Carbs / Protein / Fat

So what’s the best ratio?…like just about all things in training…”it all depends”…on your own body and who you talk to or read.

Let’s start with the US government ‘current’…I say current because it was all adjusted recently, and the website notes that the 2005 guidelines are the ones to be used until the 2010 ones are published…Food Pyramid idea: 

What is a “Healthy Diet”?
The Dietary Guidelines describe a healthy diet as one that

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

Seems reasonable enough to me…I like approaches that feel balanced and reasonable to me when you first read them…you can fill out the Pyramid Plan section to see specific recommendations for you.

As a starting point, My Food Diary program makes this recommendation for ‘normal’ folks, taking the ‘endurance training’ thing out of the equation:

Carbs:                                                         Acceptable: 45-65%
Protein:                   Ideal: 10-15%          Acceptable: 10-35%
Fat:                                                             Acceptable: 20-35%
Saturated Fats:      Ideal: under 7%      Acceptable under 9%

For endurance athlete’s though, and because of training weeks that typically run 10-20 hours a week of exercise…even light or recovery weeks, 6-8 hours…more details that can be applied to an individual day are very helpful to fuel training, recovery, as well as supplying the proper balance of nutrients for healthy living.

Daughter Lisa has been strictly vegan for years…most recently adding in a bit of seafood into her diet, so she is best to comment on that.

I’m more of a meat kind of guy.  There are 2 core books that I like about nutrition for the endurance athlete, and have referenced back to for years, and a new one that’s caught my interest:

  • The Paleo Diet for Athlete’s by Joe Friel and Loren Cordain…I was originally attracted to this because of Joe Friel…one of the real pioneers in applying the idea of periodization in training to triathlon…his book the Athlete’s Training Bible, is an all time classic in triathlon literature
  • Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athlete’s by Monique Ryan…Monique has a very balanced, common sense approach to nutrition that I like a lot
  • new one: Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald…Matt has created his own Diet Quality Score (DQS) as a cornerstone to achieving and maintaining ‘Racing Weight’

Glycemic Load of Carbohydrates

One universal thing that the first 2, both make a point about…and many others…is that it’s important to understand the ‘glycemic index’ and ‘glycemic load’ of foods…worthy of some study, largely because you’ll read a lot about it…some authors, like Matt, however feel that the whole GI and GL ‘thing’ is overblown, and that the primary focus should be on nutrient value…here are the definitions from  

The glycemic index, or GI is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI; carbohydrates that break down more slowly, releasing glucose more gradually into the bloodstream, have a low GI.

The glycemic load (GL) is a ranking system for carbohydrate content in food portions based on their glycemic index (GI) and the portion size. Glycemic load or GL combines both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in one ‘number’. It’s the best way to predict blood glucose values of different types and amounts of food. The formula is: GL = (GI x the amount of carbohydrate) divided by 100.


  • High Glycemic Load: A sports drink like Gatorade, or gel like GU, since they are designed to give you a fast kick, and be absorbed rapidly…and so is a baked potato, and bagel and rice
    Before, during and immediately after exercise
  • Low Glycemic Load: Long lasting absorption, common in fruits like peaches, bananas, apples…also kidney beans and sweet potatoes

The Paleo Diet for Athlete’s by Joe Friel and Loren Cordain

The premise of this book is that we should eat based on the ‘diet principles of our Stone Age ancestors’.  Once you get past the point of it sounding a little corny…and the tone of the writing that sometimes feels a bit fanatical…and remind yourself that Joe Friel is one of those guys with a big, long, strong track record in triathlon training, there’s a lot of good stuff in this book. 

The most interesting part for me, is the book’s specific focus on ‘periodization’ of what you eat during the day to match your exercise schedule…and therefore in the collaboration, Loren ‘adjusts’ his original Paleo Diet ideas for the needs of endurance athlete’s….much of the adjustment bumps up the carbohydrates to fuel training and aid recovery…would have loved to hear that first conversation:

“Hey Loren, Joe Friel here…I have an idea I want to run by you…I love your Paleo Diet idea and wonder if you’d be willing to make a few minor adjustments in a new book with me…like adding Gatorade and gels into the Diet…yeah that gooey stuff in the little foil packages…yeah I know it’s not _really_ a Stone Age thing…maybe just a few tweaks in a couple of paragraphs…let’s talk about it”

Ended up a lot more than that, but I really like the result…even if you don’t buy into the whole caveman thing, a worthy read.

