Nutrition for Endurance Athletes

My favorite on-the-ride snack food.

I have struggled with hypoglycemia for years, so when I got into distance cycling I had a great deal of difficulty figuring out what to eat to keep my blood sugars level. After a year of struggling Tommie came up with the brilliant idea of scheduling a sports nutrition coaching session for me with Chris Carmichael’s top nutritionist, Ryan Kohler.

In case you don’t know, Chris Carmichael is the coach who helped Lance Armstrong build back up after months of aggressive chemotherapy. Clearly, Chris’s program worked, because Lance went on to win the Tour de France seven times. If there were ever a team to help this cancer-girl figure out a way to stay healthy on the bike, it would be Chris Carmichael’s crew.

Here’s what I learned from Coach Ryan: There is nutrition, and then there is sports nutrition. You have to change your thinking on food when you participate in an endurance sport.

Say you are going on a long ride or run one morning. Wake up and have a normal breakfast with complex carbs, protein and fat. As you get closer to your event, you will need to limit the complex carbs, protein, and fat and take in more simple carbs. During the event, you need to fuel yourself with simple carbs every fifteen to twenty minutes. Then after the event, start bringing complex carbs and protein back into your diet and resume normal nutrition.


Your body sends blood to your stomach to help it digest, but when you are running or biking, you need that blood to go to your extremities. The harder the food is to digest, the more blood gets diverted from your legs to your stomach. Complex carbs, protein, and fat are much harder to digest than simple carbs.

When you’re not in sports nutrition mode, you want to eat things that take longer to digest, because it keeps your blood sugars more level and you will be less hungry. But when you are in sports nutrition mode, you need to do the opposite– eat simple carbs.

Here’s my sports nutrition plan: (I’m 113 lbs, so adjust accordingly.)

Before the ride

1-2 hours: Eat complex carbs with protein and fat (1-2 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight)

30-40 minutes: 100-200 calories (the closer to the ride, the simpler the carbs)

During the ride:

Eat about 30 grams of simple carbs every 15-20 minutes

After the ride:

5-10 minutes: 50-65 grams of simple carbs

20-30 minutes: 10-15 grams of protein

1-2 hours: Add in more real food. Transition back to regular eating.


I need about 8 cups of water a day off the bike. (A 160 pound person might need 12-14 cups a day.) On the bike I need to drink 20-40 ounces per hour.

How can you test if you are hydrating well enough? Weigh yourself before and after you exercise. Divide the number of lost pounds by the hours you exercised. Two percent decrease in body weight is the cutoff. If your number is higher, you need to drink more.

As I said, this is my formula. You will have to find what works for you. Use your training time not only as time to get the miles in but also time to experiment with food and drinks. It took me a bit of time, but I’ve figured out that if I eat one piece of Shot Blok (see picture above) every twenty minutes, I feel great on the bike. Some other examples of simple carbs that you can try are Nutella sandwiched in between white bread and cut into quarters, gels such as GU, fig newtons, fruit, and energy drinks like Gatorade.

If you have other snacks that you love, please post a comment and share. For more information on sports nutrition, read this article by Ryan Kohler.

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  1. Espana says:

    I’m a front of the pack marathoner. After bonking in Boston two years ago I decided to learn why. I purchased and read several books on nutrition and hydration. Ryan’s book has easily become my bible. Its specific enough to allow you to plan your nutrition needs around any number of endurance events. Its laid out in a logical format and provides reasons behind the recommendations. I practiced her pre-race calorie intake suggestions (far more than you’d expect) for my last two marathons and moved the “wall” well into miles 24-25. Great text. Remember, its more than having a race plan. Having a nutrition plan and a hydration plan make a huge difference.

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