Health & Fitness

What to eat when you workout

Should you eat before a run or after? Do you really need a sports drink or will water do? Find the best ways to fuel your workout.


“Leave a few hours between eating and going to your class, as too much food in your upper digestive tract will end up making you feel uncomfortable,” says sports nutritionist Anita Bean, author of A Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition (Bloomsbury Publishing, $39.99). “You shouldn’t be burning a huge amount of kilojoules, so you don’t need to fuel up. Just be sure anything you eat beforehand is healthy and easy to digest. A chicken salad wrap is ideal.”

Yoga teachers discourage drinking water during classes, as it interrupts the flow of the moves – and you won’t lose that much fluid anyway (sweaty Bikram yoga is the exception). “Just remember to have a good drink of water after your class has finished,” says Bean.


A cereal bar half an hour before your class will give you energy and, if it’s a particularly tough class, an isotonic drink sipped throughout will further enhance your performance, Bean says. “For medium- or low-impact sessions, though, water is fine. Or consider a low-sugar sports drink – it won’t load you up with unnecessary carbs.”


For workouts of less than 90 minutes, what you eat before you begin is all-important. “If you’re properly fuelled, you won’t need anything during the session except water,” says Bean, who advocates eating a high-carb meal two or three hours before you start. “Pasta or a jacket potato are easily digested, and provide a sustained release of blood sugar, plus enough glycogen to last the course. Alternatively, try eating a cereal or energy bar 30 minutes beforehand.” During your workout you should aim to drink about 500ml of water.


With resistance training, it’s what you eat afterwards that’s key. Your body will need protein to rebuild muscles after a workout – while milk, when consumed immediately after a session, also has a restorative effect. “When muscles come under duress, as they do with weights, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, leading to tissue breakdown, explains Bean. “Milk encourages tissue build-up.” A peanut butter sandwich or a handful of nuts and raisins, plus a glass of skim milk, makes the perfect post-session snack. Throughout your workout, sip plenty of water.


On runs longer than 90 minutes, you will need to keep your muscles fuelled, maximise endurance, and replace lost fluids – so an isotonic drink is ideal, recommends Bean. Buy one or make your own by adding a pinch of salt to diluted fruit juice or cordial. Another option is to carry water plus an energy gel, a soft cereal bar or a few jelly babies. A recovery drink consumed immediately after your run will aid muscle repair and give your immune system a well-earned boost.


Again, it’s what you eat before you hit the pool that’s most important, with protein and carbs being the order of the day. “If you’re planning a lunchtime swim, eat a breakfast of porridge with banana, milk and honey, or poached eggs on toast, then have a small snack half an hour before you dive in,” Bean suggests. A handful of dried fruit and nuts or a granola bar will sustain your blood sugar level for a good hour or so without giving you a stitch. During the swim, sip water or cordial.


“Cycling is pretty hard work, so take an isotonic drink along to boost your endurance, or bring a bottle of water and stuff a practical snack inside your jersey,” advises Bean. A cereal bar or a banana will provide a slow-release boost.

“Afterwards, a protein-and carb-rich recovery drink will help restore your energy level, aid muscle repair and rehydrate you. You can use cyclist-specific ones, but I recommend Nesquik because it provides the perfect ratio of carbs to protein.”