Real Food Refueling During Exercise

Maria leading a training hike to Camp Muir with the American Lung Association Climb for Clean Air 2004

Real Food Refueling During Exercise

Carbohydrate ingestion during exercise can reduce muscle glycogen breakdown. During a long hike, snowshoeing, or intense bike ride, replenishing energy stores is key. Some athletes rely on sports energy gels that contain quick-digesting sugars to provide a burst of energy and top off glycogen stores as they fatigue during longer efforts.

However, some endurance athletes do not want to consume a gel, a sugary sports drink or a bar packed with synthetic ingredients and prefer real food refueling. Real foods can be just as effective as sports nutrition products. Although sports nutrition products can be a good choice, not to mention convenient, whole foods are a good choice because of the wide variety of nutrients in them, including antioxidants. Antioxidants in food can help reduce oxidative stress, promote recovery and improve performance.

Fluids should always be consumed along with solid foods during training to aid in absorption of the carbohydrate. Read more on hydration.

Keep in mind that the real foods will take longer to absorb than a gel, and that the fiber content might be too much during races for those with sensitive stomachs. Some athletes have increased difficulty in digesting and absorbing food at high intensity. It might also take a bit of chewing. So, with all refueling regimens, practice and see what works best.

And utilize these guidelines along with optimal pre-exercise and post-exercise nutrition strategies.

The majority of athletes will perform better when they fuel properly according to these guidelines during workouts lasting longer than 75 minutes.

1:15 to 3 hours: 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour.

3+ hours: 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour

Use the table below to calculate how much you might need. The serving size of provides 25-35g of carbohydrate, which is the equivalent of most gels.


Type of food Serving size for 25-30g of carbs
Banana 7 oz. (31 g)
Raisins 2.5 oz box (35g)
Medjool Dates 1.5 dates (35g)
Small pitted dates 5 dates (40g)
Dried apricots 5-6 apricots (30-35g)
Dried pineapple 1.5 rings (30g)
Dried Mango, cut into bite size pieces 40 grams (34g)
Honey 1 Tbsp (28g)
Fig Bars 3 (33g)
Yoplait Original Yogurt Strawberry 2 gm fat 6 oz. (27g)
Boiled Potato 2 ½ “ diameter, 136 grams (28g)
Baked Sweet Potato 2 ½ “ diameter, 114 grams (24g)

Maria Faires, RD is a mountaineering fitness and nutrition expert.


What Should I Eat before Exercise? Pre-Exercise Nutrition and the Response to Endurance Exercise: Current Prospective and Future Directions

Metabolic and Performance Effects of Raisins versus Sports Gel as Pre-Exercise Feedings in Cyclists

Carbohydrate ingestion during prolonged exercise: effects on metabolism and performance

Performance Effects of Carbohydrate Ingestion between Bouts of Intense Aerobic Interval Exercise

Exercise and oxidative stress: potential effects of antioxidant dietary strategies in sport


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Fueling for Performance for Hiking and Mountaineering


Maria Faires and son Jordan Faires hiking to Camp Muir

For intense hiking training for mountaineering, you will benefit from having a well-planned fueling program that ensures adequate calorie and fluid intake. And for maximum fueling, choose “Real Foods” instead of processed like candy bars, protein or energy bars, granola bars, etc. See this post: Hiking Snack: Processed versus Real Food

Carbohydrate is the most important source of energy for the exerciser. Recommendations for carbohydrate intake range from 3-10g/kg body weight per day and may even be up to 12 g/kg for extreme and prolonged activities. See a registered dietitian for your specific needs. During exercise an intake of 30-60 grams per hour fuels the muscles and maintains blood glucose concentrations. For athletic events over 2.5 hours, up to 90 grams per hour can help with performance. And interestingly, some studies have suggested that frequent contact of carbohydrate to the mouth can stimulate the brain to enhance perception of well-being and increase performance, so during an athletic activity you may choose to sip on a sports drink containing carbohydrate.

Carbohydrates deliver the energy that fuels muscles. Once eaten, carbohydrates breakdown into glucose, fructose and galactose that then get absorbed and used to fuel workouts. Any that isn’t required immediately is stockpiled in the muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen. After these glycogen stores are filled up, any extra gets stored as fat. Glycogen is used during immediate and short intense bursts of exercise. During more long slower bouts, fat is used too. If glycogen isn’t available protein is used.

