The Part II: Clarifying Protein Needs by Gender and Carbohydrates by Race Distance

a triathlete's nutrition laid out for ironman race
July 18, 2019

Mike Ricci



In the article 3 Nutrition Must-Haves for Triathletes I shared information about protein, carbohydrates and hydration needs for endurance athletes.  That generated two important questions about protein intake by gender and carbohydrate needs for different race distances.  This Part II article serves as a continuation of the discussion and answers those questions.

What would you recommend for protein needs for an endurance athlete?  How much is required and do our needs differ by gender?

It’s not necessarily a gender need difference - it’s a situation/goal state need.  Every athlete’s needs may be different, dependent upon their goals (i.e. weight loss, lean muscle mass increase, etc.).  however, from a general need state from rigorous training, the recommendation is similar. 

Recommendations and requirements need to be put into two separate categories and differentiated.  Required Daily Allowances (RDA’s) were developed by the US during World War II.  They are really referring to the minimums you'll need before possible problems or deficiencies may occur.  The RDA’s may get updated from time to time, however, protein hasn’t been updated and been neglected in terms of what minimum requirements may need to be for modern diets based on new research.  The RDA’s are also focused on sedentary people, not necessarily athletes that are consistently training.  There are circumstances where we need to consider being more attentive to our needs, such as endurance training or resistance training where we may need more than what is "required". 

It’s recommended that athletes target a minimum of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. This will help you maintain lean muscle and rebuild muscle from the heavy training you put in for your races.  Recent research has been showing when protein amounts are doubled (20 grams vs 40 grams), there are increasing benefits.  The research has also been more focused on total or the entire body compared to previous research that was more focused on singular body areas/limbs.  With the focus on total body and body mass, it has taught us that more protein can be better for overall health and reaching goals that an athlete may have (whether it is to grow more lean muscle mass, recover better, weight loss, or satiation).  

The more activity or training you perform, usually shows us more muscle is being activated than previously expected, which means expected needs/recommendations are different.  This can also be interpreted as bigger or athletes with larger body mass need more protein to gain or maintain their current lean muscle mass.  This can be simplified to targeting 1 gram of protein per 1 pound of body weight.

  • For example, a 150 lb male should look to consumer 150 grams of protein per day.
  • Another example is a 115 lb female should target 115 grams of protein per day. 

These are minimal targets, however, and anything above this will help maintain lean body muscle or even build muscle/strength with proper training. 

What amount of carbohydrates are needed per race distance?

This needs to be looked at by an hourly rate, not necessarily by a distance or length of course.  Your body needs fuel consistently to perform at its optimal level.  Typically, during training you lower your glycogen stores (“fuel tank”, which are stored carbohydrates in the muscles/liver), meaning maintaining consistent fueling while racing/training is very important.  

Your body will rely on what is being digested first and entering the blood stream for fuel before it relies on its stores of carbohydrates.  Research tells us that the human metabolism/digestion can handle 60 grams of carbohydrates an hour during intense exercise for optimal performance and digestion.  However, some elite triathletes have been recorded in being able to digest 90 grams of carbs per hour.  

I suggest starting at 60 grams per hour and building from there.  From my experience with all levels of athletes, the more elite racers (i.e., Kona Qualifiers, top finishers in age group) have been seen benefitting with better performances when their targeted carbohydrates are 70-77 grams per hour.  

I believe you can train your gut to handle fluids, as well as digest under stress/exercise, but everyone has their own limitations on what their body can handle.  Always start out at 60 grams an hour as a baseline, add more carbs per hour if you feel you can handle it.  I do not suggest exceeding 77 grams an hour.  Target a 2:1 glucose to fructose ratio (i.e. Gatorade), for optimal carbohydrate fueling.

Remember to experiment with your nutrition in training, and never during a race.  If you consume too many carbohydrates, or combination of macronutrients (fat, protein) during exercise, it can lead to GI distress, so do this with caution!

Nick Suffredin is D3's go-to Race Day Fueling Expert.  Nick is a former scientist from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) where his primary responsibility was to support the GSSI physiology research program. As part of the innovation team, Nick supported research to help improve athlete recovery and performance.  He is currently working for Post Holdings, Active Nutrition Division, and has made himself available to D3 athletes for personal consulting for race day fueling.  You are encouraged to learn more about Nick through his LinkedIn Profile.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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