Fueling Endurance Athletes

by Beth Wolfgram MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS

Triathletes, trail runners, long distance cyclists, cross-country skiers, and rowers all fall into the category of endurance athletes. These sports demand long durations of activity, as well as fueling and recovery challenges. Endurance athletes want to stay fueled for their sport, decrease their risk of injury, and recover so they can come back for more training. Here are some factors to consider when making a fueling plan for endurance activities:

The type of activity has a large impact on an athlete’s body endurance and what wise and feasible fuel (food) the body should consume. For example, if the athlete hikes for 4 hours it is easy to carry water and snacks like a sandwich, trail mix with pistachios, dried fruit, and energy bars. But if the athlete is doing a long-distance, open-water swim, it would be harder to consume fuel while in the water. Athletes may need to rely more on sports drinks or products like gels and chews. Choosing tolerable and appealing fuel is essential!

Beth Wolfgram MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS

Beth Wolfgram, a Registered Dietitian, earned her Master of Science degree in nutrition from the University of Utah and her Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science from Northeastern University. 

Beth’s business, “Fueling Your Performance,”  provides nutrition consulting to both businesses and private practice. She was the director of sports nutrition at the University of Utah Athletic Department for 10 years, and the consultant sports dietitian with the Utah Jazz for 16 years. Beth has worked with Bowdoin College, Bates College, and a variety of high schools in both Maine and Utah. She served on the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Associations (CPSDA) Board of Directors for 4 years. Currently, Beth is the coordinator of the Sports Nutrition Immersion Program (SNIP). She was the recipient of the CPSDA Excellence Award in 2015.

Beth is a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), as well as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). She has worked in the sports nutrition and the wellness field for over 25 years, in the United States, England, and Australia. She loves outdoor activities, traveling with her family, participating in triathlons, fresh hot bread, roasted Brussel sprouts, good coffee, and lots of chocolate!

The length of time of an endurance activity will determine how much fuel an athlete needs. A 100-mile bike ride requires more carbohydrates and fluids than a casual pedal around the neighborhood for an hour. Athletes need to be well fueled for short-duration activity, but the longer they train, the more important nutrition is!  

Although fueling needs are high, many endurance athletes find their appetite can be suppressed when doing long duration activity. Finding tasty fuel sources that provide much-needed carbohydrates and electrolytes is ideal. Some great options include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, squeezable applesauce pouches and salty snacks like pretzels.

The current sports nutrition recommendations* for activities longer than 60-90 minutes are:

  • 30-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Options include sports drinks, gels, chews, bars or whole food like homemade energy bites, sandwiches (cut in quarters to make it easier to eat), crackers, bagels, bananas, etc.

  • Sufficient fluids to replace sweat losses. This varies from athlete to athlete, but a good rule of thumb is4–8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes.

When planning for an athlete’s fueling needs, consider how hard they will be working. Are they doing a cross-country ski at a moderate pace, or will they be trail running with a great deal of climbing?  The harder they work, the more they will need to focus on food and fluid needs. 

Every athlete has different likes and dislikes. Finding what works for each athlete is so important! Some athletes like to use traditional sports products, and some enjoy foods like gummy bears, crackers, or potatoes to get their carbohydrate needs met. Having something to look forward to can be a huge mental boost to an athlete who is out on a hard training session. Everyone has their own little tricks that work for them, and it is important to experiment with fueling during training (not on the day of an event). 

*Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Acad Nutr Diet.  2016; 116(3): 501-528.