January 21, 2020

Optimal Nutrition Timing for Endurance Athletes

Wether you're a cyclist, runner, a triathlete or participate in another endurance-oriented sport: When it comes to nutrition, one of your main concerns should be to keep your body properly fuelled to deal with all the training stress you're exposing it to.

That means not only eating the right amount of the right stuff, but also making sure that the stuff is available to your body when it actually needs it.

Why fuelling correctly is so important

You might think that properly fuelling is not so important for workouts that are not considered key training sessions or competitions. You might even think that training without food will help you lose weight and reduce your body fat.

But that's not the case. First, all of your training sessions are important. Otherwise you wouldn't have to do them. And secondly, if you're trying to starve your body with exercise, it actually counters your intent with a strategy of its own:

"If caloric intake is inadequate, the body reduces the metabolic mass (i.e., the muscle mass) to make a downward adjustment in the metabolic rate and the need for calories."1

Read: If you keep underfeeding your body (being it during workouts or for the rest of the day), it will adapt to this "starvation" situation by reducing its own energy need. But fat doesn't need energy. Muscles do. So the body reduces muscle mass.

How to think about nutrition around your Training Sessions

The best way to think about eating and drinking on days where you have a training session scheduled is in nutrition windows. There are basically three windows that each have a different purpose and should serve a different goal:

First, the Pre-Workout-Window. It is somewhere between 120 and 90 minutes long. This is the ideal time to get something into your body that will provide it with the fuel it needs to perform at its best later on. Yet you also want something that gets cleared from your stomach easily. Training (especially at high intensities) with a full stomach is not really a fun experience. Carbs that are not very fiber-rich work best for this.

Then, there's the workout itself. Here, your main goals are to keep well hydrated and continously provide your body with the energy it needs. Don't starve yourself during your workouts thinking this will lead to more fat being burned. That's not how this works. The opposite is true: Make sure your muscles have all the energy they need to perform. This will actually protect your lean body mass.

And finally, there's the post-workout recovery nutritional window. Here, your main goals are to re-hydrate your body and replenish your energy stores. During this time, it's also important to provide the body with enough protein so that it can repair any muscle damage that occured during the workout.

What are the best nutritional strategies for keeping you fuelled during your training sessions, and also stocking up and regenerating after your training?

A graphical reprensentation of the three nutritional windows
Nutritional Timing Windows for Endurance Athletes on days with training sessions

Before your Training Session

Regardless of how long your training session is, your pre-exercise nutritional window opens 90 minutes before your workout starts. Eat 100 grams of Carbs (that's roughly 140 gram pasta) one hour and a half before your training.2 That should be a proper meal with a focus on easily digestable carbs without too much fiber (rice, pasta, potatoes and the like).

Around 45 minutes before you start your workout, have a small, carbs-focussed snack, like a banana or some bread with honey. Focus on starchy, sugary food. Energy bars are also a good option3. Another strategy would be to start sipping on a sports drink, consuming between 60ml and 120ml every 10 or 15 minutes4.

During your Training Session

What you consume during your workouts depends highly on the sport, the duration, and the exercise intensity. If you session is 60 minutes or less, you probably don't need any nutrition at all. If your session is longer, you should start to consume carbohydrates when you're 30 minutes into your workout. For workouts between 1 and 2 hours long, 30g of carbs per hour are enough. For longer workouts, consume between 60g and 90g of carbs per hour.5 This is best consumed as a fluid. Check out our self-made energy drink recipe.

For longer exercise duration (mostly rides), digesting only fluids can be psychologically demanding. If you find your stomach rumbling, you can of course eat some solids like energy bars or bananas, or semi-solids like gums or gels.

After Your Training Session

After you complete your training session, you should immediately consume 50g to 100g carbohydrates.6 And when we say immediately, we mean it. Remember the golden rule: First eating, then shower. Drinking a recovery shake can make that much easier. However you consume that carbs, make sure that you add 1g of protein for every 4g of carbs.7 You can make your own recovery shake by mixing Maltodextrin and a protein powder of your choice in the ratio 4:1.

After that, you should aim to eat 1.2g of carbs per kilogram bodyweight for the next four hours. During the first two hours, aim for carbs that have a higher glycemic index (white rice, potatoes, pasta, ...), then switch to medium-GI carbs (brown rice, whole wheat pasta and the like).

To correctly determine the number of carbs in your meals, it is not enough to measure the amount of carb sources you're using. For example, if you weight 70kg, you should consume roughly 84g of carbs per hour after your workout. If you're preparing a meal with rice, it's not enough to weight your rice and use 84 grams of it. Instead, you need to know how much carbohydrates the rice actually contains. For rice, that number is typically around 75g per 100g. So, to return to our example, you should consume 114 gram rice to meet your 84g carbohydrates target.

A Time Table for your Training Session Nutrition

Nutrition Timing for Endurance Athletes. Before, during, and after training session
WhenWhat
90 minutes before Training SessionMeal with 100g Carbs and low fiber (Pasta, Rice, Potatoes ...)
45 minutes before Training SessionSmall starchy, sugary snack (Banana, Bread with Honey, Energy Bar ...)
During Workout
1 - 2h Duration: 30g Carbohydrates / hour
2 - 3h Duration: 60g Carbohydrates / hour
2,5h and more: 90g Carbohydrates / hour
Immediately after Workout1.2g Carbs/kg bodyweight and 1g of Protein per 4g of Carbs. Best consumed in a recovery drink.
During 1 hour after Training SessionMeal with 1.2g Carbs/kg bodyweight and high-glycemic carbs (Pasta, Rice, Potatoes, ...)
During 2 hours after Training SessionMeal with 1.2g Carbs/kg bodyweight and high-glycemic carbs (Pasta, Rice, Potatoes, ...)
4 hours after Training SessionTwo more meals with 1.2 Carbs/kg bodyweight, but medium-glycemic carbs (Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, ...)

Summary

Nutritional timing is an important aspect of your overall nutritional strategy. Giving your body nutrients when it doesn't need it, and not fuelling your body properly when it is working hard will very likely have a negative impact on your athletic performance.

On the other hand, following the concept the three nutritional windows (pre- during- and post-workout windows) is actually pretty easy. Just keep in mind which functions each window has: From preparation, to maintenance, and finally, recovery.


  1. Benardot, Dan (2012). Advanced Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics.

  2. Fitzgerald, Matt (2009). Racing Weight. Ingram.

  3. Scheck, Alexandra (2013). Ernährung im Top-Sport. UZV.

  4. Benardot, Dan (2012). Advanced Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics.

  5. Scheck, Alexandra (2013). Ernährung im Top-Sport. UZV.

  6. Benardot, Dan (2012). Advanced Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics.

  7. Fitzgerald, Matt (2009). Racing Weight. Ingram.

Get Nutrfy, the nutrition plan that adapts to your training.
Join for free