…a lot more details in the book, but here’s the gist of it:

  • Stage 1:       Immediately before a workout                                                                        
    mainly carbohydrates with a bit of protein, some adjustment on type depending on how far ahead of workout
  • Stage 2:       During the workout or race                                                                               
    high glycemic load carbs from sports drink and gels…with protein: 4:1 ratio…some adjustment based on length
  • Stage 3:       Thirty minutes immediately following exercise                                          
    high glycemic load carbs…with protein: 4:1-5:1 ratio
  • Stage 4:      A period equal to the duration of the preceding exercise period               
    moderate to high glycemic load carbs, with protein: 4:1-5:1 ratio, shifting towards solids foods
  • Stage 5:      Long-term recovery leading to the next Stage 1                                            
    proteins and fats

The Paleo Diet doesn’t like the USDA Food Pyramid, and specifically recommends:

Get the grains and dairy out of your diet and replace them with more healthful fruits, veggies, lean meats and seafood

Although on the surface that sounds pretty radical to many, their point is largely that for the calories that they add, they are relatively poor sources of vitamins and minerals compared to other choices, and “have other nutritional characteristics that clearly are not in your best interest”…in essence, they aren’t worth the calories.

So how does it look in your Food Log at the end of the day?…again it adjusts according to the time of year, and what training period you are in, but in general terms:

Carbs:       50-60%      (more carbs in the Build, Peak and Race periods)
Protein:     20%
Fats:          20-30%
      (more fats in the Transition, Preparation, and Base periods)

Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athlete’s by Monique Ryan

Monique on the other hand, does like the Food Pyramid, and in fact she centers her recommendations around it.  She also agrees with periodizing your training diet, and is in general agreement with the Paleo guys on most fronts on what to eat where in the day, and the year, although not as exacting as the Paleo book.

Since she’s not spending a substantial amount of print on selling the idea that you should eat like a caveman, she is quite a bit more exacting in terms of charts, graphs, details and numbers…if you’re a ‘numbers’ guy like I am, you’ll come back to this book a lot.  There are lots of details about specific foods, their nutritional values and how they fit into a specific diet plan, as well as a good section on ‘changing body composition’.

Here’s how her recommendations would look in your Food Diary…although she has lots of adjustment numbers based on the amount and timing of your exercise program…the daily requirements I’ve based on her moderately high exercise levels:

Carbs:       50-65%         4.5 grams per pound of body weight (200 lbs.) = 900  grams
(range of 3.0 – 5.5 based on normal Ironman training days)
Protein:    15-20%          . 5 grams per pound (200 lbs.) = 100 grams
(.45 – .90 based on normal Ironman training days)…or restricting calories .90
Fat:          15-30%             .5 grams of per pound (200 lbs) = 100 grams
(.5 – .75 based on normal Ironman training days)

Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald

Matt also takes quite a balanced approach, also likes the Food Pyramid, and largely bases his Diet Quality Score (DQS) on it.  He also generally agrees with the before, during and after exercise recommendations of our other two authors, although not in as much detail, and does add a few quips indicating his disagreement with some of the Paleo ‘concepts’, although he doesn’t reference the Paleo guys specifically.  His nutrient based approach is perhaps summarized by his statement:

most endurance athletes will find that they can perform well and maintain their racing weight on a diet that falls anywhere within the broad range (editor note: summarized below) provided that the overall quality of the calorie sources is high, and the diet provides enough carbohydrate to meet the energy need imposed by their training program

Carbs:       40-80% 
Protein:     10-25%
Fats:          20-40%

He does therefore have a chart that does prescribe a detailed carbohydrate recommendation based on weekly training volume that goes from 5-6g/kg of body weight for less than 4 hours a week, to 11-12g/kg of body weight for more than 25 hours a week…my in-season norm of 11-14 hours sets it at 8-9g/kg of body weight, or about 720-810 grams of carbs in season.

Bit more to it of course than I can summarize in a paragraph…or else a ‘book’ wouldn’t be necessary.  Another worthy read.

Last notes

When it’s all said and done here’s a few things that I keep in mind…particularly when exercise volume is down during recovery weeks throughout the year and in the off-season when I may want to trim a few pounds before ramping back up again.

  • periodization of eating: make sure that I’m carb fueled properly before, during and immediately after exercise
    • the Glycemic Load of carbs makes quite a difference as to how they work…say most…good to know the differences
    • the balance of the time…the Paleo Zone 5…stay primarily protein/fats centric
  • my daily goal therefore is to balance/adjust my dinner meal to finish with my overall calorie goal in line, and the Carb / Protein / Fat ratios in line for the day…usually a protein focused dinner, and hold back carbs…rarely have to ‘push’ more fats
    • and spot check the nutrient balance based on Matt’s Diet Quality Score (DQS)
  • if I’m looking for a way to keep calories down, I reduce alcohol, dairy (for me cheese) and grains in deference to the Paleo guys
  • and try to eat dinner as early as practical in the evening so that an ‘extra’ afternoon snack doesn’t sneak in if I get hungry before dinner

phew…just reading this again make me tired…although _everyone_ that I read says that the more you monitor this stuff, the better the results…just the awareness leads you to better decisions…that’s my bet anyway

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