Eating the right foods to support endurance training is just one piece to the puzzle. When you eat matters too. Nutrient timing is such an important part of endurance training and supporting your body with the right foods at the right time, but it is also a big topic of confusion as there never seems to be a clear-cut answer as to when exactly you should eat.  

In this article, I am going to clear up the confusion and dive into what nutrient timing is, why it’s so important, and what the science says about exactly when endurance athletes should eat.

Nutrient Timing

What is Nutrient Timing?

Nutrient timing sounds pretty simple, but it can be a bit complex. It’s about knowing when the best time to eat is before, during, and after training as well as what to eat. It is used to help support your body through endurance training for optimal athletic performance. But, nutrient timing is also focused on looking at how different foods impact your body at different times, which we will be covering next, so keep reading. 

Why Does Nutrient Timing Matter?

Nutrient timing can play a super important role in endurance training as you are literally fueling your body before training, replacing what has been lost through sweat, and providing additional fuel to keep blood sugar levels stabilized. Nutrient timing also involves eating to help replenish depleted glycogen stores and supporting muscle recovery.

Without eating the right foods at the right time, you run the risk of reduced stamina, low blood sugar, poor muscle recovery, and overall poor athletic performance.  

In addition to supporting the body for optimal athletic performance and recovery, here are some of the other benefits of nutrient timing. 

  • Improves overall health.
  • Supports nutrient positions-this is all about where the nutrients are going once you eat them.  
  • Supports better energy balance. 
Nutrient Timing

The Best Time for Endurance Athletes to Eat 

So, what does all of this mean for the kinds of food endurance athletes should be eating and when they should be eating them?

Let’s take a closer look at what and when endurance athletes should eat, based on the nutrient timing model.  

Fueling Before Training: 

When to Eat Before Training: It is so important to fuel your body before training, and it’s important to eat 30-60 minutes before training begins. 

What to Eat Before Training: So, what should you be eating before training? It is best to enjoy a carbohydrate-rich snack that is around 200-300 calories. You will want to stick to carbohydrate-rich foods and try to avoid anything that is too high in fiber or too high in dietary fat as they can be harder on the digestive system. Some great choices include sweet potatoes, oatmeal, bananas, brown rice pasta, unsweetened Greek yogurt with granola and raw honey. You want to provide your body with an easier source of fuel that will be used directly for energy support during training. 

It is also important to hydrate your body. Ideally, you will want to start hydrating 2-4 hours before you start your training and then continue to drink water throughout exercise, ideally containing some Skratch powder.  

Fueling During Training:

When to Eat During Training: When it comes to endurance training, you will need to replenish your body with a fuel source along with staying hydrated. Studies have shown that athletes need to consume carbohydrates throughout training if they are active for longer than 1-2 hours. The studies have shown that adequate carbohydrate intake for endurance athletes training for 1-2 hours would be 30 grams of carbs per hour, 60 grams of carbs per hour for training 2-3 hours, and 90 grams of carbs per hour if you are training longer than 2.5 hours. As you can see, the longer you train, the more carbohydrates you will need. Be warned though, once you start approaching 90 grams per hour, you have a higher risk of digestive problems. So, practice before the event / race to see what your individual tolerance to carbohydrate absorption is. Some of my athletes can consume 110+ grams per hour with no problem, where others are lucky to ingest 60 grams.

Studies have also found that high-quality carbohydrates boost physical performance. High-quality carbs are what fuels and sustains an endurance athletes energy levels. High-quality carbs have been found to provide muscles with energy needed for endurance training. 

Protein also plays an important role during training as it can help prevent muscle breakdown. To help support the body’s protein requirements, strive to get 20 grams of protein in during long periods (over 2 hours) of training, but don’t consume all 20 grams at once. Try to stay below five grams of protein per hour of training to help reduce the chance of digestive upset. 

What to Eat During Training: To help support your muscles and energy levels during training, you can snack on things like grass-fed jerky for protein, and whole-foods bars made with fruits and whole grains for carbs. Bananas and other low-fiber fruits like melons can also make a good carbohydrate fuel source.

