How to Eat and Train to Optimize Your Endurance
Updated: May 15
This past summer, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society of Sports Nutrition Annual Conference in Clearwater Beach, FL where the brightest minds in Sports Nutrition gathered to display some of their latest research. Out of all of the presentations, one stood out the most to me because it was an area I had little exposure to due to my bias of strength and hypertrophy training.
Endurance exercise is not my forte but Dr. Mike Ormsbee's presentation was VERY fascinating. Even better was that Dr. Ormsbee provided a lot of applicable take-aways. Hopefully, you will too.
Mike, thanks again for your time and agreeing to this interview. Tell us about your educational background, area of study, and your interests outside of work.
My pleasure David. I earned a BS in Exercise Science from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. That was where I conducted my first research looking into caffeine, green tea, and ephedrine on metabolism and blood lipids under the direction of Dr. Paul Arciero. After graduating, I was hired as a Research Associate at Skidmore in Dr. Arciero’s laboratory where we studied the American Heart Association’s Diet and Exercise program and the Body-for-Life program that was very popular at that time. This study looked at body composition and weight, all sorts of hormonal changes, and performance in middle-aged men and women. It was really a great study. From there, I took a Research Assistantship position to earn my MS in Exercise Physiology (focus in Performance Nutrition) with Dr. Matthew Vukovich at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. This was a huge change for a guy who grew up outside of Philadelphia and spent a lot of time in the Northeast. It was a great decision and my training was continued with nutritional manipulation and both endurance and resistance exercise training to focus on hormone changes, body composition, and performance. After SDSU, I was accepted to Dr. Bob Hickner’s lab at East Carolina University where I earned a PhD in Bioenergetics (basically a combination of exercise science, physiology, and nutritional metabolism). This is where I worked extensively on the impact of resistance training on fat metabolism. Nowadays, my research focus is in Human Performance and Sports Nutrition at The Florida State University where my lab studies Exercise and Nutritional Interventions and the Impact on Body Composition, Metabolism, Health and Performance. You can learn much more about the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine where I am now the Interim Director and the projects that all of my students are working on here: https://humansciences.fsu.edu/nutrition-food-exercise-sciences/research/. Outside of work, I am usually training for triathlon, at the gym, and traveling with my wife. We also run a consulting business called Ormsbee Fitness Consulting (www.mikeormsbee.com) which gives me a great chance to work with some local, national, and international clients.
You gave a very fascinating presentation this summer at the International Society of Sports Nutrition Annual Conference titled, "Resistance Training and Nutrition Strategies to Maintain Muscle Mass and Perform Optimally in Endurance Sports." Why would an endurance athlete want to maintain their muscle mass? There are many reasons. Superficially, one reason is to look good. It is no secret that scrawny, hunched over, poor posture, soft looking endurance athletes abound. But, most endurance athletes end up racing against themselves and really don’t compete on an elite level. So, keeping muscle mass helps you to stay strong, look good, and feel good. I think there is a way to keep a healthy mix of muscle mass while also performing quite well – but probably not at the super elite level. Another reason is that muscle mass and strength are connected at least to some level and strength is an asset for a lot of triathlon races. Many endurance-minded people don’t realize that muscle mass (in the right proportion) is a huge benefit to endurance. Now, I’m not talking about huge bulky muscles, but muscle mass and strength. But when the muscle mass is too high, it can also impair performance (i.e. extra weight to lug around, cooling mechanisms, etc). It really comes down to what the goal of the individual person. For example, I lost almost 20 pounds for a 70.3 Ironman race but wanted to keep some muscle for aesthetic and performance reasons. Well, it is no secret that losing weight (if you can maintain power/strength) is a benefit to Endurance athletes. But the content of weight lost is another issue. Losing lots and lots of muscle is likely to impair performance or lead to injury.
Towards the end of long races, muscular strength is going to help tremendously to get you through the last few miles or, perhaps, to surge past a competitor or go up a hill. Other potential areas of benefit are neuromuscular firing, motor unit recruitment, and functional mobility. Also, for injury prevention, resistance training is a big deal. Just think about the recommendations that are given by physical therapists-- it is never to go do more repetitive endurance exercise. It seems a lot of endurance athletes do not engage in much strength training or resistance training in fear of gaining muscle. Why should they reconsider? Just because you are strength training, does not mean you will get big bulky muscles. In fact, what I usually hear is that the athletes are lifting low-to-moderate (loads) for lots of repetitions. This is not the way to go. The research in this area clearly demonstrates that heavy weight with few repetitions (2 to 6) can keep strength high and add very minimal or no muscle mass. Study after study has demonstrated this with all sorts of endurance athletes. There has been talk in the literature about concurrent strength and endurance training being incompatible. More recent data suggests the opposite. How does strength training enhance both short-term and long-term endurance performance?
