WHAT TO EAT & DRINK DURING EXERCISE

Victoria Shelley

June 10, 2021

As physiotherapists working with an active and sporting population, we are often asked by patients if we have any recommendations on what to eat and drink during exercise. Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist Victoria Shelley has a special interest in “Nutrition & Hydration” and currently is a tutor at The University of Melbourne for the Masters of Sports & Exercise Medicine in this topic and previously coordinated the hydration and nutrition program on the WTA tour.

We acknowledge that as physiotherapists, we are able to provide general nutritional advice only. Should you require a more specific, individualised nutrition and hydration plan, please speak to one of the Grand Slam Physios and they will be able to refer you onto an Accredited Dietitian or Accredited Sports Dietitian who are the experts in this field.

Hydrating and fuelling during exercise

Timing of Nutrition:  Before training and competition

Starting exercise in a well hydrated and well-nourished state is important for sustained energy, strength, endurance, concentration and skill during the session. The type and timing of food consumed before training and competition can make a big difference to how you feel and perform.

It is generally recommended to eatyour last ‘main’ or large meal 2-4 hours before the start of training/competition, to allow for adequate time for the food to digest. Some people may also benefit from having another ‘top up’ snack 1-2 hours before the start of training/competition. Everyone is different, so practicing pre-exercise food in training, is critical to refining your selection before important competitions. Foods that are quick and easy to digest i.e. low in fat and high in carbohydrate, to top up energy stores, coupled with small, regular sips of fluid is recommended. Opting for something that is low in fibre is also helpful to avoid unwanted stops to the toilet mid exercise.

Examples of Low fibre pre-exercise foods

  • toast or crumpets with banana and honey
  • raisin toast with jam or a small bowl of cereal
  • Top up snacks of a banana or muesli bar.
  • For athletes who get nervous or can’t tolerate food before competition, liquid meals like a fruit smoothie

The ideal pre-training or competition fluid will depend on your sport and the goal of the session. If your goal is to start your session in a well hydrated state then water or water with electrolytes is more than likely sufficient. If you are chasing peak performance then fluids that also contain energy, like a sports drink, might be helpful.

Timing of Nutrition:  During training and competition

Recommendations around eating and drinking during exercise depend on the duration, intensity, and goal of the session being executed. For example, fuelling for a 100m sprint would be very different than fuelling for a marathon.

How much do I need to consume during exercise?

As a general rule, if the intensity is low, you should have sufficient fuel stores to train for up to 60-90minutes without the need to consume extra energy (carbohydrate). If the session is longer, or you are chasing peak performance, the consumption of carbohydrate may prove beneficial.

The illustration below summarises some of the key recommendations about fuelling during exercise.

Source: Jeukendrup. A.(2015).

https://www.mysportscience.com/post/2015/05/27/recommendations-for-carb-intake-during-exercise#:%7E:text=For%20exercise%20lasting%201%2D2,up%20to%2090%20g%2Fh.

For exercise lasting 90 minutes or longer there are benefits to consuming carbohydrate during the session. The exact amount will depend on the duration and intensity, as well as individual factors such as tolerance and taste preferences.

For endurance events lasting longer than 4 hours, there are complex fuelling and hydration considerations. The logistics of accessing carbohydrates and hydration requirements, plus managing difficulties with appetite, flavour fatigue and gastrointestinal (stomach) discomfort need to be factored in.

For multi-day events, glycogen stores will gradually deplete over consecutive days of competition. Ensuring carbohydrate stores are maintained as best as possible during each day’s bout of exercise and then topped up in the rest period is important to avoid unwanted fatigue. Without sufficient fluid there is also the potential for dehydration to carry over to subsequent days of competition, which has the potential to negatively impact performance.

What to consume during exercise?

The question about what to consume during exercise is a common one. Generally, it needs to be high in carbohydrate and easy to digest. What is also important is that you need to practice ingesting the form of carbohydrate that you choose during your training session, so that your body is used to it and also to find out which works best for you.    

Examples of what to consume during exercise:

  • Sports Drinks
  • Sports Gels (+/-water)
  • Energy Bars/Muesli Bars
  • Bananas
  • Simple Sandwich (e.g. jam, vegemite)

If you would like to read more about this topic, check out the following research.

https://www.mysportscience.com/post/2017/09/18/what-is-better-energy-bars-gels-or-drinks

If you are interested in learning more about nutrition and hydration for sport, The Sports Dietitian’s Australia website https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/ has some fantastic educational fact sheets available. You can also search for a practising Accredited Sports Dietitian on their website, or talk to one of the physiotherapists at Grand Slam Physiotherapy about referring you onto one in your local area.