Elite Endurance Athlete – Dietary Intake Demands vs. Needs

What are they doing wrong and what can we learn?

This post explores the article “Nutritional Habits among high-performance endurance athletes” by M. Baranauskas et. al. The white paper can be found here.

An interesting study on the Lithuanian Olympic level endurance athletes came out in 2015 and gives us a glimpse into the nutritional lifestyle of these elite athletes. Going over the basics, 146 athletes in endurance sports, namely rowing, road cycling, swimming, skiing, biathlon, and long-distance running, had their workouts and diets analyzed for trends. The majority of these athletes were ages 14-18 (72%); the rest were ages 19-31 (28%).

The biggest takeaway of this paper was that 80.8% of the athletes evaluated had ‘lower-than-recommended’ levels of carbohydrates in their diet and 70% of the athletes had ‘higher-than-recommended’ levels of fat, saturated fatty acids, and cholesterol in their diets. The paper also calls for a re-evaluation of the diets of highly trained endurance athletes, stating they “must be optimized, adjusted and individualized”.

I talked about carbohydrate consumption on the Performance Cycling Podcast Ep42: “You Need To Eat More Carbs” and the fact of the matter is that most elite endurance athletes don’t eat enough carbs. Cyclists, for example, in the study ate an average of 3641 and 2563 calories for male and female athletes, respectively, compared to the ‘estimated energy requirement’ of 4106 and 3187, respectively. Both male and female cyclists ate 400-600 calories less per day than was estimated that they needed.

A 500 calorie deficit per day is equivalent to about a pound (approx 1/2 kilogram) of weight loss per week, or is the case with most endurance athletes, just worse performance in training. If these athletes had eaten 500 calories more in usable energy (i.e. carbohydrates that can be stored/utilized properly), they would be able to do the equivalent workload of 25-30 minutes at sweetspot more every day of training. What does this realistically mean? It means they could have ridden home at endurance pace after their workout instead of sulking home in their recovery zone. It means they could have done an extra VO2max interval. It means they could have felt less fatigued and had better moods throughout the day.

If you are training more than 10 hours a week, please re-evaluate your fueling strategy. As a community, we tend to shirk the carbohydrates and a conscious effort needs to be made to make sure we get enough to fuel our training and our competitive events.

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