Most of the talk about concurrent training being a problem is from the perspective of the strength/power athlete or bodybuilder. In that case, it does seem like endurance training may limit gains or negatively impact strength/power or muscle mass accumulation. However, for an endurance athlete's perspective, adding strength training is enormously effective for improving performance (see answers above). We know that repetition ranges between 8 and 12 reps is typically recommended if the goal is to produce gains in muscular size and cross-sectional area. Would it be advised for endurance athletes to minimize the amount of time spent training for hypertrophy with more emphasis on strength work in the 3 to ~8 rep range? Yes, absolutely. The research and my experience with this clearly shows to limit training in higher rep ranges and focus on heavy weight, compound movements, and a lower rep range. How many weeks out should an endurance athlete engage in strength training prior to competition day? Also, should the athlete taper the amount of of strength training days per week the closer it gets to race day? Weight lifting should be periodized for endurance performance. So, in the off-season, lift for strength. Then as the season approaches, move into some strength but more power movements by lowering the weight and lifting more explosively. I would recommend lowering the number of weight workouts as the competition approaches too. For example, you might lift 3 x per week to start the off-season and as the "A" race approaches, you might only be lifting 1X/week. These days also do not need to be 90 minute battles. The lifting can be 30-45 minutes and still show a benefit. The idea is to earn the benefits from lifting but to do it in a way that does not impair endurance training. So, if you are too sore to move and perform your next endurance workout, then you likely did too much on the strength training day. Above all though is to remember that you are an endurance athlete so prioritizing those workouts is key. I would try to have a weightlifting day scheduled as the second workout of the day or before a rest day or a recovery swim day. This seemed to minimize any soreness hangover. What would be staple exercises to include in a strength-training program for endurance athletes? Squat (or Front Squat), Deadlift, Push Press, and cleans are essential movements. These movements hit all the needed muscles and the supportive muscles too. If there is a weakness in another area, then address that too. I usually include pullups and a chest press movement of some kind for health and aesthetic reasons. In your presentation, you mentioned that body fat has more of an impact on total race times than body weight. How should an endurance athlete structure their diet to reduce their body fat? Would a caloric deficit be wise in relation to their total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)? This question is tough to answer because so many endurance athletes have different shapes, sizes, preferences, allergies, and needs. So, let me answer this a little differently. Some items to be aware of for everyday/normal endurance athletes to keep body fat low are: 1) Lift weights 2) Incorporate high-intensity training (it should not all be slow and long training) 3) Be honest about exercise intensity and the "reward" meal post-workout is probably too calorically dense 4) Be honest about exercise time -- was it a 2 hour ride or was it 15 minutes pumping tires, 10 minutes waiting for friends to show up, 10 minutes waiting at stop lights and traffic signals, and only 75 minutes of riding? Keep that in mind so you are aware of all the gels, and sports drinks during exercise and re-think your refueling habits 5) Keep protein intake high to help with repair, recovery, satiation 6) Keep carbohydrates in check (not all rides require huge carb loads) and try to keep the starchy carbs to around the workout time (pre, during, post) 7) Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits 8) Don't forget good fat choices After that sort of baseline plan, specifics would be implemented individually. Should athletes training for an endurance event cycle their carbohydrate intake on days that they perform strength training and days that they do endurance work? What are other macronutrient considerations that are more specific to someone training for endurance? I would just cycle carbs based on the amount of work done. On heavy training days, increase carb intake. On lighter days or off-days, lower carbohydrate intake. In general, just be aware of the relationship between work completed during training and what is really needed to refuel. Many times I see athletes over-eating, not lifting, and never going fast -- this leads to the body comp issues that could be detrimental or just not wanted by age-groupers.
Do high-performance athletes change their nutrition at different times in training or do they have a plan developed that is a template for the entire training cycle?
Not sure about this one, David. Each athlete is likely different. I think the question above gets at this though.
What supplements, if any, do you think are the most beneficial to an endurance athlete and are also proven to work?
Just like anyone, supplements can be incorporated into a great nutrition plan if the athlete wants this route or needs added convenience. What I found useful to use in an attempt to perform well and lose body fat were: protein supplements (convenience), multi-vitamin (I like the security blanket), creatine monohydrate (yes- benefits are seen for endurance athletes in strength, performance, and thermoregulation), beta-alanine (for buffering H+ ions during hard intervals), and caffeine (used strategically but not always). Now, as for "supplements" meaning gels, GU's and powders for during-exercise workouts or pre/post exercise, there are many choices that come down to how much you want to consume, what macronutrient ratio you want, and other things like electrolyte content, speed of digestion/absorption, etc.
What would you say is the one, most beneficial thing EVERYONE should be doing to improve their endurance performance?
Lift heavy weights with low reps at least 1X per week.
Mike, thanks again for your time and contribution to this interview. Where can the readers go to learn more about your research and any other relevant topics?
Thanks David! You can find much more about my research at https://humansciences.fsu.edu/issm/research/.
Michael J. Ormsbee, PhD, FACSM, FISSN, CSCS*D is the Associate Director for the Institute of Sports Sciences & Medicine at The Florida State University where his research focus as an Associate Professor is in Human Performance and Sports Nutrition. His lab studies Exercise and Nutritional Interventions and the Impact on Body Composition, Metabolism, Health and Performance.
You can find out much more about the projects Mike and his students are currently conducting on PubMed or the FSU College of Human Sciences. If you'd like to reach out to Mike via social media, his handles are @mikeormsbee on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Also, via @FSUISSM on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.