Recommendations for daily protein intake range between 1.2 to 2 g/kg body weight. It is ideal to space intakes of high-quality protein throughout the day .25 to .3 grams/kg

Pre-Hike Fueling

Prior to your hike, you will want to eat wisely. The calories in your pre-event meal will last for about 60 to 90 minutes. About 1-2 hours prior, a small pre or post hike meal or snack should be consumed. It should consist mostly carbohydrate and some protein (to let it stay with you a little longer) and should be very low in fat, to allow the stomach to digest the food quickly. This will increase glucose levels in the circulation and “top-off” muscle glycogen stores. If you are training for an event, these pre-event meals should be experimented with so that you know they work for you. Experiment with the type, timing and amounts. Some examples of pre-exercise snacks:

  • Yogurt with whole grain crackers or fruit
  • Bowl of whole grain cereal with low-fat milk and blueberries or banana
  • Fig newtons and a glass of low-fat milk
  • 100% whole wheat bread with slice of low-fat cheese or nut butter
  • Fruit smoothie made with non-fat yogurt
  • Oatmeal made with fruit and low-fat milk
  • Banana and string cheese
  • Whole Wheat Bagel with peanut butter and a yogurt
  • Egg and 100% Whole Wheat Toast
  • For more ideas, see my blog here on healthy breakfasts, some of these make great snacks, lunches or dinners too

Fueling During your Hike

Experiment during training hikes to observe how your body responds and make adjustments before your big climb. If you are exercising less than an hour, there is no need to eat during exercise if you have eaten a meal before. Drink 6 to 12 oz. of water every 15 minutes during exercise.

For long, hard hike that last beyond 1-1.5 hours, you should try to supplement at least one-third or more of the calories burned. Consult sports dietitian Maria Faires to help you estimate YOUR calorie needs and how many calories you burned per hour.

Here is an estimate of how to fuel during hiking: If you are hiking vigorously for 1-2 ½ hours then it’s smart to consume a 120-240 calories (30-60 grams of carbs) per hour snack to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout your hike.

If you are hiking vigorously for over 2 ½ hours then it’s smart to consume a 240-350 calories (60-90 grams of carbs) per hour snack to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout your hike.

If you are using an energy gel, use a gel that contains multiple sources of fuel (like glucose and fructose) as you’ll be able to consume and absorb more fuel each hour and therefore keep your system energized. Be sure to begin taking gels relatively early in the hike. By taking the gels early, your body shouldn’t be under great stress and you will be able to digest it. Always take energy gels with plenty of plain water, not a sports drink.

Refueling with whole foods is always a good choice. Go here for refueling with real foods during exercise.


Experiment with both salty and sweet foods to see what you like. Try to choose the most  nutritious foods. If you are a heavy sweater, choose some of the foods that are higher in sodium. Keep your perishables chilled. Some hikers do well with a caffeine-boost. If you want to experiment with this, pack iced tea in one of your water bottles.

Stay fueled and energized on your next hiking trip with these healthy and nutrient-packed “real food” hiking snacks that will keep hiking all day.

Examples of Foods to Take Hiking

Dried fruit such as pineapple, raisins, cherries, blueberries, dates, mango, apricots

Fresh fruit such as banana, apple, orange slices, grapes, berries

2% fat or lower cottage cheese topped with frozen blueberries. (The frozen berries keep the cottage cheese chilled during your hike)

Fig Bar Cookies

Soy beans (shelled edamame) that you find in the frozen section of your grocery store

Hummus on Wheat Crackers

Triscuits, or whole grain bread, or whole grain roll with Peanut Butter

Whole Grain or Corn Tortilla Filled with Refried Beans, Salsa, and Cheese

String cheese

Gummy Bears (NOT sugarless as these can give you diarrhea)

Peanut butter and honey sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread

Jerky (not a carbohydrate source, but a good addition for some protein

Sports drink, gummies, gels, bars. Click here to see how to choose the best ones


Cereal nuggets like Kashi Go Lean Crunch or Cinnamon Harvest

Almonds, Walnuts, Peanuts, Pumpkin Seeds

Post Hike Fueling

Consume calories and fluids immediately following the hike in the form of a 100 to 400 calories. Eating a high-carbohydrate snack or meal with protein in the immediate post-exercise period has been shown to quickly encourage the replacement of glycogen that was used up during the exercise session and provide the amino acids necessary to build and repair muscle tissue and the protein will enhance glycogen storage. This aids recovery and will allow the hiker to start stocking up on stored carbohydrate for the next training session. Vitamin supplements post hiking isn’t necessary if the athletes are eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods. Supplementation may be wise if the athlete is unable to eat enough nutrient-dense foods. This is an area where a registered dietitian can assist. If a athlete is vegan or a vegetarian they may be at risk for low intake of creatine, carnosine, calories, protein, B12, iron and fat. Dairy is a great post-exercise food or beverage because the leucine content helps with muscle growth.

Fluid and Hydration

You will have to drink enough water or sports drink to prevent dehydration. Fluid loss from sweat results in dehydration that can impair performance, make exercising seem more difficult and impair mental functioning and affect your ability to perform effectively.  Hikers should get in a habit of drinking fluid on a regular basis. To check your hydration status, check your urine. You should be voiding light-colored, pale yellow urine every 2 to 4 hours. And if you’re thirsty, you are most likely a quart low. Choose beverages that you like so that you will be more likely to consume them.

  • Drink plenty of fluids with meals.
  • Drink 16 oz. 2 hours before activity.
  • Drink another 8 to 16 oz. 15 minutes before activity.
  • Drink 6 to 12 oz. every 15 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink 24 oz. for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.
  • In events lasting longer than ninety minutes, performance will likely be enhanced with the use of a sports drink containing carbohydrate.


Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance
VL  – 116
DO  – 10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006
JO  – Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

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Nutrition for the Dancer

Ballet dancer Mari permission givenDancers are performing athletes and nutrition can make a tremendous difference in performance, muscle strength,  fatigue, and injury rates. To perform at their best, dancers need to be well fueled for classes, rehearsals, and performances.

Working with a registered dietitian who understands the demands of these unique performing athletes is the first step in increasing performance, finding a strong healthy weight, and reducing injuries.

Calorie Needs

One important challenge facing many dancers is ingesting sufficient quantities of food to meet the energy demands of dance. When a dancer goes for too long without eating or restricts calories, the body breaks down muscle in order to operate. So starving the body results in less muscle, lower metabolic rate, and higher percentage body fat. A low caloric intake will not only hurt energy availability, it can also lead to an under-consumption of many micronutrients that could affect performance, growth and health.

The first step in planning a high performance diet is to be sure that the dancer is obtaining adequate caloric intake. The easiest rough estimate of how many calories a dancer requires during regular moderate training is 15 calories per pound of body weight for females and 18 calories per pound of body weight for males. For a more accurate assessment, dancers should consult a dietitian. Professional dancers who have a rigorous schedule such a two hour dance class and a 4-6 hour rehearsal and performance schedule will need significantly more than this.

To diminish the risk of energy imbalance and associated disorders, dancers must consume at least 30 kcal/kg fat-free mass/day, plus the training energy expenditure. For macronutrients, a daily intake of 3 to 5 g carbohydrates/kg, 1.2 to 1.7 g protein/kg, and 20 to 35% of energy intake from fat can be recommended. **

Caloric needs can then be divided as needed such as: Breakfast, Morning Snack, Lunch, Post-rehearsal re-fuel, Dinner before performance, Post-performance re-fuel.

It can be difficult to know how many calories, carbohydrate, fat and protein are actually being ingested. One way to get a sense of how adequate a diet is in these terms is to periodically monitor on an online food journal such as My Fitness Pal. A profile with customization can be set up with the guidelines given here for calories, carbohydrate, fat and protein.

See a dietitian for a detailed meal plan including meal suggestions based on your individual assessment.

After calculating the number of calories needed, the next step is to estimate the necessary amount of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, the building blocks of the diets.


A dancer’s diet should be composed of about 50-55% carbohydrate, 20-25% protein, and 20-30% fat.

