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Fuel Up

Eat and drink your way to better performance


Fuel Up

If you're unsure what you should be eating and drinking pre-, during, and postworkout, read on. Fuelling up with proper nutrition can boost your workout performance.

Your eating and drinking habits directly affect your workout. Since we all know that the key to athletic success is a solid training program, the best way to get the most out of your training (and ultimately your performance) is to learn how best to fuel its progress with proper nutrition.

Not everyone’s ideal nutritional program will look the same when amount of food, type of food, time of intake, and individual digestion times are factored into the equation. Regardless of individual needs, there are guidelines for each stage of activity (pre-, during, and post-exercise) that everyone can follow to ensure optimal physical performance.


When should I fuel up?

The average adult partially digests nutrients in the stomach in two to three hours (depending on the type of food). When they eat too close to exercise, many people feel sluggish and sometimes nauseous, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Additionally, blood is required in the muscles for optimal muscular contraction. Leaving insufficient time between eating and exercising will force the body to commit resources to the digestive tract to ensure proper digestion, depriving the muscles of much needed fluids.

Is carb loading a good idea?

Because carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy, it is important to consume an adequate and biologically available source of carbohydrates. Contrary to what you may have heard about “carb loading” for a big race or a match, spaghetti, linguini, fettuccini, or most other “i”s are not good choices.

While they do contain monosaccharides and disaccharides that provide the body with instant energy, as well as long-term energy, they are also heavy in starch and will sit in your stomach for a lot longer than you would hope.

Choose healthy carbs

Instead look to nuts, fruits, and vegetables as well as whole grains and oats. As a general rule, avoid processed food. There are also a great number of natural supplementary and energy bars that are easily metabolized and put to use by your body.

Drink up

While it is important to maintain consistent hydration throughout the day, be sure to include an extra cup (250 mL) or two (500 mL) before your workout (though not all at once unless you want frequent bathroom breaks!).

Game on

Because the process of digestion pulls vital fluids from muscles to the digestive tract, it is not recommended to consume food of any kind during a workout unless the workout will last 90 minutes or longer. If you are planning on an intense extended workout, you may want to consider consuming something that provides ready biologically available energy.

Fruits for fuel

Fruits, such as bananas and oranges, are natural foods that will provide instant energy. One common mistake that many exercisers make is consuming something high in protein during a workout (or pre-workout). This is a big mistake as the body’s main source of energy is carbohydrates; proteins are a secondary source. The only reason to consume any foods during a workout is to avoid the body’s breakdown of proteins (muscle) in the body.

Liquid energy

Another way to get instant energy is to consume your carbohydrates in liquid form by adding a powdered supplement to your water.

Experts recommend consuming an additional 16 oz (500 mL) of water for every 30 minutes of exercise. But be wary of many of the conventional sports drinks out there. They boast electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and sometimes carbohydrates as well.

Here’s the kicker: unless you’re performing at high intensity for a 60-minute workout (we are talking marathon training here), you don’t need those electrolytes (salts). And the vitamins and minerals they give you won’t be absorbed for another few hours. The carbohydrates they give you? Sugar—or worse—a synthetic derivative.

For rehydration purposes alone, good old H2O is your numero uno choice. While some exercisers reported some bloating, coconut water is also a good option if you are feeling low in energy or shaky after a workout (usually because of a calorie deficit) because it contains quick-use, biologically accessible carbohydrates.


Refuel the fire

You did it! You sweated your donkey off (at times sounding like one from the amount of effort you gave). Before you pass out, you need to put a little more gas in the tank in the form of carbohydrates and proteins.

Carbohydrates will ensure your energy levels are restored. Proteins are crucial for repairing exercised tissues and building muscle to make you stronger.

The human body is most responsive to absorbing protein within 30 minutes of a workout; excess protein before or during a workout will just be wasted.

Post-exercise protein

Let’s take a second to outline some good carbohydrate and protein sources. Proteins are often synonymous with meats: beef, pork, fish, poultry, and shellfish all qualify as proteins (think lungs and gills). You can also get quality protein from various nuts, beans, grains, and vegetables as well.

Note that not all proteins are created equal. For example, a glass of milk may contain 8 g of protein, but only 40 percent of that protein is available to be absorbed by your body. The other 60 percent? Stored as fat.

Crunchy carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are commonly viewed as breads, wheat products, starches, grains, and oats. Yes, those are carbohydrates, but so are fruits and vegetables. These provide you with sustainable long- and short-term energy, cholesterol-lowering and bowel-regulating fibre, and, best of all, essential vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy, happy, and balanced.

Water Up

As a general rule, if you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. The fluid you have been leaking all workout long is mainly composed of water and needs to be replenished. For every half hour of exercise, you should drink 16 oz (500 mL) of water over the next couple of hours following your workout.

Nutrition can be a minefield, so don’t hesitate to visit your local health care practitioner or natural health food store to get the details that will put pop in your hop and pep in your step! 

Workout nutrition guide

Weight of athlete (kg) Intensity level & number of workouts per week Recommended daily intake of calories per kg % Daily calories from fats, protein, and carbs for all athletes
50-80 low: 3
medium: 4
high: 5+
For low intensity:
fats: 30% / carbs: 57% / proteins: 13%
80-110 low: 3
medium: 4
high: 5+
For medium intensity:
fats: 30% / carbs: 55% / proteins: 15%
110-150 low: 3
medium: 4
high: 5+
For high intensity:
fats: 30% / carbs: 50% / proteins: 20%


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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD