The Importance of Dietary Fat for Endurance Athletes

by Jim Gazzale

This is the second article in a five-month series where we discuss proper nutrition for endurance athletes. The month focuses on the importance of fat in the endurance athlete’s diet. Moving forward we’ll explain the importance of protein and carbohydrate, and share strategies to calculate your daily caloric expenditure and the proper macronutrient breakdown to improve your athletic performance.

Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, the macronutrients, are critical for athletic performance and success. A superior nutrition plan will incorporate proper levels of each. Carbohydrates and fats provide the body with its primary supply of energy while protein serves as the main catalyst for muscle growth and recovery. Because carbohydrate and fats provide the body with energy, it’s important to have both in the diet to balance energy expenditure and maintain effective body composition.

The importance of fat

Different types of fat will affect energy and performance, depending on nutrient timing and quality of the fat. Fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient, and if overconsumed can negatively affect body composition.

Dietary fats should generally come in the lower end of your macronutrient breakdown, especially if you’re properly focusing on carbohydrates and protein. This will generally leave an athlete with fats making up roughly 20% of their daily caloric intake.

It must be noted that body composition, current health, and athletic goals will play a key role in determining the best macronutrient manipulation for a specific athlete. For example, a bodybuilder will require more protein and fewer carbohydrates than a long-distance runner. Additionally, different body types (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph) utilize the macronutrients in different ways. Ectomorphs have a higher carbohydrate tolerance than endomorphs, who generally store excess calories as fat more easily. Mesomorphs have a tendency to build muscle more easily than the other two body types. Of course, different health attributes of individual athletes will play a role in macronutrient protocols as well. If an athlete is deficient in one area, it may require a particular focus on a specific macronutrient until the deficiency is remedied.

How much fat do I need?

Endurance athletes use more fat for fuel than other more power-based athletes. So endurance athletes should consume a bit more fat than a football or basketball player, for example. For myself, I’m getting 25% of my calories from fat. That’s because my training volume is increasing and the additional fat is required for fueling. The calculation to determine 25% of caloric intake is a bit different than for protein and carbohydrate. There are 9 calories per gram of fat compared to the 4 calories per gram of protein and carbohydrate. So we’ll back out of the daily calorie total by multiplying it by .25 for 25%, and then dividing that number by 9. Here’s the breakdown for myself:

Training days: 856 calories, 95g

Competition days: 1183 calories, 131g

Recovery days: 772 calories, 86g

(3,425 x .25 = 856.25 / 9 = 95.1)

What should I eat?

Healthy sources of fat include sardines, salmon, tuna, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado. For cooking purposes, a measured serving size of olive or coconut oil will be used to ensure fat isn’t overconsumed. I also take a daily fish oil supplement for a total of 900mg of EPA and 600mg of DHA (omega-3 fatty acids). 

Sources of fat, courtesy: Precision Nutrition

As we continue to dive into proper nutrition for training and racing, we’ll cover a variety of topics outlined above. Next week we’ll focus on carbohydrates, including how much we should be consuming and how to calculate this, plus the best carbohydrate sources to fuel your workouts.

Get a customized guide specific to your goals

If you’d like a custom, done-for-you guide that will help you:

  • eat the right amount of food at every meal;
  • easily judge the portion sizes that are right for your body and your goals;
  • choose foods based on your eating preferences;
  • track your food intake and stay consistent;
  • build your daily menu using sample meal ideas; and
  • make adjustments for continual results

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Jim Gazzale
Sports Nutrition Specialist, USAT, USAC, PN1, Certified Online Trainer, Proprietor SENS Fitness

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