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Food and drinks for sport

Find out how a healthy diet can support your exercise regime.

Find out what food and drink will help you get the most out of your sport and fitness activities.

You should aim to eat a healthy, balanced diet whatever your activity level, as this will provide you with all the nutrients you need.

If you need specialist nutrition advice, contact the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr).

The Eatwell Guide shows you how much you should eat from each food group to get the balance right.

This page covers:

Food for energy

Starchy and other forms of carbohydrate provide a source of energy for your body to perform at its best, no matter what your sport or activity.

In general, the more you exercise, the more carbohydrate you need to include in your daily meals and around exercise. 

A demanding exercise regime will use up your stored energy from carbohydrate quickly, so include some carbohydrate in most of your meals.

A diet low in carbohydrate can lead to a lack of energy during exercise, loss of concentration, and delayed recovery.

If you wish to adopt a lower carbohydrate diet for your sport, you should seek specialist advice.

Healthy sources of carbohydrate include:

  • wholegrain bread
  • wholegrain breakfast cereals (including some cereal bars)
  • brown rice
  • wholewheat pasta 
  • potatoes (with skins on) 
  • fruit, including dried and tinned fruit

Food for muscles

Eating protein-rich foods alone won't build big muscles.

Muscle is gained through a combination of muscle-strengthening exercise, and a diet that contains protein and sufficient energy from a balance of carbohydrates and fats.

Not all the protein you eat is used to build new muscle. If you overeat protein, the excess will be used mostly for energy once your body has what it needs for muscle repair.

Most fitness enthusiasts can get enough protein from a healthy, varied diet without having to increase their protein intake significantly. 

Healthy sources of protein:

  • beans, peas and lentils 
  • cheese, yoghurt and milk 
  • fish, including oily fish like salmon or mackerel
  • eggs
  • tofu, tempeh and other plant-based meat-alternatives 
  • lean cuts of meat and mince
  • chicken and other poultry

A source of protein should be included at most mealtimes to optimise muscle building.

Taking in protein before and after a workout has been shown to help kickstart the muscle repair process.

Training protein snacks:

  • milk of all types – but lower-fat types contain less energy
  • unsweetened soy drink 
  • natural dairy yoghurt of all types – including Greek yoghurt and kefir
  • soy yoghurt and other plant-based alternatives
  • unsalted mixed nuts and seeds 
  • unsweetened dried fruit 
  • boiled eggs 
  • hummus with carrot and celery sticks

Food before sport and exercise

You should allow about three hours before you exercise after having a main meal, such as breakfast or lunch.

An hour before exercising, having a light snack that contains some protein, and is higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat, is a good choice to help you perform during your training and recover afterwards.

Choose a snack that you'll digest quickly, like:

  • porridge 
  • fruit, such as a banana  
  • a slice of wholegrain bread spread thinly with a nut butter
  • a plain or fruit scone with low-fat cheese
  • yoghurt or non-dairy alternatives 
  • cottage cheese and crackers
  • a glass of milk or non-dairy alternatives

Snacks to avoid before exercise

These types of food may cause stomach discomfort if eaten just before exercising.

Fatty foods, like:

  • chips or french fries
  • avocados
  • olives
  • crisps
  • full-fat cheeses 
  • large amounts of nuts

High-fibre foods, like:

  • raw vegetables
  • high-fibre cereals
  • raw nuts and seeds

Food and drink during exercise

Most exercise lasting less than 60 minutes only requires water.

If you're exercising for longer, have a quick-digesting carbohydrate and some electrolytes (salts and minerals), such as:

  • an isotonic sports drink
  • a glass of milk 
  • a banana
  • dried fruit
  • a cereal or sports bar
  • carbohydrate gel

Make sure you're drinking enough water (or similar) during your effort. 

Water and exercise

Not drinking enough water can have a major effect on your performance.

You should start any exercise session well hydrated. This means drinking water regularly throughout the day.

The choice of drink depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise, and your training goals.

In general:

  • only water is needed for moderate exercise that lasts less than an hour
  • an isotonic sports drink, milk, or a combination of high-carbohydrate food and water for hard sessions that last longer than an hour

You can make a homemade sports drink with 200ml of squash (not low calorie), 800ml water and a large pinch of salt.

Learn more from our water and drinks page.

What to eat after exercise

Food and drink also plays a part in recovering effectively from training.

If you train several times a day, refuelling with a source of carbohydrate and protein – such as a glass of milk and a banana – within 60 minutes of finishing your first session can help you recover faster.

If you're training less than this or have more time to recover, make sure you rehydrate with water and eat as soon as you can afterwards. This might be your next main meal.

Food supplements and exercise

In general, a balanced diet will provide the nutrients and energy necessary for sport without the need for food supplements.

Athletes wanting to use supplements should seek specialist advice from a registered sports performance nutritionist from the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr).

Find out more about bodybuilding and sport supplements.

Exercise to lose weight

A demanding exercise routine can leave you feeling quite hungry if you're not refuelling correctly in between exercise sessions.

If you're trying to lose weight, you'll need to watch what you eat and drink after your workouts.

If you consume more energy than you burned during your exercise, you may find yourself putting on weight rather than losing it.

A punishing exercise routine may not be the best way to lose weight. Check out our Lose weight section for more advice.

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