Nutrient Timing

Refueling After Training: 

When to Eat After Training: After training is when your body really needs to refuel and replenish those depleted glycogen stores. Eating after intense exercise is also essential for proper muscle as well as tissue recovery. To help support muscle recovery through muscle protein synthesis and to replenish glycogen stores, it is important to eat a protein-rich meal with some complex carbohydrates as soon as you are finished training. Ideally, your meal should contain 20-25 grams of protein after endurance training. 

A meal rich in carbohydrates that is easily absorbed and digested right after intense exercise can also help support what’s called glycogen resynthesis which involves glycogen replenishment post endurance training. Studies have found that endurance athletes can achieve total muscle glycogen resynthesis within 24 hours when consuming an average of 500-700 grams of carbohydrates over that time frame. 

Since glycogen resynthesis tends to be at its peak within the first two hours after training, you can boost glycogen resynthesis by consuming 0.70g glucose/kg body weight every two hours. 

What to Eat After Training: A great way to get both protein and carbs is to make a nutrient-dense post workout shake which contains:

  • Unsweetened almond milk.
  • Unsweetened raw cacao powder.
  • Some full-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt.
  • A frozen banana.
  • You can add a tablespoon of pure maple syrup and some added superfoods like chia or flaxseeds as well.

Drinking this immediately after training will help support both muscle recovery and provide your body with the carbohydrates it needs to support those depleted glycogen stores. It also makes a really easy and convenient way of getting your carbohydrates and protein in without having to make a meal immediately after training.  

You will also want to enjoy a balanced meal about two hours after training to continue to help replenish and nourish your body. 

Nutrient Timing

The Importance of Fueling Throughout the Day & On Non-Training Days 

Nourishing your body with optimal nutrition on non-training days is just as important as it will help to support your muscle recovery and nourish your body with what it needs to be in tip-top shape. 

Be sure to consume at least three balanced meals each day with two nutrient-dense snacks in between. Meals should have a balance of complex carbs, clean protein, and healthy fats. Snacks can include things like two hard-boiled eggs with a side of fruit, or a half of an avocado sprinkled with sea salt. 

The Takeaway 

To help sum this all up, here’s a breakdown of what you need to know. 

  • Eat 30-60 minutes before training fueling up with a carbohydrate-rich snack between 200-300 calories. 
  • If training for 1-2 hours, consume 30 grams of carbs per hour of training, 60 grams of carbs per hour for training 2-3 hours, and 90 grams of carbs per hour if training for more than 2.5 hours. 
  • Strive to get 20 grams of protein in during long periods of training, getting five grams of protein per hour of training to avoid digestive upset. 
  • Post training, try to eat right away and consume 20-25 grams of protein and 0.07g of glucose/kg of bodyweight every two hours. 

Nutrition plays such a critical role in how well your body performs when it comes to endurance training, and nutrient timing can be such a useful tool in helping your body function at its best. Try implementing these tips and time your meals and snacks appropriately to get the most out of your training. Many athletes are surprised at how much better they feel before, during, and after training with just a few adjustments to when and what they eat. 

If you’re looking to learn more about sports nutrition, create flexible, sustainable, and indefinite habits when it comes to healthy food choices, and have a knowledgable Coach in your corner throughout the process, check out our Nutrition Coaching program.


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Resources 

  1. Ryan Andrews. Precision Nutrition. All About Nutrient Timing. 
  1. Friedman JE, Neufer PD, Dohm GL. Regulation of Glycogen Resynthesis Following Exercise. Dietary Considerations. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1901662 
  1. Asker Jeukendrup. A Step Towards Personalized Sports Nutrition: Carbohydrate Intake During Exercise. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008807/ 
  1. Kimberly Mueller, MS, RD, CSSD. The Triathlete’s Guide to Protein. http://www.ironman.com/triathlon/news/articles/2016/01/triathletes-guide-to-protein.aspx#axzz5dd91yc5x 
  1. An Athlete’s Guide to Everyday Nutrient Timing. https://www.hprc-online.org/articles/an-athlete-s-guide-to-everyday-nutrient-timing 

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About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) Certified Coach, a level 2 certified Training Peaks coach, a USA Cycling certified power based training coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a licensed physical therapist assistant. He is also the creator of Zwift's "Build Me Up" Flexible Training Plan. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com for any cycling or training related questions.

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