Sports Nutrition Part 2: What and When to Eat

In Part 1, we looked at what goes into sports nutrition products. Here’s how to use them to best effect in your workouts and races.

A good rule of thumb is to take in no more than 100 calories per hour, counting back from the time you’ll be starting exercise. That is, if you are working out at 8 a.m., you could process about 200 calories if you eat them around 6 a.m. Your results may vary, so experiment to determine what works best for you.

I usually eat cereal with soy milk and fruit before workouts; before races, it’s a PowerBar and PowerBar sports drink. Coffee is a must for me! Many of my athletes swear by peanut butter or almond butter sandwiches. If my workout starts more than three hours after my breakfast, I’ll eat some PowerBar Gel Blasts with water before starting.

If you are doing a workout first thing in the morning, you can begin immediately with the during-exercise protocol, even if your workout is short. A gel with water, a short glass of sports drink—these will help you keep your energy up during the workout.

If your workout is scheduled for later in the day, a little bit of sports drink, a gel, or a few chewy products will help you have the energy to perform well.

Nutrition During the WorkoutOur muscles store enough glycogen to fuel moderately intense exercise of somewhere between an hour and two hours. Very fast half marathoners might be able to run the whole race on nothing but water, and maybe even not much of that; midpackers on the same plan might find themselves hitting the wall—depleting the glycogen available and having to slow down drastically.

Thus our general guideline: for workouts and races lasting over an hour or 75 minutes, take in 100–200 calories per hour, plus 8–16 oz. of fluid. If you are on the bike, you can probably take in more without ill effects. If you are running, the nutrition is usually harder to process.

Ways to hit these numbers:

  • A gel with 4–6 oz. of water every 45 minutes or so
  • A bottle of sports drink
  • Other food in a small amount (chews like Sharkies, Clif Shot Bloks, PowerBar Gel Blasts, or Jelly Belly Sport Beans; parts of sports bars like PowerBars or Clif Bars), followed by water

Here’s how this has worked for me in various races.

  • 5K: water only
  • 10K: water only
  • Half marathon: sports drink in a Fuel Belt, OR gels at the start, 45 minutes in, and the 1:20ish mark
  • Marathon: sports drink in a Fuel Belt; when that’s empty, gels every 5 miles or so OR simply gels every 45 mins.
  • Sprint triathlon: sports drink on the bike
  • Olympic-distance triathlon: gel at start; sports drink on bike OR gel plus water at 15 minutes and at one hour on the bike; gel around mile 2 of the run
  • Half-Ironman: gel at the start; sports drink plus gel/water on the bike; half marathon protocol as above
  • Ironman: gel at start; sports drink, chews, bars, and gels with water throughout the bike, as practiced in training; gels and sundry other things on the run (cola, broth, pretzels), as palatable

Taking in a snack of 100–200 calories in the first 30 minutes after your workout will help replenish your glycogen stores and speed your recovery. This can be a smoothie, a cup of yogurt, a glass of chocolate milk, a piece of toast with peanut butter, or a commercial recovery drink. to aid with muscle repair, aim to get a little protein in this meal.

Try to take in your recovery snack before your shower. Then, once you’re clean, include some protein in your next meal. If you’ve done a longer morning workout, this often means you snack, clean up, then eat a lunch with a turkey sandwich, PB&J, or veggie burger.

Follow these practices, find the best amount of calories and supplements that work for you, and you’ll be on your way to peak performances. You’ll also enjoy your workouts more, and you’ll recover faster between them. Bon appétit, and happy training!

Michelle @ Find Your Balance

October 20, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Are there any real food alternatives to gels and Jelly Belly beans? I suppose not really, you can’t stop and have a turkey sandwich! But outside of actual races, I think it’s important to read labels and make sure you are eating real food, not just chemicals, partial foods like isolate soy protein, and sugar that are often found in power bar type snacks.


December 10, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Thanks for the great tips…I also feel that it is important to take a multivitamin, fish oil, amino acid, and calcium supplement everyday.

Christine D.

March 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Great information!!! Thanks so much for sharing!!!

Padma O'Mara

March 24, 2010 at 5:40 am

thanks for this article. I’m just getting started to train for the half marathon distance. I’m sure gonna try out different foods and drinks during training.

Ron Bryson

June 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm


As a 160# male I agree with your overall analysis. On the bike I try and consume 300 cals per hour & 20 oz of fluid. During a 1/2 marathon run, It is a cup of whatever each aid station has to offer.


June 13, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Featured Athlete Aimee Gallo gave me an idea for a great substitution for commercial gels and jelly beans (and, in my case, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups): mashed sweet potatoes. I put them in several small Zip lock bags and during my long bike rides, tear a corner of a baggie off with my teeth and squeeze what I need into my mouth. It tastes great and I can pronounce all the ingredients!

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