What is the difference between strength and endurance athlete diets?

Both strength and endurance athletes need to perform at the highest levels of human athletic ability. Regular training, sleep and adequate recovery are all critically important for supporting functioning at the highest physical levels, but diet also has a major impact. 

Depending on the sport, each of these types of athletes needs to focus on something slightly different in their diet in order to maximize performance and speed up recovery. So, what is the difference between eating for strength versus the ideal nutrition for endurance athletes?

The Endurance Athlete Diet

An endurance athlete, like a runner or triathlete, must be able to perform a high level of physical activity for an extended period of time. This requires stamina, cardiovascular strength and powerful muscles. 

According to Paul Claybrook, nutritionist and founder of Super Duper Nutrition, “to be the most competitive endurance athlete, one uses and thus requires, lots of energy, but at the same time leanness.” Endurance sports require speed. An endurance athlete that is weighed down by bulky muscles or excess body fat will simply be slower than a lean athlete. Therefore, a diet for an endurance athlete needs to support energy, while helping the athlete stay lean. 

Endurance athletes also need to focus on the type of muscle they have, according to Claybrook. He states that endurance athletes need a greater proportion of slow twitch muscle, instead of fast twitch muscle. Fast twitch muscle is “great at short, powerful bursts, but not endurance.” Additionally, the slow twitch fibers tend to not grow as bulky as fast twitch, helping the athlete maintain a leaner physique. 

The dietary answer to being strong, full of energy, having a low body fat and remaining lean is to eat lots of high quality carbohydrates. Claybrook says “carbs, especially from fruits, vegetables and whole grains should be the biggest food source” provide ideal nutrition for endurance athletes

Eating for Endurance Athletes

An optimal day of eating for endurance athletes should involve a high intake of carbohydrates to provide energy for extended physical activity. According to Melissa Morris, professor of nutrition and kinesiology at the University of Tampa, “the recommendation for carbohydrate intake varies from 5 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily. This number varies greatly depending on duration, intensity and the type of endurance activities.” 

This means an endurance athlete who is a marathon runner may need significantly more carbohydrates compared to someone who does a more “stop and go” sport like tennis. 

The focus on carbs for endurance athletes should not be at the exclusion of protein. Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, CSSD and founder of Featherstun Nutrition says, “endurance athletes actually need more protein than many realize. They need approximately 1.2-1.8 gm/kg protein”. This is almost as much as many strength athletes need, so it’s important that endurance athletes have a balance between these two nutrients. 

To translate these recommendations into real food, this would mean that a 150 pound endurance athlete needs:

  • Carbohydrates: 340-816 grams per day or the equivalent of 22-54 slices of bread. 
  • Protein: 82-122 grams per day or between 5-8 scoops of protein powder. 

In order to meet the carbohydrate and protein needs alone, a 150 pound endurance athlete would need to eat around 3752 calories per day to reach the higher end of those nutrient goals. This calorie intake doesn’t account for the essential fats they may also need to include in their diet. It’s no surprise that an elite athlete can eat 4000 or more calories per day. 

Optimal Diet for Strength

A diet for strength can be quite the opposite of a diet for endurance. Strength athletes, such as powerlifters, don’t need to be lean or have significant stamina, but they do need to be strong. Muscles become stronger with strength training due to microscopic tears in muscle fibers, which increase muscle mass as these tears are healed. Protein is needed to help repair the muscle and strengthen it. 

Do Strength Training Athletes Need More Protein in their Diets?

The simple answer is, yes, compared to an endurance athlete, strength training athletes need more protein. Claybrook says “a strength training athlete still needs carbs to fuel their cells, but protein is a much bigger deal.” 

You could say that an optimal diet for strength training is the opposite of an endurance athlete diet- one focuses on protein and the other diet places a bigger focus on carbohydrates. 

Eating for Strength

A strength athlete needs between 1.5-2.0 g/kg body weight/day of protein to support muscle growth and recovery. 

The timing of the protein also matters. Morris says “athletes should try to keep protein to no more than 20-40 grams per meal or snack and divide the intake among all meals and snacks during the day, every 3-4 hours. One great idea is to have a protein meal/snack (30-40 grams) before bedtime because research supports muscle protein synthesis even during sleep.” So, it’s not just about how much protein an athlete consumes, but also when it is eaten. 

With all this focus on protein for strength training, they don’t want to forget that they also do also need carbs, but in much smaller quantities. Featherstun recommends 3-5 grams/kg/day for a strength training athlete or about half of what an endurance athlete might need. 

To translate these numbers into real food, this means a 150 pound strength athlete needs:

  • Carbohydrates: 204-340 grams per day or the equivalent of 13-22 slices of bread. 
  • Protein: 102-136 grams per day or the equivalent of 6-9 scoops of protein powder.

As far as calories, a strength athlete would need to eat about 1904 calories from protein and carbohydrates to meet the higher end of those ranges. 

The Bottom Line: Strength vs. Endurance Athlete Diets

These recommendations are meant to provide general guidance for the ideal diet for endurance and strength athletes. But, the physical demands of every sport can vary, therefore most athletes need to have personalized nutrition recommendations to follow if they want to reach elite levels. 

Training and event schedules can also change the type of diet an athlete needs to follow. The best idea if you are an athlete is to work with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. Only a professional who is trained in evaluating all of the different variables that go into an ideal diet for athletes can truly provide an optimal plan suitable for each specific individual and sport. 

Kade Brittain