Nutrition for fitness events

Expert reviewer, Neil Gunby, Health Adviser, and Adam Keenan, Lifestyle Health Adviser
Next review due October 2020

There are now all sorts of fitness events you can participate in: half marathons, endurance events, or even inflatable obstacle courses. They’re all designed to test your fitness abilities, get you moving, and to be a fun day getting you out of the house.

These events can last anywhere between 30 minutes to over five hours, depending on the type of the event and your fitness levels. You’ll have to do some form of training to be able to complete the day. But another important issue is keeping your body fuelled with muscle glycogen and blood glucose to keep those muscles contracting. When these stores start to become depleted, you’ll start to feel fatigued during prolonged exercise. So, keeping these topped up in the muscles and liver is very important.

So to help with this, what do you need to eat, how much of it, and when do you need to eat it?

Female runner taking a break

Daily requirements during training

Your daily intake of carbohydrates should be timed around your training during the week, whether it’s high-intensity, or a longer session. This will determine the amount of carbohydrate you should have on that day. This is essential to help with performance and optimise recovery. This means that diet is vital in restoring glycogen to the muscles and liver. You can achieve this by following the information below.

The information shows the amount of carbohydrate you should aim to consume per day, depending on your daily activity. For more about which kinds of exercise fit in each category, see our information on Exercise – getting started.

Activity, descriptions and targets

Description: General physical activity, low-intensity or skill-based, lasting around 30–60min per day, 3–4 times per week
Carbohydrate targets (g/ kg/ day*): 3–5

Description: Moderate exercise programme, around 1 hour per day
Carbohydrate targets (g/ kg/ day*): 5–7

Activity: Moderate to high intensity
Description: Moderate to high intensity; 2–3 hours per day, 5–6 times per week
Carbohydrate targets (g/ kg/ day*): 5–8

Activity: Endurance
Description: Endurance exercise programme, moderate to high intensity, 1–3 hours per day
Carbohydrate targets (g/ kg/ day*): 6–10

Activity: High-volume intense
Description: High-volume intense exercise, 3–6 hours (1 or 2 sessions) per day, 5–6 times per week
Carbohydrate targets (g/ kg/ day*): 8–10

Activity: Extreme commitment
Description: Moderate to high intensity of more than 4–5 hours per day
Carbohydrate targets (g/ kg/ day*): 8–12

*g / kg / day refers to how many grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight you need. So, someone who is 80kg and training at a moderate intensity should have 400–560g of carbohydrate per day.

Carbohydrate intake before your event

Muscle fatigue is one of the most common problems during endurance events. It’s often caused by low muscle glycogen stores resulting in: a reduction in performance and work rate, impaired skill, and increased perception of effort. Therefore, topping up liver and muscle glycogen stores is important to keep you going as these are relatively limited.

This information shows the amount of carbohydrate you should aim to consume in the day or two before your event.

Activity time: More than 90 minutes
Description: Event lasting longer than 90 minutes
Carbohydrate targets (g / kg / day): 7–12
Comments: 10–12g/kg every 24 hours over a 48-hour period prior to the start of the event

Activity time: Less than 90 minutes
Description: Event lasting no longer than 90 minutes
Carbohydrate targets (g / kg / day): 10–12
Comments: 24 hours prior to event start

Carbohydrate loading (1–2 days before your event)

If your event involves more than 90 minutes of sustained and/or intermittent exercise, you might want to consider ‘carbohydrate loading’ for 48 hours before the start. This is a strategy that aims to maximise your glycogen stores before endurance exercise. If the event lasts no longer than 90 minutes, you can achieve carbohydrate loading just 24 hours before the start.

Examples of foods rich in carbohydrate:

25g of carbohydrate per 100g of pasta
23g of carbohydrate per 100g of brown rice
66g of carbohydrate per 100g of oats
21g of carbohydrate per 100g of quinoa
20g of carbohydrate per 100g of sweet potato
72g of carbohydrate per 100g of buckwheat
23g of carbohydrate per 100g of banana
61g of carbohydrate per 100g of chickpeas

You should choose nutrient-rich carbohydrates. Read our Information on carbohydrates to find out more about these complex carbs.

1–4 hours before your event

In this period you should have 1–4g/kg of carbohydrate. You should also avoid foods high in fat, protein and fibre; this may help with gastrointestinal issues during the event. Carbohydrate-rich snacks and drinks can help meet your energy needs.

You may also want to consider carbohydrates that are low on the glycaemic index (GI), meaning the glucose is released into your bloodstream slowly. This may provide a more sustained source of fuel if you can’t take on carbs during the event. Find out which foods are low on GI in our Information on carbohydrates.

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During the event

Depending on the length of the event, you may also need to take on some carbohydrates while you’re on the go. The information below outlines your nutritional requirements during an event. Trial these amounts during training to see how your body reacts.

Duration of event: Less than 45 minutes
Carbohydrate target: None
Comments: If the event lasts no longer than 45 minutes, no carbohydrate is needed. Stores will not deplete in this time, as long as you’ve followed the above guidelines.

Duration of event: 45–75 minutes
Carbohydrate target: Small amounts if needed, or mouth rinse
Comments: During sustained high-intensity events lasting 45–75 minutes, it may help to have small sips of sports drinks. But your activity shouldn’t be limited by a lack of muscle glycogen, as long as you’ve followed the above guidelines.

It’s also thought that frequently sipping a carbohydrate solution can stimulate sensors in the mouth and brain, improving your motor output and muscular performance.

You might also consider mouth rinsing (rinsing a carbohydrate solution around the mouth for around 5–10 seconds before spitting it out), especially when you need high power output.

Duration of event: 1–2.5 hours
Carbohydrate target: 30–60g
Comments: You should try out this approach before your event, to find an ideal refuelling plan that also aids hydration and doesn’t cause discomfort in your gut and stomach. A range of isotonic sports drinks and energy gels can provide carbohydrates quickly and easily.

Duration of event: More than 2.5 hours
Carbohydrate target: Up to 90g
Comments: Products providing multiple carbohydrates, eg glucose and fructose mixture, might be absorbed more quickly.

After the event

To help with your recovery, in the 4–6 hours after your event you should take on 1–1.2g/kg/h of carbohydrates. So, if you weigh 70kg, you’d have 70–84g of carbohydrates per hour: 280–336g of carbohydrates.

If you’ve got the energy left, you could whip yourself up a tasty pasta dish to give you these recovery carbs. Try this delicious tomato and caper linguine from Jamie Oliver.

You could also try a healthy smoothie. This is ideal for fast recovery and a carb boost.

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  • Produced by Nick Ridgman, Head of Health Content, Bupa Health Content Team, October 2017
    Expert reviewer, Neil Gunby, Health Adviser, and Adam Keenan, Lifestyle Health Adviser
    Next review due October 2020

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