Elite vs recreational nutrition needs

So how do the nutritional needs of elite athletes differ to those of recreational competitors? A look at some of the considerations you'll want to consider to get the most out of your training and racing.

| March 20, 2019 | Nutrition

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Nancy, do you offer different nutrition recommendations for elite competitors compared to recreational athletes? I am highly competitive, work out intensely, and often wonder if I am eating to be the best athlete that I can be.

Answer: Sports nutrition recommendations are based on the assumption we all want to get the most benefits from our workouts so we can perform to the best of our abilities. Because every athlete is unique, a one-diet-fits-all approach doesn't work. Rather, all athletes want to be curious and experiment with a variety of fueling practices to learn what works best for their bodies. The following compares recommendations I might make for competitive vs. recreational runners.   

Note: Sports nutrition is a new science. In the near future, with the refinement of personalized nutrition based on genetics, sport dietitians will be able to offer individualized advice. Some runners and triathletes might perform better with more fat than carbs, or more beef than beans. Until then, here are today's science-based recommendations.

Carbohydrate requirements

In this era that pushes fat and protein, carbohydrate deficiency is common. All runners and triathletes can improve their performance (and health) by consuming adequate "high quality" carbs (grains, fruits, veggies) to fuel muscles and prevent needless fatigue. While elite athletes might want to strategically withhold carbs before specific training sessions to trigger performance-enhancing cellular adaptations, recreational runners and triathletes want to focus on fueling well each day in order to have enjoyable workouts. A sport dietitian can help both elite and recreational athletes reach these carbohydrate goals:


Example: For a 140-lb recreational runner who does a one-hour long run, carb goals are 350 g (1,400 calories) for the day. For the competitive marathoner who trains harder and longer (two to three hours), a good goal is 630 g carb (2,500 calories) on long-run days. Divide that into three meals (400 to 700 calories from carb per meal) and two snacks (100 to 300 calories from carbs per snack). Start reading food labels to see how well you do. You'll discover a spinach-cheese omelet doesn't hit the goal.





Carbohydrate Goals

Amount of exercise/day

gram carb/lb. body wt.

gram carb/kg body wt.

1 hour moderate exercise

2.5 to 3


1-3 h endurance exercise

2.5 to 4.5


4-5 h extreme exercise

3.5 to 5.5


Swipe me

Protein requirements

A well-fueled competitive runner or triathlete with trained muscles requires a little less protein than a novice athlete who is building new muscle. The range of protein needs (0.6 to 1.0 g protein per pound body weight; 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg) tends to be moot, given most hungry athletes consume plenty of protein.

Most competitive runners and triathletes can easily meet their protein needs by targeting about 20 to 30 grams protein per meal (a can of tuna) and 10 to 20 g protein per snack (a Greek yogurt). The protein in natural foods is preferable to protein supplements. Natural foods offer a complex matrix of nutrients that interact with a synergistic effect. Plus, they are unlikely to be spiked with illegal drugs and compounds that can lead to a failed drug test.


Competitive runners and triathletes lose lots of sweat when exercising for hours on end. But so can recreational athletes who are out of shape and working hard. That's why everyone who sweats heavily wants to learn his or her sweat rate. You can learn this by weighing yourself (without clothing) before and after an hour of exercise without drinking anything at X pace and in X degrees of heat or cold. For each pound lost, you are in deficit of 16-ounces of fluid. Drink enough during exercise to minimize this deficit. Throughout the day, drink enough to urinate every two to for hours. (Peeing every half-hour is excessive; no need to over-hydrate!)

Fueling during long runs

For competitive runners, a sport drink or gel is a convenient and precise way to boost energy during long runs. With a target intake of 60 to 90 g carb per hour of extended exercise, an elite runner generally prefers drinking a beverage than eating solid food. A casual runner might want some tastier orange slices or energy bar.


Electrolytes (potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium) are readily available in standard pre- and post-exercise foods. Most recreational runners and beginner triathletes don't sweat enough to lose a significant amount of electrolytes. Highly competitive runners and more competitive triathletes who train and sweat for two to three hours in the heat should add extra salt to their pre-run food (helps retain water and delays dehydration) and consume sodium-containing foods and fluids (endurance sport drinks) during the long run. Afterwards, chocolate milk beats Gatorade for an electrolyte-filled recovery drink. Most sweaty athletes intuitively seek salty chips, soup, or salted foods in for their recovery meal. If you are craving salt, consume salt!


Recreational runners and triathletes who train two to three times a week can easily recover by backing their workout into a balanced meal that contains carbs (to refuel) and protein (to build and repair) muscles, such as oatmeal + eggs; yogurt + granola; sandwich + milk; chicken + rice. Competitive runners and triathletes who train twice a day need to more rapidly refuel. The key is to plan ahead to have the right recovery foods and fluids ready and waiting. While a commercial recovery drink can be handy, a fruit smoothie (made with Greek yogurt) or some chocolate milk does an excellent job. Real foods work well for everyone.

After lifting weights, no need for anyone to immediately slam down a protein shake. Muscles stay in building mode for the next 24 to 48 hours. Regular meals, with protein evenly spaced throughout the day, do the job.

The bottom line

Every athlete will win with good nutrition. The key is to be responsible and plan to have the best foods and fluids available at the right times. Here's to satisfying runs!

Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guide for Marathoners offer additional information. (See NancyClarkRD.com). For her popular online workshop, see NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.