eating for exercise

Anita Bean BSc RNutr has used her expertise in sports nutrition to answer your questions about eating for exercise.

Before exercise

1. What are the best foods to eat before exercise?

Many studies have shown that eating a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack before exercise increases endurance and performance. Conversely, eating too little carbohydrate results in low muscle energy stores and reduced endurance.

Opt for a low Glycaemic Index meal (foods that produce a gradual rise in blood sugar levels) comprising high-carbohydrate foods - pasta, wholegrain bread, potatoes - combined with a little lean protein (such as eggs, lean meat, beans, fish, chicken). Including protein in your pre-exercise meal will help lower the overall GI of the meal as well as help reduce muscle breakdown during exercise, and improve performance. Suitable pre-workout combinations include scrambled eggs on toast, pasta with pesto sauce and cheese; or a baked potato with beans.

2. When is the best time to eat before exercise?

The ideal time for a pre-exercise meal is 2 – 4 hours before your workout because it’s early enough to digest the food, yet late enough that this energy won’t be used up by the time you begin exercising. In a study at the University of North Carolina, athletes who ate 3 hours before a run were able to exercise longer than those who ate 6 hours beforehand.

3. How much should I eat before exercise?

The size of your meal depends on the length and intensity of your workout and the timing of your meal. If you are able to eat four hours before your workout, you can probably consume 600 – 800 calories. If you can eat just two hours before your workout, eat a smaller meal of 300 – 400 calories. You should feel neither hungry at the end of your workout nor full at the start of your session.

4. What would be a suitable snack before exercise?

If you don’t have time for a meal, have a healthy snack or a light meal with a drink 30 – 60 minutes beforehand. This will raise levels of blood sugar to fuel your exercise session, as well as ensure you are hydrated. Try pancakes with fruit, an egg sandwich, a granola/cereal bar; toast with honey; or cereal with banana.

5. What and how much should I drink before exercise?

Reduce the risk of dehydration by drinking 400 – 600 ml water 2 hours before exercising. This leaves sufficient time to hydrate body cells as well as excrete any excess. Dehydration can cause early fatigue, headache, nausea and dizziness.

Opt for a sports drink if you haven’t eaten anything - the sugars in the drink will help maintain blood sugar levels and fuel the muscles.

Pre-training meals

  • Toasted bagel with spinach and eggs
  • Egg and watercress focaccia
  • Fruit scotch pancakes
  • Jacket potato with a little cheese, tuna or baked beans plus salad
  • Pasta with tomato-based sauce or pesto, a little cheese; plus vegetables
  • Rice, pasta or noodles with chicken, fish or beans; plus vegetables
  • Porridge with milk, honey and raisins
  • Wholemeal sandwich/bagel/ wrap with eggs/  tuna/ cheese/ chicken/ peanut butter, and salad

Pre-workout snacks

  • One or two bananas
  • A handful of dried fruit and nuts
  • One or two cereal or granola bars
  • One or two slices of bread or toast with honey

During exercise

1. How much should I drink during exercise?

For most workouts and climates, 400 – 800 ml per hour will prevent dehydration as well as overhydration. Drink more in hot humid weather or when exercising very strenuously. Start drinking within 30 minutes and keep sipping little and often, ideally every 15 – 20 minutes.

2. What should I drink during exercise?

If you are exercising less than 90 minutes, opt for water. For longer workouts, or perhaps for shorter intense workouts in hot or humid conditions, a sports drink that provides carbohydrates, fluid and sodium, is a better option. Aim for 30 – 60g of carbohydrate (120 – 249 calories) per hour. That’s about 450 – 900ml of a sports drink.

After exercise

1. How much should I drink after exercise?

Weigh yourself before and after working out to get an idea of your fluid losses. The International Olympic Committee recommend drinking 600 – 750 ml of fluid (e.g. water, diluted juice, sports drinks) for each 0.5 kg (1 lb approx) weight lost. Drink this gradually, say, over an hour, rather than in one go, for best rehydration.

2. How long does it take to refuel after exercise?

If you eat a carbohydrate-rich diet, you can replenish muscle carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in 24 – 36 hours. If you plan to exercise more than once in a day, then you should begin refuelling within 60 minutes, as blood flow to muscles and glycogen refuelling will be increased during this time.

3. What are the best recovery foods?

Your recovery meal should contain both carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores, as well as protein to repair and rebuild the muscles. Consuming them together promotes faster recovery of glycogen stores and re-building of muscle tissue compared with a carbohydrate-only snack or meal. Aim for a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. For example, you could have a boiled egg with two slices of toast, a 2-egg omelette with 200g potatoes, 85g pasta with tomato sauce and 25g cheese or 500ml low fat milkshake.

Post-workout snacks

Post-workout meals


4. Why is protein needed after exercise?

Eating protein along with some carbohydrate after finishing your exercise session improves your recovery and increases the efficiency of muscle glycogen storage. It also enhances muscle tissue repair, reduces muscle soreness and promotes training adaptations, according to a 2007 review of studies carried out by researchers at Maastricht University.

5. How much protein should I have after exercise?

Studies suggest that the ideal post-training drink or snack should contain about 10 – 20 g of protein. You can get this amount from 2 eggs, or 200g baked beans, or 50g tuna, or 2 x 150g pots of fruit yoghurt.

6. Do athletes need more protein than non-athletes?

Scientists agree that athletes have higher protein requirements than the general population. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) recommends 1.2 – 1.7g protein/ kg body weight per day; the lower end of the range being appropriate for endurance athletes, and the upper end of the range for strength athletes.  This translates into 72 – 102g daily for a 60 kg person, considerably more than GDA for the general population: 45g for women and 55g for men.

7. What are the best sources of protein?

Richest sources include eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, meat, cheese, milk, yoghurt, beans, lentils, nuts, soya and ‘Quorn’. Other useful sources include grains, such as bread, pasta and breakfast cereals.

The protein content of different foods

Food Protein (g)

Two scrambled eggs   


Baked beans (1 small tin, 200 g)


Bread (2 slices, 70g)


Cheese (1 matchbox sized piece, 40 g)


Chicken (1 breast, 125 g)


Milk (1 glass, 200 ml)


Pasta (230g cooked)


Peanut butter (1 teaspoon, 20 g)


Steak (1 lean filet, 105 g)


Tuna, (1 small tin, 100g)


Yoghurt (1 pot, 150 g)