Carbohydrate is the key fuel source for exercise, especially during prolonged continuous or high-intensity exercise. The body stores carbohydrate as glycogen in the muscles and liver, however its storage capacity is limited. When these carbohydrate stores are not available to meet the fuel needs of a dancer’s training, the results include fatigue, reduced ability to train hard, decreased competition performance, and a reduction in immune system function. For these reasons, active dancers are encouraged to plan carbohydrate intake around key training sessions and over the whole day according to their carbohydrate requirements as an exercise fuel.

To achieve a healthy high carbohydrate diet, food choices should be complex carbohydrate rather than simple sugars. Complex carbohydrate has many vitamins, minerals and fiber while simple carbohydrate foods are nutrient poor. The healthiest sources of carbohydrates are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans.

Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates include white bread, pastries, desserts, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods. Reading the product label can help determine if the item contains hidden sugar.

In addition to meals, other times when carbohydrate ingestion is important are before, during, and after class, rehearsal, or a performance. About 1-2 hours prior to these activities, a small carbohydrate snack should be consumed. This will increase glucose levels in the circulation and “top-off” muscle glycogen stores.

A small pre or post dance meal or snack should be mostly carbohydrate and some protein, to let it stay with the dancer a little longer, and should be very low in fat, to allow the stomach to digest the food quickly. Some examples of pre-exercise snacks could be:

  • Yogurt with whole grain crackers
  • Bowl of whole grain cereal with low-fat milk.
    Click here to learn more about reading labels on whole grain cereal.
  • Fig newtons and a glass of low-fat milk
  • 100% whole wheat bread with slice of low-fat cheese or nut butter
  • Fruit smoothie made with non-fat yogurt
  • Oatmeal made with fruit and low-fat milk
  • Banana and string cheese
  • An apple with a level tablespoon of peanut butter (or other nut butter) sprinkled with cinnamon
  • Non-fat yogurt topped with berries or one tablespoon of granola
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and pineapple or peaches
  • Ry-Krisp crackers whole-grain crackers with black bean dip or hummus
  • A hardboiled egg and a piece of fruit

During hard rehearsals lasting over 90 minutes it is also important to ingest some carbohydrate to maintain glycogen levels to prevent fatigue. Ingesting carbohydrate in a sports drink (not fitness water) provides the added benefit of fluid replacement. Some research suggests that sports drinks offering a blend of carbohydrates, such as glucose and sucrose, rather than a single carbohydrate source may improve the amount of carbohydrate that eventually gets to the muscles as fuel.

After dancing, carbohydrate intake after exercise is essential for optimum recovery of glycogen stores. The hour after dancing is best to refill muscle stores and be ready for the next activity.


Adequate protein is essential for all active dancers. Protein is needed to repair the breakdown of muscle that are stressed by continual use. Protein is also used as a secondary fuel, and it is important for synthesizing the many enzymes necessary for metabolism. For non-vegetarians, quinoa, fish, yogurt, lean chicken, turkey, eggs, beef and pork are excellent low fat protein sources. For vegetarians, tofu, seitan (wheat gluten), tempeh, veggie burgers and meat substitutes, nuts, seeds and nut butters and mixtures of beans, lentils, peas, quinoa and rice are good protein choices. Protein powders are not necessary. If a protein supplement is desired, the best choice is Instant Dry Milk powder. Expensive protein supplements on the market are not any better.


Dietary fat plays several key roles in our body. Ingestion of fat is important for the intestinal absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K. Components of fat are also important building blocks of all cells in the body. Fat makes up part of cell membranes, is an insulator around nerves, is part of the structure of hormones and is an important fuel for muscles.  Fat is stored in the body as a triglyceride. During exercise, triglycerides are broken down into fatty acids which are used to produce energy for muscle contraction. Fatty acids are used as an energy source in the muscle for endurance activities such as during a long rehearsal where the body is continuously exercising for over 20 minutes at a time. A diet too low in fat can have serious health consequences and ultimately can impair performance.

Choose healthy fats in your diet. There are four kinds of fat: saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are healthiest. It best to keep the amount of saturated fat in your diet to 7-10% because ingestion of high amounts of saturated fats is associated with chronic disease.

