An Ingrained Truth: Pre-Exercise Fuelling & Post-Exercise Recovery Foods for Performance

By Toni L Franklin

Accredited Practising Dietitian, Dietitians Association of Australia, Provisional Sports Dietitian, Sport Dietitians Australia

The desire to seek out new or peculiar foods to add to our arsenal of table talk, or ‘foodstagram’ posts, is born out of natural human curiosity. But is there any grain of truth in the notion that we should be seeking out exclusive ancient grains to fuel our exercise training and performances?

Fuelling our bodies before exercise and restoring nutrition after exercise is a fundamental component of Sport Nutrition. Why?

Before exercise, the carbohydrate in food tops up our liver and muscle glycogen stores, especially if we are training first thing in the morning after an overnight fast. Eating before exercise also helps to avoid that niggling hungry feeling and help us get the most out of our training. Taking care to eat foods that don’t cause gastrointestinal upset should also be at the forefront of your food choices (1,2). After exercise, food helps you refuel in preparation for subsequent exercise sessions, promotes muscle repair and growth, boosts adaptation that occurs as a result of training and supports your immune function (3,4). The combination of appropriate nutritious foods and exercise works synergistically to help you achieve your goals.

Traditional and ancient grains battle it out on the playing field. Which is best?

Grains are a nutritious source of carbohydrate, fibre and micronutrients. A good comparison of the nutrient composition of different grains is found in the article “What’s all the fuss about trendy grains?” Grains also contain some protein, a fact that is commonly overlooked. Previous studies have investigated animal protein sources with a high amount of an amino acid called leucine and found around 20g stimulates muscle protein synthesis during recovery from exercise. However, we have recently seen an increasing interest in investigating plant sources of protein to support muscle protein synthesis, perhaps through fortification of leucine or by combining plant based proteins such as grains with complementary amino acid profiles (5).

So do both the hipster ancient grains and the traditional grandparent grains provide appropriate fuel for exercise? 

 The answer is yes. However, at this point, it’s important to reveal another essential principle of sports nutrition – using familiar foods with a known tolerance is always encouraged for key training sessions or competition. Most runners would not wear a brand new, untested pair of running shoes for a marathon race unless they are invincible to injury, blisters and indifferent about performance. If an ancient grain buckwheat, quinoa and chia acai bowl is what you normally eat and tolerate before exercise, go forth and conquer. But a good old-fashioned porridge or some whole grain toast with banana and honey is equally effective and possibly more tolerable on the gut if this is what you are used to eating. There is also something to be said about the nostalgic calming effect that familiar foods can have on settling rattled nerves before a big event. The crux of the matter is that a varied diet remains central to a healthy lifestyle. Both traditional and ancient grains should be friends not foes and there is no grain more ‘superior’ than another.

Key points for fuelling and recovery 

– Have your pre-exercise meal 3-4 hours before exercise if you struggle with gastrointestinal discomfort during exercise. This is more crucial for higher intensity weight bearing sports such as footy and running or sports where your stomach will be jostled about, such as gymnastics or boxing. If you are having a smaller snack this can be eaten 1 or 2 hours before the event.

– Good pre-exercise meals or snacks include: eggs and tomato on rye toast, a whole grain sandwich or wrap with some lean protein and salad, wholemeal raisin toast or oats with yoghurt and fruit.

– Try to have some post-exercise recovery nutrition with a combination of carbohydrates and protein as soon as possible after your event.

– Good recovery nutrition meals or snacks include: whole grain crackers and cheese or nut butter, wholemeal pasta and vegetable salad, tabbouleh, wholemeal spaghetti and meatballs, homemade muesli bar with oats or dried fruit and seeds.

And if you’re ever unsure about what’s best for YOU, contact an Accredited Sports Dietitian for your tailored nutrition plan to help you be your best.

Toni Franklin is a Dietitian with a background in clinical and sport nutrition. For more information about how you can use nutrition to improve your sport performance, please contact a member of Sport Dietitians Australia (SDA), Australia’s peak professional body and credible source of sport nutrition information. Visit www.sportsdietitians.com.au for more information.


1. SDA Sports Dietitians Australia. Factsheets: Eating & Drinking before exercise. Retrieved from: https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/fuelling-recovery/eating-drinking-sport/

2. Australian Sports Commission (2009). Eating before exercise. Retrieved from: http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/sports_nutrition/fact_sheets/eating_before_exercise

3. SDA Sports Dietitians Australia. Factsheets: Recovery Nutrition. Retrieved from: https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/fuelling-recovery/recovery-nutrition/

4. Australian Sports Commission (2009). Recovery nutrition. Retrieved from: http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/sports_nutrition/fact_sheets/recovery_nutrition

5. Witard, O.C., Wardle, S.L., Macnaughton, L.S., Hodgson, A.B., Tipton, K.D. (2016). Protein considerations for optimising skeletal muscle mass in healthy young and older adults. Nutrients, 23;8(181) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4848650/

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