Fuel for Long Workouts

This question comes from an Oakland Fitness Club member: 

What can I eat to fuel for long distance cycle rides? I burn 3-4k calories, and am super tired for two days after... 

Everyday meals: Before we get into the different foods to have before and after long workouts, first keep in mind that the most effective way for the body to prepare, sustain, and recover from physical activity will be grounded in eating nutrient dense, antioxidant rich foods at your everyday meals.

Additionally, food is only one piece of the puzzle, as ideal endurance and recovery will also depend on other factors such as optimal sleep (7-8 hours) and minimal stress. 

Purple sweet potatoes, spiralized. Extra bits chopped and ready to use for the week. 

Purple sweet potatoes, spiralized. Extra bits chopped and ready to use for the week. 

More Carbohydrates: If you engage in long duration/distance activities like cycling, it’s important to include more whole food carbohydrates (like root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, beets or acorn squash, butternut squash, parsnips, etc.) in your diet. The more energy spent, the more fuel needed for the gas tank. You may also need to add a little more protein and fat to your daily meals as well, depending on frequency and intensity of your long workouts. 

Pre-Workout: For long duration exercise, eat 15 to 75 minutes beforehand. For very long duration activities like a marathon or triathlon, try 60 - 90+ minutes before.

The amount of time to allot yourself between eating and exercise is highly dependent on your own digestive system. 

I don’t believe there is a “right answer” for what to eat before a long workout. This is a very common question and the answers, like many topics in nutrition, are often contradictory. On one hand, sports nutritionists suggest protein and fat, and on the other hand, protein and carbs. What will work for you will depend on your overall diet and current health/physical status. Your best bet is to try both and see which works for you.  

Option 1: If your hormones are working properly, your body will be able to access stored energy (glycogen) via the hormone glucagon. Elevate levels of insulin (from fruit or carb-dense foods) can inhibit glucagon, so stick with protein and fat, as these will not leave you prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar as a result of a spike in insulin). Assuming you’ve properly restored muscle glycogen after your last workout, the body will have plenty energy stored in muscles to use as fuel. Perhaps two hard-boiled eggs and a piece of deli meat. 

Option 2: Again, assuming muscles have been properly restored from your last workout, the purpose of a mainly carbohydrate pre-workout snack will be to top off liver glycogen stores. In this case, try carbohydrate and protein, at a ratio of three to one (3:1 carb to protein). 

Post-Workout: This is an extra meal that is a must if you’re working hard. Muscles need protein and glycogen stores (stored energy) may need replenishing. See the previous post “What to eat post-workout”  for more details on this. 

Proper Breakfast: If you go on a long cycling ride and have at least three hours in the morning before beginning, go with a whole food complete breakfast, with protein, fat, and carbohydrates. This could look like eggs, with sweet potato hash, and avocado. This balanced meal based in whole foods  will (1) be better absorbed than any pre-workout bar/shake, and (2) will allow for a slow, steady release of energy. Allow yourself at least 3 hours before beginning the long duration workout to have this meal, as this will allow for enough time to digest the food. 

Key Foods and Herbs

Dates - dates are a form of easily digested carbohydrates that can provide fast acting glucose to the blood for energy. If energy is slipping 1-2 hours into a workout, try one or two dates about 30 minutes before. 

Coconut oil -  medium chain fats found in coconut oil are easily absorbed and preferentially used as an energy source. Coconut oil requires no bile to be digested. 

Yerba Mate and Green Tea: Two especially helpful herbs to include are yerba mate and green tea. Both herbs provide antioxidants, aid with mental focus, and can boost energy levels. Because they are stimulants, it would be best to recover with an adaptogenic herb like maca (this helps the adrenals to recover).




Brazier, Brenden. (2009). Thrive Fitness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 

Born, Steve. (2015). Proper Fueling: Pre-workout and Race Suggestions. Retrieved from http://www.hammernutrition.com/hnt/1279/

Murray, Michael. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books

Hartwig, Dallas and Melissa. (2012). It Starts with Food. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing, Inc.