Food for Fuel

If you want to improve your athletic performance, increase strength, or perform well in competition/on game day, then it is vital to fuel your exercise sessions well. Timing is as important as type of fuel. (For some people, whose only aim is to lose weight, exercising on an empty stomach may be of benefit).

Here are just a few of the reasons why it is important to eat pre exercise:

  • carbohydrate to provide the muscles with energy
  • protein to repair muscle damage caused during exercise
  • protein & carbohydrate to build new muscle
  • carbohydrate and caffeine to improve concentration

It may sound obvious, but to be used as fuel, food and fluids need to be digested and absorbed in to the body. Ideally, a meal should be eaten 3-4 hours before exercise, with a top up of a smaller snack 1-2 hours before. This snack should be low fibre and low in fat as this allows faster digestion and less likely to cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Anything consumed within an hour of exercise starting should be very quickly absorbed.

For people wanting to improve fitness while losing weight, be careful of increasing overall daily calorie intake. Adding extra food and drinks for fueling purposes won’t help with weight loss, as you want to create an energy deficit (calories used up more than calories eaten/drunk). Instead, redistribute calorie intake through the day, and use lower calorie options eg, fruit, veg, low fat yoghurt, a cup of milky coffee during the 1-2 hours before exercise.

Ideas for pre exercise meals:

3-4 hours before exercise:

  • Pitta/crumpets/toast with jam or honey + flavoured milk
  • Jacket potato & cottage cheese/beans/tuna/chicken
  • Baked beans on toast
  • Breakfast cereal/porridge with milk
  • Bread roll/sandwich/bagel/wrap with cheese/meat/chicken & salad


    3-4 hours before: Noodles, chicken stir fry and broccoli

  • Fruit + yoghurt
  • Pasta, rice or noodles with tomato sauce, lean meat eg. chicken, vegetables

1-2 hours before exercise (low fat, low fibre, high carbs and some protein) :

  • Milk shake or Fruit smoothie

    Chocolate milkshake

    1-2 hours before: Chocolate milkshake

  • Sports bars
  • Breakfast cereal with milk
  • Toast with honey/jam
  • Fruit-flavoured yoghurt
  • Fresh fruit
  • Dried fruit
  • Cup of milky coffee (caffeine enhances performance by reducing perception on fatigue, and increasing alertness and concentration)

Early morning sessions: If you train first thing in the morning, it is probably not possible to have a meal 3-4 hours before. In these circumstances, have a good meal the night before, then a snack and fluid 1-2 hours pre exercise eg. breakfast cereal and milk, fruit and cereal bar, smoothie or milkshake. Make sure that you then top up carbohydrate levels during the training session or event with a high carbohydrate drink.

Specific requirements: it is possible to calculate specific amounts of carbohydrate for optimal fuelling eg. 1-4 g/kg consumed 1-4 hr pre-exercise. A dietitian can help you calculate your individual requirements, and translate these in to actual amounts of food.

Everybody responds differently to eating and drinking before exercise. Experiment during training to find out what works best for you. Don’t leave it until the day of a big event to try something new!


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