The best exercise foods

What to eat before, during and after exercise

As any elite athlete will testify, your training is only as good as the food that you use to fuel it. But what are the best exercise foods pre-workout, during, and post-workout?

How would the marathon runner fare if they neglected to load up their carbohydrate stores before a 26.2 mile (42.2km) race? Would a bodybuilder achieve the gains they desire on a diet bereft of protein, which is key for building muscle? And can we expect to train at our best if we eschew good nutrition for junk food?

Clearly, correct dietary choices are extremely important to maximize training gains, especially in your pre and post-exercise eating. Nutrition for sport and exercise is a vast subject but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on what to eat before, during and after exercise — which makes a huge difference to your performance and recovery. This feature focuses on:

  • Correct food choices before different exercise sessions
  • How to maximize your recovery between workouts
  • Food and fuelling suggestions for when you’re on the go
  1. Before exercise
    If your nutrition is poor before your workout then you are guaranteed to feel lethargic and tired and will be unable to get the most out of your training session. Whether your session is in the pool, in the gym, at a yoga class or on the trails, you will always need correct fuelling.

    Before a cardiovascular session
    Ideally you should eat two hours before cardiovascular exercise to allow for digestion. Eat a low fat meal containing some good quality protein (for example lean meat or fish), together with some carbohydrate that has a low to medium glycaemic index. Glycaemic index or GI is a ranking system for different foods based on the speed that they enter the bloodstream. The higher the index value, the faster the food enters the bloodstream for example; glucose has a GI of 100. The lower the value, the slower the food enters the bloodstream and a more sustained energy release is achieved for example; porridge oats have a GI of 49, and so will enter the bloodstream more slowly than glucose.

    So, try to target 30g of protein combined with 1.1g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight.

    Before a resistance training session

    Your pre-resistance training session will not be dissimilar to your pre-CV workout, but you can add more carbohydrate if your session will be very intense.

    For example, target 30g of protein combined with 1.1 to 1.5g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight.
  2. During exercise
    Your energy requirements during exercise are dependent upon the duration of your workout. Solid food is unlikely to be very attractive and digestion will be slower than fluid and sweat losses can be in excess of one liter (33.8oz) per hour in hot conditions, so hydration is likely to be your primary concern. However, a drink can also include top-up carbohydrate to maintain your fuel stores.

    During a cardiovascular  or resistance training session

    You may need top-up fuel to help sustain your energy levels if your workout falls into one or more of the following categories:
  • It’s in excess of one hour
  • It’s extremely intensive
  • Your pre-exercise fuelling has been limited

    The most palatable fuel to consume during exercise is a drink, which has the added benefit of aiding your hydration. For shorter sessions, a glucose replacement energy drink is ideal but if you are exercising for well over an hour, for example when you are competing in a long distance race, then a specialist drink that contains a combination of quick energy (glucose — high GI) and slower-release energy (more complex carbohydrate — low GI) is more suitable.
  1. After exercise
    As soon as your workout finishes you need to move fast to optimize your refueling and recovery. Acting fast will accelerate your recovery and enable your body to rebuild, restock and be ready for your next exercise session. By refueling correctly after exercise you will experience less overall fatigue for the remainder of the day.

    After a CV session
    Within the first 15 minutes after your workout ends, drink a high GI carbohydrate drink containing 50g of carbohydrate, as this is the optimum amount for the body to utilize. A glucose energy replacement drink is ideal — this high GI food is fast-acting and will go straight to the working muscles to initiate restocking, and because it is in liquid form it will also help kick start your rehydration. Within two hours of your workout, consume another high GI carbohydrate food; again 50g is ideal. After the two-hour window, eat a meal comprising complex carbohydrate with a low GI (for example, wholemeal pasta), together with some low-fat protein. Studies indicate a 1:3 ratio is ideal but as long as you are consuming good quality protein, your needs should be covered.

    After a resistance training session
    Similar to the post-CV workout, the first 15 minutes after exercise is key. Replicate the high GI drink from the CV recovery program, with the addition of 30g of protein to immediately initiate the rebuilding process. Follow the same protocols for your nutrition and main meal during the post-CV two-hour recovery period — although there may be a greater carbohydrate requirement if the session has been particularly intense.
  2. Putting it all together
    To simplify your pre and post-workout fuelling, simply consult the following table so that you optimize your preparation and recovery:
Two hours before exercise:
30g low-fat protein + low/med glycaemic index carbohydrate

Note: if CV session is very long, for example a 3 hour run, then very high quantities of carbohydrate should be consumed.
Example: beans on toast
Pre-resistance training
Two hours before exercise:
30g low-fat protein + low/med glycaemic index carbohydrate

Note: may require more carbohydrate if session is planned to be intense.
Example: beans on toast
During CV
Session duration up to one hour:
Water and rapid energy replacement drinks (glucose).
Session longer than one hour:
Water and more specialist energy replacement drinks (glucose + slow release energy).
During resistance training
Resistance training sessions are generally no longer than one hour, so water and rapid energy replacement drinks (glucose) are most suitable.
First 15 minutes: high-GI glucose drink.
Within two hours: high-GI food (for example a baked potato).
After two hours: low-GI carbohydrate meal + protein (for example wholemeal pasta + tuna bake).
Post-resistance training
First 15 minutes: high-GI glucose drink + 30g of protein.
Within two hours: high-GI food (for example a baked potato).
After two hours: low-GI carbohydrate meal + protein (for example wholemeal pasta + tuna bake)

Getting the most out of your training is about factoring in everything — from the right sessions and adequate recovery to structured tapering and correct nutrition. Correct nutrition can mean the difference between

the perfect recipes to fuel your training.

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