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Trainer Q&A: What’s the Difference Between Eating for Muscle and Eating for Endurance?

Our expert explains proper nutrition for weightlifting versus aerobic training.
post workout nutrition

Bob Seebohar, R.D., M.S., C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S. is one of the first Board-Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics and consults with Olympic teams and athletes. He is also a CLIF Bar nutrition partner, an exercise physiologist, a USA Triathlon Certified Elite Coach, a competitive triathlete and runner.

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Q: What’s the difference between eating for muscle and eating for endurance?

A: If an endurance athlete is doing an hour of exercise a day, the main focus is to stabilize blood sugar through the combination of carbs, protein, and fats. And the athlete should use his hands as measuring tools. Fill one hand, from wrist to finger, with a carb source (fruits, veggies, whole grains, the other hand will be filled with protein sources. As the training duration increases, the carbs start to grow so you eat two or three hands of carbs to one hand of protein. Fats are crucial for any athlete because they help you feel full for longer and stabilize blood sugar.

A person who is looking to build muscle is going to need more food than endurance athletes. They’ve got to have carbs and protein 30 minutes before lifting and within 30 minutes after lifting to maintain muscle protein synthesis. Endurance athletes who train for an hour or less are getting enough nutrients throughout the day for the required energy of these workouts. As endurance training length increases, timing becomes more important, whereas in bodybuilding-type training, timing is always important.

How often should endurance and weightlifting athletes eat and what foods do you suggest?
Endurance athletes will generally feel full for about three hours of eating protein, carbs, and fat each meal. Four or five meals a day using the hand method will keep their hunger and satiety signals connected.

For packing on mass, eat every two hours, so between five and seven meals a day will help bodybuilders fit more food in their body throughout the day. If we were to use numbers, a typical protein recommendation for an endurance athlete is about 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day; whereas the strength athlete is more from 1.5 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

In terms of food choices, try to reduce refined, processed sugars as much as possible. Protein sources should be steaks, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, and beans and healthy fats are olive oils, coconut oils, avocados, and nuts.

What supplements are better for endurance training versus resistance training?
A lot more endurance athletes will use sports supplements like sports drinks, energy gels, and energy bars; where a lot of body builders may not use a lot of that category and use a lot more whey protein powders and ergogenic supplements like HMB and creatine. 

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