Endurance athletes and the food that fuels them

There is plenty of speculation when it comes to endurance athletes and the food that fuels them.

What is really surprising to many people is the different nutrition choices that have proven successful for endurance athletes around the world.

Dave Scott was a force in the Ironman Triathlon for many years and much of the reason why he seemed so far ahead of his time in the early 1980’s had a lot to do with his understanding of optimum nutrition for endurance racing.

When most triathletes practiced diets that were hit and miss in those early years, Dave Scott had it down to a science and was often spotted around Kona the days before the Ironman loading up on pasta and salads.

In the training book he released in 1986 he claimed that his breakfast of choice on Ironman race morning was normally a couple of bananas, whole wheat toast and tea.


Not everyone took their diet as seriously as Dave Scott back in the day. There is the story of Kim Bushong’s T.V. taper in the weeks leading up to Ironman Hawaii in 1982.

Endurance athletes and the food that fuels them

Kim Bushong T.V. taper fuel.

For three weeks before the race he ate chocolate bars and watched T.V.

On race day Bushong took the lead and Dave Scott never caught up to him until about 10 miles into the run.


Marathon star Paula Radcliffe made a point of drinking about three liters of water a day and had quite a variety of interesting and tasty foods that she included in her training diet on a daily basis.

Besides water she also drank black coffee and apple juice.

Poached eggs, toast with almond butter or honey, avocado or tuna sandwiches, baked beans on toast, cereal with almond milk and slices of banana, and fish curry were some of her favorite food choices.


Then there was Bill Rodgers who was one of the top marathoners in the world at the peak of his career.

He basically ate foods that most world class endurance athletes would avoid like the plague.

Endurance athletes and the food that fuels them

Well, he won the Boston Marathon, so dig in.

Rodgers could put in 150-mile training weeks and he ate everything in sight and defied all nutritional logic by wolfing down sweet, sticky donuts and pastries and pretty much any junk food that appealed to his appetite.

I suppose his theory must have been that no matter how many calories he ate, he would burn them off in his next training run.

It didn’t seem to hurt his results when race day came around and he went blowing by some of the best marathoners in the world on Heartbreak Hill in Boston.


Chances are that you have no idea who the heck Nolan Shaheed is, but his eating habits are certainly worth mentioning.

Nolan held the World record for the mile and half-mile in the Male-50 age category.

What is truly remarkable is that even though he ran around 65 miles a week in training he ate just once a day and when he was not training he ate every other day.

Go figure.

His theory was that the digestive system should not be working all day and he had this to say….

I have much more energy when I eat only one meal a day.”

Rice, beans, vegetables and fruits constituted most of his calories.


So what do the greatest endurance athletes in the world have in common when it comes to nutrition?

They both have diets that are simplistic and perfectly engineered for hard training and recovery from that hard training.

Both are light eaters and both prefer corn-based meals and incorporate plenty of sugar into their daily diet.

For the Kenyans the cornerstone of their diet is the maize in Ugali and the Tarahumarans prefer a parched corn gruel.

Strange as it may seem, neither the Kenyans or Tarahumarans are fans of drinking water when they race even though it defies all the current modern theories on hydration.


Whether it’s Kim Bushong’s chocolate bars, the sweet tooth of Bill Rodgers, the cereal and bananas of Paula Radcliffe, Dave Scott’s pasta and salad, or Kenyan Ugali, there is one common denominator.

They are all carbohydrates and all these food choices play a role in topping up or restoring depleted glycogen stores during training, tapering, racing, or recovery.

As I mentioned in the article Eat like a Kenyan to run like a Kenyan, carbohydrates constitute about 75% of the daily caloric intake of Kenyan runners.


Of all the sports diet and nutrition books and plans I came across over the years the one that made the most sense was a book called Eat To Win written by Dr. Robert Haas over three decades ago.

He maintained that a diet consisting of around 70%-75% complex carbohydrates and not too much fat or protein was the best way to build endurance and recover from training.

It was his diet that was mostly responsible for Martina Navratilova beating the world’s best tennis players who were half her age.

I believe he was far ahead of his time and his break-down of daily carbohydrate, protein, and fat caloric intake for athletes is strikingly similar to the Kenyan diet of today.

There is even a similarity between the top complex carbohydrate foods Dr. Haas suggests eating that make up the majority of the Eat to Win diet.

Potatoes, rice, bread, whole wheat flour, and vegetables were high on his list of desirable foods and most of these carbohydrates are also a big part of the Kenyan runner’s diet.

The only difference might be that Kenyan’s prefer maize as opposed to whole wheat flour and consume fairly large amounts of sugar on a day to day basis.



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