Whether you’re prepping for a long-distance running race or want to up your intramural soccer game, there are tons of reasons to build endurance.
Training your endurance means using a lot of energy and exercising for longer periods of time—often for an hour or more. If you want to keep going strong, having the right fuel in your system is crucial.
What Fuel Works Best For Endurance Training?
“Endurance athletes often tap into—or deplete—the glycogen (stored carbohydrates) in their muscles during training,” says Rebekah Blakely, RDN, dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe and Only Me. For that reason, endurance athletes need adequate carbs both before and after their workouts.
Topping off those glycogen stores pre-workout ensures they have adequate energy in the muscles to supply the energy needed to fuel their training. Refueling with carbs post-workout, meanwhile, helps replenish those glycogen stores and prepare athletes for their next workout.
Endurance athletes also need protein post-workout for muscle recovery. Dietitians recommend a post-workout snack or meal that contains about a three-to-one ratio of carbs-to-protein.
The Best Foods For Endurance Training
Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. recommends focusing your pre-training meal on easily digestible carbohydrates—especially if you’re eating right before you get to it.
According to Jones and Blakely, the following five foods are the best to eat before endurance training.
1. Whole-Grain Toast
“Whole-grain bread delivers the energy needed for exercise, along with fiber and a few grams of protein to keep blood sugar levels steady,” says Jones. The result: energy that lasts.
Depending on the length and intensity of your workout, go for a slice or two of whole-wheat toast. Add a healthy spread, like nut butter, avocado, or cheese (as long as dairy doesn’t upset your stomach).
In addition to supporting heart and brain health, beets are a popular form of natural pre-workout fuel for all sorts of athletes. “While also great for blood pressure, research supports the intake of beet juice pre-workout to enhance endurance performance,” Jones says.
Why? Beets are an excellent source of nitrates. “These compounds act as vasodilators, widening blood vessels and enhancing movement of oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells,” Jones explains.
Enjoy a cup of beets alongside some whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa—or sip one cup of beet juice before hitting the trails.
No only are bananas a good source of simple carbohydrates, but they’re also high in potassium. This electrolyte, which gets depleted with sweat losses, can help with muscle cramps.
“As a whole food, bananas also provide other nutrients, like fiber, which helps with blood sugar regulation and digestion,” says Blakely. “They also contain vitamin B6, which is important for healthy nerve function.”
One large banana provides around 30 grams of carbohydrates to help stock and replenish glycogen stores. Pair it with one-to-two tablespoons of nut butter for a kick of protein.
4. Sweet Potatos
A single, large sweet potato provides 30 to 40 grams of carbohydrates. “They’re also a good source of vitamins A and C, antioxidants that help protect against cellular damage,” says Blakely. Plus, sweet potatoes also contain numerous trace minerals that support recovery and overall health.
Pair a sweet potato with some protein (like two ounces of meat or about half a cup of beans) for a great meal recovery meal, Blakely suggests.
“Oatmeal provides carbohydrates, protein, and fiber—a combination of nutrients that slowly provides energy to the bloodstream,” says dietitian Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD.
Enjoy a cup of cooked oats, which provides about 25 grams of carbohydrates, five grams of protein, and four grams of fiber.
Worst Foods For Endurance
Of course, not all fuel sources are created equal. Stay away from the following not-so-great eats before endurance training.
While beans are great for getting in that plant-based protein post-workout, avoid them prior to endurance training.
“Although I love beans for their protein and fiber, they can cause gas and bloating for some people,” says Rizzo. “Because of that, it’s best to avoid them the hour or two before an endurance workout.”
2. Fruit Juice
“The high amount of fructose in fruit juices may cause digestive upset when consumed immediately before or during exercise,” says Jones. Since our bodies metabolize fructose differently than other sugars, it can draw fluid into our digestive system, causing cramping, bloating, and even diarrhea.
If you want something sweet pre-workout, eat one cup of fresh fruit or one medium apple or a banana, instead.
3. High-Fiber Veggies
Brussels sprouts and cauliflower may be tasty and nutritious, but their fiber content may weigh you down if you eat large portions before training, says Jones.
The same goes for salads. “Stay away from the roughage,” says The Vitamin Shoppe dietitian Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N. “Raw, high-fiber vegetables—such as a salad or raw vegetables dipped in hummus—are slow to digest and can cause an upset stomach.”
“Full of sugar and caffeine, soda might give you an initial energy boost, but won’t provide sustainable energy,” says Blakely.
What’s more, the lack of vitamins and minerals in soda means your body won’t get the nutrients it needs to perform at its best or to ensure proper recovery, Blakely says. Plus, caffeine can actually mess with some people’s digestive tracts during exercise.
5. Fried Food
“While fried food might provide some carbs due to the breading, all the extra fat will slow down digestion and likely negatively affect exercise,” says Blakely. Here, too, the general lack of nutrients won’t help you recover for your next workout, either.
Don’t Forget Hydration!
Since you lose fluids and electrolytes through sweat a you exercise for long periods of time, hydration is a crucial part of your fueling plan. (It’s especially important throughout the week leading up to any particularly long training sessions or races.)
“Sip water to prevent feeling thirsty and check in on your pee color,” says Jones. “You want it to be straw-like, or more clear, in color.”
Otherwise, factors like the temperature you train in—and how long and hard you go for—influence just how much fluid you need. “To figure out how much fluid you need, calculate your total fluid losses by weighing yourself right before and after the activity,” says Blakely. The difference reflects how much fluid you lost. For every pound lost, drink two to three cups of fluids, she suggests.