High Performance Nutrition - Part 2

Trying to lose weight while eating enough to support vigorous endurance or strength training can be a very tricky business. Cutting too many calories can cause the body to breakdown muscle tissue to meet its energy needs, and make it impossible to replenish energy reserves in time for your next workout. In turn, both of these consequences can lower your metabolism, making it much more difficult to shed body fat and improve body composition.

This article, the second in a series of two, discusses specific nutrition recommendations for highly active people. (Part 1 dealt with "The Big Picture" of using food as fuel.)

Most people who consistently exercise more than 60 minutes per day at high intensity levels need to adjust their nutrition plans in one or more of the following ways:
  • Adjusting carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake so that the amount of each nutrient is appropriate for your individual body size and the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of your physical activity
  • Timing meals and snacks in relation to exercise so that the right amount of fuel is available when needed
  • Using appropriate fluid and energy replacement strategies during long and intense exercise sessions
Below, you’ll find some general recommendations in each of these three areas that you can use as a starting point for finding the right combination for yourself. These recommendations are based on a recent survey of studies, presented in the American Dietetics Association’s Position Statement on Nutrition and Athletic Performance (2004). You can access the full statement at the ADA’s website, www.eatright.org.

Nutrient Recommendations for Very Active People

The following chart shows how active and very active people can adjust their intake of the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat).
  • Active is defined as taking part in planned, continuous exercise that is equivalent to walking 6-10 miles per day (a calorie expenditure of 600-1000 calories/day).
  • Very active is defined as taking part in planned, continuous exercise that is equivalent to walking more than 10 miles per day (a calorie expenditure of 1000+ calories/day).
Although aerobic exercise typically burns more calories per training session, most individuals whose major form of training is strength training should consider themselves to be in the “very active” category, due to the nutritional needs associated with larger amounts of lean body mass and the glycogen-depleting effects of extensive, anaerobic strength training.

Nutrient Needs Based on Activity Level and Body Weight



Very Active


2.3 to 3.2 grams/lb
(5 to 7 grams/kg)

 3.2 to 5.5 grams/lb
(7-12 grams/kg)


 0.6 to 0.75 grams/lb
(1.2 to 1.4 grams/kg)

0.8 to 1.0 grams/lb
(1.6-1.8 grams/kg)


Balance of total calories after meeting above requirements

Balance of total calories after meeting above requirements

Note: To avoid performance declines, people attempting to lose weight while engaging in demanding athletic training should not reduce their calorie intakes by more than 10-20% (or by more than 500-1,000 calories per day). For good health, total fat intake should not fall below 15% of total calories.

Meal Contents & Timing for Very Active People

The Pre-Exercise Meal: Your individual reaction should be the primary factor that determines what, when and how much you eat prior to exercise. For many, eating before exercise enhances performance—especially during long exercise sessions that can exhaust glycogen reserves. Since most people find it difficult to exercise with a full stomach, you should allow plenty of time for digestion (about 3-4 hours before exercise) in order to get the energy benefits of a pre-exercise meal.

For long bouts of higher intensity exercise, studies show that eating 200-300 grams of carbohydrates during the pre-exercise meal results in an endurance boost. This meal should be relatively low in fat and fiber, and moderate in protein (a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein), to promote stomach emptying and reduce the potential for gastric distress.

The Post-Exercise Meal: Most people can replace the glycogen used during an intense exercise session within 24 hours without a special eating schedule (provided that overall nutrition is adequate). However, the best time to replenish your glycogen and nutrients is within the first 4-5 hours (and especially the first 90 minutes). If you participate in more than one exercise session per day, you'll need to pay close attention to your post-exercise meals.

Research indicates that eating a high-carbohydrate meal (about 0.7 grams per pound of body weight or 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight) immediately after exercise is the best way to replenish glycogen.

Various types of carbohydrates will affect glycogen replenishment rates. Eating simple sugars and high GI (glycemic index) foods results in slightly faster storage rates during the immediate post-exercise period. This is important when immediate glycogen replenishment is needed, such as taking part in both an intense training session and athletic event in the same day. Whole foods containing higher proportions of fat, fiber, and protein result in slower replenishment rates, but overall, these foods should make up the bulk of most people's diets.

Including protein in your post-exercise meal does not seem to affect glycogen replenishment rates. In fact, eating plenty of amino acids is important for muscle recovery after each workout (especially after strength training). The general recommendation is to include a 4:1 carbohydrate-protein ratio when eating after a workout.

Fluid and Energy Replacement during Extended Exercise

Optimal performance during extended exercise sessions occurs when the rate of fluid taken in equals the rate of fluid lost through sweating. For most people, this means drinking about 20 ounces of water before exercising; 6-12 ounces of fluid for every 15-20 minutes of high intensity exercise; and 16-24 ounces for every pound lost during exercise. This post-exercise drinking can be spread over time, as dictated by your thirst.

