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Eating and Drinking Before, During and After Exercise

By Alison Walsh, Clinical and Sports Dietitian

What you choose to eat and drink around exercise can have benefits nutritionally and psychologically.  It should give you the energy you need and help you recover properly after you finish, so you are ready to exercise again soon!  You need to feel confident that what you eat is best for you, for your exercise and body. 

Before you exercise:

There are two rules to remember: firstly, eat something high in carbohydrate to fuel your muscles, and secondly, start with this food in small quantities before training, so you grow in confidence that you can tolerate it while exercising.  Often people blame their poor performance on foods: sure, a high fat high protein snack (eg. bacon and eggs) prior to exercise will not help, but if it’s right nutritionally, it is more likely to be due to fitness, race conditions, or just one of those things. So develop a list of foods you find fit your nutritional and confidence needs.

Have your last main meal three to four hours before exercise, with a light snack one to two hours prior. If you exercise in the early morning you won’t have sufficient time for a main meal, so just have the small snack. So what are some good choices? Low-fat foods are better than fatty foods which can sit in the stomach and feel heavy. Try pancakes, bread or toast with honey or jam, cereal with low-fat milk, porridge, pasta, fruit, and low-fat milk smoothies.  If you have less than one hour to eat before exercise, I find that bread with honey / jam, low fat cereal bars, or a sports drink (giving carbs and fluid) are a great boost and well digested.  And don’t forget to drink!  In the hours before exercise, you should have a few glasses of water. Then, about 15 minutes before starting have another couple of glasses.

During exercise:

This really depends on how long and what exercise you are doing.  If you are exercising for less than one hour, and it’s not a hot day, you may be fine just to sip on water.  Weighing yourself before and after exercise tells you how much you have sweated – if you lose 1kg, you have sweated 1L.  Remember if you drink while exercising, you also need to count this fluid in your loss (that is, if you lose 1kg on the scales, and drink 500mL water, you have really lost 1.5L in that time).  If you can drink 80% of what you lose while exercising (eg. in this case, 1.2L), this is ideal!  Then after you finish, you just need to replace the last amount (ie. 300mL), plus an extra 50% (ie. 150mL) as you continue to sweat and may go to the toilet.

If you are exercising for more than 1 hour, or it’s a hot day, a sports drink is a handy option.  This provides carbohydrates, fluid, and a small amount of sodium, which can help keep you well hydrated.  It’s a good idea to practice with a sports drink in training rather than a competition or fun-run, as they taste quite different when you are not exercising, and you need to get used to them!  Better to have a training session as practice than the important event!  For most people 600 - 750mL sports drink per hour will provide enough fluid and carbohydrates.

 If you wish to eat something when exercising, go for easily digested, carbohydrate-rich foods including white bread with jam or vegemite, low fat cereal bars, lollies or sports gels.

After exercise:

 You need to replace the carbohydrate your body has used, and also include some protein to help with muscle repair.  It is best to do this as soon as possible, and popular suitable choices include fruit and yoghurt, rolls with meat or cheese, lollies, fruit smoothies, low fat muffins, or a meal replacement such as Sustagen Sport.  As mentioned earlier, you need to also replace fluids after exercise, and cold drinks are often easier to consume in large volumes.  Sports drinks are very suitable, and water is appropriate if you are eating at the same time. 

 It is good to have a high carbohydrate, protein-containing meal on this night too, to further replace muscle energy stores, and to ensure you are ready for the next exercise session.  Good choices are varied but may include a beef, chicken or tofu stir fry with rice or noodles, spaghetti bolognese with vegetables or salad, or grilled fish with bread and salad.

Alison Walsh is a dietitian, and has worked for the Carlton Football Club and Victorian Titans Basketball team.  She now runs a busy private practice in all areas of nutrition, writes for Runner’s World magazine, and presents on RRR 102.7FM “Run Like You Stole Something” (Sat 9 – 10am).  She also lectures to schools, and corporate and sporting groups.  To contact Alison, email alisonwalsh@optusnet.com.au or phone (03) 9853 2017.

 © Alison Walsh, Alison Walsh Pty Ltd ACN 112 196 728.  No part of this document may be reprinted nor published in any form whatsoever without the consent of Alison Walsh first obtained.

NB: This article is not intended to be medical advice, and is written for educational purposes only.