Mar 1, 2018
Macronutrient needs of endurance and power athletes

Many sports dietitians find themselves working with an array of different sports and advising athletes with a wide variety of needs. When it comes to personalizing nutrition advice, the most basic question boils down to: “Is the individual an endurance athlete or a power athlete?”

The major difference between the two group’s nutritional needs stems from the fact that power and endurance use a different energy systems as their major source of fuel. Endurance athletes rely on the aerobic system, while power athletes primarily use the phosphagen system (the fastest way for the body to resynthesize ATP).

Another major difference between these two groups of athletes is the amount of energy they expend. Regardless of gender, age, or sport, endurance athletes burn a significant amount of calories during continuous distance training sessions that may last four hours and more. For them, keeping calorie intake high day after day is necessary. Power athletes, on the other hand, typically have lower calorie that may vary based on gender, age, sport, and goals. Still, sufficient calories are crucial for power athletes in preventing muscle tissue breakdown for use as energy.

One similarity between the two groups is that they both require all three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. However, given their very different training styles, endurance and power athletes have specific requirements for each macronutrient.

Macronutrients plus proper hydration ensure optimal performance

In addition to macronutrients, all athletes need to monitor their hydration levels before, during and after training and competition.

Hydration is extremely important for power athletes but it is essential for endurance athletes. Athlete hydration requires fluids like water and electrolytes for proper absorption into the bloodstream. When water is taken without electrolytes, a high percentage may simply flush through the system. When consumed in combination with electrolytes, a greater amount of the water is able to be absorbed. A properly hydrated body is better equipped to maintain optimal cognitive function, increase endurance, protect from overheating and expedite recovery.

Carbohydrate should make up 50-65% of total calories for both endurance and power athletes. Endurance athletes tend to need closer to 65% of calories (or 8-10 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) body weight per day (d)), while power athletes require closer to 50 percent or 5-7g/kg/d. Research tends to support carbohydrate intake one to four hours prior to endurance training or competition, but it is unclear whether that recommendation is useful for power athletes.

Studies show that consuming carbohydrates and protein pre-workout may reduce muscle breakdown during intense exercise and helps the body to create new proteins. A pre-workout snack could be as simple as half a turkey sandwich, fruit and yogurt, or an energy bar. Pre-workout carbohydrate intake should be tailored to the athlete’s training period.

Endurance athletes must consume carbohydrates during exercise sessions that typically last longer than 60 minutes in order to maintain blood glucose levels. The recommended amount is 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour, which can come from 16-32 ounces of sports drink, 1-2 energy gels, energy chews, or some combination of the three.

The type of training typically done by power athletes does not tend to cause low blood sugar levels, so there are no specific carbohydrate recommendations for them during exercise. Keep in mind that power athletes who do perform long training sessions, especially two-a-days, may benefit from drinking a sports drink or eating a small carb-rich snack. It often depends on how the athlete feels, their performance, and preference.

Carbohydrate consumption post-workout is crucial for all athletes to allow the body to optimally restore muscle glycogen levels (stored carbohydrate) and to promote the growth of new muscle. Endurance athletes should strive for a high carbohydrate meal within one hour, and carbohydrate rich fluids or snacks every few hours following exercise. This same amount of carbohydrate applies to power athletes, too, and this can be an important education point, considering most are more focused on protein intake.

Both groups of athletes can follow the same range for protein, which is 1.2-2.0g/kg/day according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition (AND). Power athletes may demand greater than 2.0g/kg/day during a very intense training period, when reducing energy intake to cut weight, and during recovery from injury. There are no specific protein recommendations prior to exercise for either type of athlete, yet in order meet total daily protein needs, protein should be a part of a pre-workout meal.

Protein also plays an important role post-workout. Both the ACSM and AND recommend 15-25g protein after exercise to support muscle protein synthesis for power athletes and muscle repair for endurance athletes. A 15-25g portion of protein could be three to four ounces of lean meat, a protein shake or bar, or Greek yogurt and one ounce of nuts. Although 25g of protein may not seem like enough to most power athletes, research does not support an improvement in muscle protein synthesis when consuming greater than 40g protein.

Fat is a source of energy during endurance exercise, but not typically during power workouts. For both types of athletes, however, it is a necessary macronutrient and is responsible for many critical functions in the body. Total calories from fat should be 20-35% for both groups. There are no specific recommendations for fat before, during, or after exercise, but it may be helpful for endurance athletes to monitor fat intake during exercise if they struggle with GI distress.

While these recommendations can help guide an athlete’s intake, every athlete has individual needs that can best be determine by working with a Registered Dietitian.

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