If you exercise intensely for more than 60-90 minutes, experts recommend that you drink a beverage containing carbohydrates and sodium (such as a sports drink) to meet part of your fluid needs. Sodium isn't typically needed for electrolyte replacement during exercise, but it can make it easier to stay well hydrated by increasing your desire to drink. Endurance exercisers such as marathoners often eat carbohydrates in the form of gels during events to maintain blood glucose levels and hold off glycogen depletion for as long as possible.

You may need to experiment with these general recommendations to find a combination that works well for you. Although it is possible to lose weight and maintain a very high level of athletic performance, keep in mind that these are two competing priorities, with no simple solution. Success at both depends on a balanced nutritional approach that does not sacrifice your long-term goals for an immediate benefit.

To learn more about the business of weight loss while trying to build muscle, read Dean's "Ask the Expert" advice.
This article has been reviewed by Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian.
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Member Comments

Good article. Report
Great information. Really like this article. Report
Very interesting and just what I was looking for. I also have read Racing Weight which deals with this issue. I think Dean's point about the competing demands of weight loss and endurance sport is very valid. As a numbers person I have a spreadsheet that tracks all of these variables and I can't cut more than 250calories a day if I want to follow these recommendations. And losing weight by losing muscle and bone mass is not an options for me. I'm in the business of losing fat.

Also the activity level is not 7 days a week. Even Olympic athletes have recovery days when they don't engage in intense exercise. The numbers I've seen show a total of 4+ hours over a week of intense training. The carb recommendation starts at 5g per kg at 4 hours intense training a week and goes up from there to 12g per kg at 25 hours training a week. It's a sliding scale. Report
wow, I run about 25 miles a week, and do yoga, strength training, and stand part of the day at my job, but according to this article I don't count as "active." This felt a little discouraging, maybe they need rethink their language use. But then again, the only people I know who fall into this category are competitive athletes. Report
I am very active (and have been for over 25 years) and currently training 6 days a week (circuit 2x, strength 2-3x, spinning 1x and running 3x with one being a long run of 6+ miles every week) for a half-marathon. I have been on a low carb diet since 12/29/10 and lost 20 lbs (I'm a compulsive overeater and my trigger foods are refined carbs). I keep my carbs to under 90 per day and get them mainly from daily oatmeal, vegetables, and fruit (I do not eat rice, flour, sugar, pasta, white potatoes). I eat about 100-130 g of protein each day. My fats come from olive and canola oils, nuts, and lean meats. My performance athletically has been very good, I have a lot of energy, and a lot of muscle mass. Best of all, since I've been "low carb" my food cravings--for sugar especially, have almost disappeared and my binging at night has stopped. Report
is there an interpretation of these two articles that make it simple with my sparkpeople nutrition foodcharting? for example: 1 hour before workout, eat X carbs and X proteins? within first hour after workout, eat X carbs and X proteins? the way my carbs and proteins are counted on spark's plan, i don't know how much i should add--maybe just go closer toward the max of the carbs and protein? what ARE the measurements they use on the sparkcharts? eek. do i sound stupid for wanting clarity on this? it makes it seem too complicated, but seems so important now that i've ramped up my exercise to the 1000 calorie and better range. Report
wow I quess I need to eat more carbs. I burn about 2500, 1500 active calories and 1000 or so resting calories. I thought I was eating enough but maybe not. I'll try this a bit can't imagine eating that much but I'll amp it up a bit Report
Weird for me to read this. I thought I as active. But walking 6-10 miles each day? that is alot for someone over 50. It makes no sense to me. Report
3.2 to 5.5 grams of carbs per lb??? that'd be around 400-500 grams per day for me! there is no way i can eat that much. i rarely ever make it to 300 grams, and i thought that i was high on carbs, since 250 grams is around 60% when i get adequate protein (which is about 120 grams for me) and fat. thanks for the info, though. Report
Very interesting article which will help me to build up strategy nutrition wise, i tend to exercise a lot a get ravenously hungry aftr and hour or two of intense training but never planned meals in advance, i ve never gave any thought to balancing nutrients in any special way. Now i see why i am way behind my nutrition needs. I found this article very helpful(both parts) especially tips on what to eat before and aftr exercise. Report
great article and just what I was looking for! Report
I thought I was "active" too. I average about 400/day, except for hiking days. THEN I burn 1000 calories at a time, but that's not the norm. Wow, guess I have to ramp it up in order to be "active" according to this article. Report
wow, I thought I was active. But burning between 600-1000 calories in one day! The most I usually do is about 500, but on average it's more like 250. Report
What a great article!! Report
What a great article!! Report


About The Author

Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.