What Is Exercise Nutrition While Hiking Or at the Gym?

How many calories do we need to fuel our workout?

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Do you bring trail mix with you on casual hikes or Gatorade for a walk around the block? You might want to rethink that practice. Professor Ormsbee discusses optimal nutrition for casual exercisers and endurance athletes alike.

Woman drinking water during workout
Since each person’s body is unique, it is truly a trial-and-error process to discover what fueling strategy for during-exercise nutrition works best for you based on your body composition goals. Photo By Pressmaster / Shutterstock

During-Exercise Nutrition

Nutrient timing is important for your pre-exercise routine in that you want to eat and drink enough to fuel your workout without consuming too much, but during-exercise nutrition is also important. Have you ever seen people carry Gatorade® with them to a 5k race or take huge jugs of sports drinks to the gym, when only running on a treadmill for 20 minutes at a steady, moderate pace? 

A common misconception is that you need these sugar-filled drinks to rehydrate, no matter what type of exercise you are doing. However, if you are exercising for less than 60–90 minutes, all you really need to worry about is water—no extra calories needed.

Glycogen is the primary fuel for your body with hard exercise, but one hour of high-intensity exercise will only burn through about half of those glycogen stores. Thus, for exercise of these shorter durations, consumption of sports drinks during the exercise itself will not really be beneficial. If you’re trying to lose weight or improve body composition, these are added calories in the form of sugar that you don’t really need.

“In my time doing sports nutrition research and working with sports nutritionists and collegiate athletes, it is amazing how improvements in body composition occur even in college-level athletes by monitoring nothing else but their sports drink consumption,” Professor Ormsbee said. “The problem is that it tastes great, and most people think that they need it to replenish . . . consuming these throughout the day and in excessive amounts is not only impractical, but it may also hurt your performance and body composition.”

Sports Drinks for Endurance Athletes

That being said, sports drinks aren’t evil—in certain situations they are needed. The details matter, though—the person who is exercising, what type of exercise, how long, and how intense?

If you are participating in long-distance or time-consuming endurance events like marathons, then you do need to replenish your body with additional calories during exercise, and sports drinks are a great way to do this. For endurance exercise that’s longer than 60–90 minutes, general recommendations for athletes are to take in between 30–60 grams (g) of carbohydrates per hour during exercise to extend performance. For example, you’ll get about 50 g of carbohydrates from two medium-sized bananas or two cups of most cereals or sports drinks.

Keep in mind that 30–60 g of carbohydrates per hour is a pretty wide range. This is because everybody is different. 

Some stomachs can’t handle the higher end of this range and will have GI issues or feel bloated. That definitely won’t help your performance. 

“For example, one of my colleagues is working with a former collegiate athlete who had a very sensitive stomach when racing in college—to the point of not being able to consume any nutrition within two hours of racing—but now, at the age of 30, he can handle the upper end of this 30–60 gram range while exercising,” Professor Ormsbee said.

Finding Your Balance

This illustrates an important point about during-exercise nutrition. Because everybody is unique, it truly is a trial-and-error process to discover what fueling strategy works best for you based on your goals. 

To further that point, if you can only tolerate the lower end of the 30–60 g range, that doesn’t mean that you are a worse athlete. Your stomach—just like your muscles—can be trained. In fact, this is a hot topic among elite endurance athletes, right now, as some people are suggesting that select individuals may be able to train their body to take in more than 80 g per hour with extensive training. 

However, 80 g would be more than consuming two large bananas and a large sports drink per hour while exercising. The emphasis on eating carbohydrates during exercise becomes even more important if you have not carbohydrate loaded, and if you have not consumed pre-exercise meals or restricted energy intake for purposes of weight loss or fat loss.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 277 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.