By: Makayla Meixner, MS, RDN
Similar to eating before exercise, eating during exercise can help increase your energy levels and improve performance. You may be wondering whether it’s always necessary to eat during training or competitions. The answer is: it depends.
Whether or not to fuel during exercise depends on the intensity and the duration of the exercise. In many scenarios, fueling early and fueling often — particularly with carbohydrate-rich foods and beverages — can help improve endurance and aid muscle recovery.
This article covers when to fuel during exercise, why it’s important, and what types of foods and beverages work best.
When and why to consider fueling during exercise
Eating during exercise is similar to refueling your car. If you go too long without refueling your tank, you’ll soon be running on fumes. If you’ve ever “hit a wall” during exercise, you’ve likely experienced this first hand.
As exercise intensity and duration increases, so does energy expenditure. Fueling during exercise — particularly with carbohydrate-rich sources — can help provide your muscles with an energy boost when it’s needed most. Plus, studies suggest that fueling during exercise can help with muscle recovery.
As a rule of thumb, your body is likely going to need some additional carbohydrates when you’re exercising hard for over 60-90 minutes.
For workouts less than an hour, eating during exercise isn’t always necessary — the food you eat throughout the day and directly before the workout can usually supply enough energy to keep you at peak performance.
Examples of what to eat during exercise
During exercise, it’s best to consume carbohydrate-rich foods or beverages that are relatively easy to digest.
If you’re involved in very high-intensity exercise, sports drinks, sports gels, and other sports foods designed for fueling during exercise can be highly beneficial. This is especially true for those who tend to get stomach issues during exercise.
To supply your body with enough carbohydrates, a general recommendation is to have 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour beginning after the first hour of exercise.
Here are a few examples of foods and beverages to try during exercise:
Foods high in fat or fiber are not recommended during running, swimming, or other intense exercises. Additionally, beverages such as fruit juice, sodas, and smoothies are not recommended during high-intensity exercise. Though these beverages are rich in carbohydrates, they are much more concentrated in sugar than sports drinks, which can ultimately lead to stomach issues.
However, a wider variety of food is usually tolerated during exercises that are low to moderate in intensity. For example, trail mix and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are typically well-tolerated during long, lower-intensity bike rides and hiking.
Eating during exercise can help keep energy levels high when you’re working out hard for over 60-90 minutes. Opt for carbohydrate-rich foods that are easier to digest such as sports drinks, fruit, and pretzels. A rule of thumb is to aim for 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, beginning after the first hour of exercise.
Makayla Meixner is a performance dietitian and founder of Own It Nutrition. She specializes in fueling strategies for winter athletes and offers individual and group nutrition coaching services.