Important Micronutrients

Vitamins. Vitamins and minerals comprise the micronutrients in the diet. Water soluble vitamins are the B vitamins and vitamin C. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble. The B vitamins play important roles in energy production (especially thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B6) and in red blood cell formation (folic acid and vitamin B12). Deficiency of these vitamins can impair performance. Vitamins A (beta carotene), C, and E function as antioxidants that are necessary to help muscles recover from strenuous classes and rehearsals.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D is important in bone formation, it is used in the maintenance of several organ systems as well as the immune system.  Because of its important functions, vitamin D deficiency can lead to many other health problems. Some chronic diseases have been associated with a lack of vitamin D.

Calcium. Dancers, particularly females, are in a high risk group for low bone mineral density and stress fractures. Adequate calcium can help maintain bone density and avoid an injury. Calcium is important in bone formation. By the age of 20, the average woman has acquired most of her skeletal mass. It is important for young girls to reach their peak bone mass in order to maintain bone health throughout life. A person with high bone mass as a young adult will be more likely to have a higher bone mass later in life. Inadequate calcium consumption and physical activity early on could result in a failure to achieve peak bone mass in adulthood. The richest source of calcium is dairy products.

Iron. Iron transports oxygen and manufactures hemoglobin, which are both vital in maintaining energy and good health. Many dancers, especially women, have a diet that is too low in iron. The most frequent cause is the elimination of red meat from the diet, and for women, the monthly loss of iron in the menstrual period. Dancers should include meat (especially lean red meats), poultry, fish, egg yolks, iron-fortified cereals, breads and other grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits to get adequate iron. Because vitamin C increases the absorption of iron, eating a source of vitamin C along with food will maximize absorption of iron.

Supplements. A very small proportion of the U.S. population follows all of the dietary and lifestyle recommendations. As a consequence, over 40% of U.S. adults do not get, from their food, enough calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K. Hence, taking dietary supplements is critical to fill these nutritional gaps and achieve optimum health. Taking a high quality vitamin mineral supplement containing equal to or less than the recommended level of each micronutrient is good insurance. Dancers should be cautious however about taking vitamin and mineral supplements that contain only selected micronutrients as this could do more harm than good. Excessive amounts of one can interfere with the absorption of another, and megadoses of some vitamins and minerals could be toxic. Check with a dietitian for a recommendation if you are unsure.

Dancers should increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables (recommended 5 servings of fruit or vegetables per day), whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean red meat. Because not all vitamins or minerals occur in all foods, dancers should ingest a wide variety of foods. A calorie restricted or repetitive diet could lead to a deficiency in some of these vitamins and could impair the ability to train and recover. See my post Best foods to Put in Your Grocery Cart for some of the healthiest choices.

There are many dietary supplements on the market designed to enhance performance or decrease body weight. Most of these supplements are ineffective or even dangerous. Dietary supplements are not regulated and may be marketed without acceptable evidence that they are effective or safe. Energy drinks, supplements except for those on my list, creatine, protein powders, high dose vitamins, are unnecessary and can be dangerous. Check with a dietitian or a doctor before taking any supplement even if it’s called “natural”.


Fluid loss from sweat results in dehydration that can impair performance and mental functioning, such as the ability to quickly pick up dance routines and perform them effectively. A water bottle should be part of ta dancer’s gear and brought with them everywhere. Dancers should get in a habit of drinking fluid on a regular basis. Guidelines are to consume half an ounce per pound of body weight.

  • Drink plenty of fluids with meals.
  • Drink 16 oz. 2 hours before activity.
  • Drink another 8 to 16 oz. 15 minutes before activity.
  • Drink 6 to 12 oz. every 15 minutes during exercise.
  • Drink 24 oz. for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.
  • In events lasting longer than ninety minutes, performance will likely be enhanced with the use of a sports drink.

A dancer can be dehydrated yet not thirsty. A simple way to monitor hydration is to check urine color: clear to light yellow is hydrated; yellow to dark yellow means dehydrated. Keep in mind that vitamin supplements will result in yellow urine and make this dehydration “test” inaccurate.

Working with a registered dietitian who understands the demands of these unique performing athletes is the first step in increasing performance, finding a strong healthy weight, and reducing injuries. For a information on a personal consultation, contact Maria Faires at 425-522-2GYM or visit

**Med Probl Perform Art. 2013 Sep;28(3):119-23.Nutrition and nutritional issues for dancers.

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