60% of your daily calories. At which point in the day you consume them will depend on how much and long you’re training, but let’s just say your body likes to use them because they are a quick win.

Where to find them: Starchy vegetables, potatoes, whole grains, pasta, cereals, fruits, beans, bars, honey, maybe even the Endurance Bar, wink wink.

When to consume them: Prior to endurance training, you should consume 1 gram of carb per kg of body weight within 2 hours of your exercise. Post exercise, you should replenish your stores with about 1.5 grams of carbs per kg within 30-60 minutes afterwards. Consumption during your training or event depends on the type of exercise and we recommend researching this further or taking your coach or nutritionist’s advice!

 

Protein Repairs Muscles & Tissues

bowl of mixed nuts - protein source for athletes

What it is: Protein is essentially building material and is required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues, muscles, and organs. Just like carbs, 1 g of protein contributes 4 kcal of energy.

What it does: Protein will help your body repair its muscles and tissues and aid in your recovery!

How much you need: Protein should make up around 20 - 25% of the calories you eat. Bodybuilders and strength athletes might argue with us on this one but believe it or not, consuming too much protein can be hard on your kidneys, digestive system, and intestinal system - the body can only process so much protein while the rest is flushed. It is a good idea to eat more protein in your strength building phases of training to support the good work you are doing with your training plan.

Where to find it: Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, ancient grains like quinoa or spelt, eggs, dairy, lean meat, fish, seafood, and poultry. When consuming a more plant-based diet, it’s easier to get your proteins, fats, and carbs in together through most foods!

When to consume it: You should consider consuming 20 to 30 grams of protein within the first 30-60 minutes, post exercise.

Fat Provides Many Nutritional Benefits

coconut oil is a great source of fat for athletes

What it is: Fats are complex molecules that come in saturated or unsaturated forms. Loosely (pun intended), unsaturated fats have longer molecular chains and are usually considered to be better for you than saturated fats. The latter of which are harder fats where the molecules are shorter and stack more tightly together. Both types of fats contribute 9 kcal per g consumed.

What it does: We hope the days of fearing fat are gone as it is a very important macronutrient for the function of your brain, mental health, nerves, organs, intestinal system and digestion. Fat helps the body absorb essential fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) and it also allows you to store energy and produce most hormones!

How much you need: Your daily fat intake doesn’t need to fluctuate or have as specific timing as protein and carbs may have. We recommend aiming to get 20% of your diet’s calories from fat, which is pretty easy to do by eating a balanced and healthy diet.

Where to find it: Always best to receive your fats through quality and unprocessed food sources such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, full-fat no-additive dairy, or fatty fish.

When to consume it: You should include fat in your daily diet as well as before, during, and after exercise. Fat will help absorb the nutrients you consume and be your secondary fuel source. Fat will also slow down the energy conversion of simple sugars, giving you a sustained release of carbohydrates over time instead of a quick energy spike (and crash). *Ahem- much to how the endurance bar is purposefully crafted

Summary

We don’t think you need to track every single gram of your food every single day for the rest of your life, but as an athlete, it is important to get a sense of how many calories you are consuming and where your macronutrient levels are at. Check in with yourself: are you feeling energized? Or lethargic? How well are you recovering in between training sessions? We believe that you’ve hit the right macronutrient medley for you when you feel good and when you feel you have the energy to perform your workouts and recover quickly!

We don’t believe there is one single successful training diet and no perfect combination of foods or meal plan that will meet the nutritional requirements of every individual athlete. We should continue eating the foods we enjoy, from a wide variety of sources, and create a balance between fueling our body and feeding our soul! However, the guidelines we have provided will help you understand a framework to build your optimal training diet. Listen to your body the best that you can while experimenting with what it needs, which may even change from day to day!

As always, we are fans of coaching, so reach out to your friendly sports nutrition expert to help maximize your training diet if you aren’t feeling great or need additional guidance! Be kind to yourself and continue rocking it, fellow athletes!!