Wendy Martinson |

Fuelling up for training

A varied diet is vital for performance. Wendy Martinson explains how much you need to row at your best

In Eating for best performance, we looked at the different foods that make up our diet – from starchy carbohydrate foods, fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy, beans, meats and protein-based foods through to oils and spreads. But how much of these foods do you need to perform at your best?

Basically, the amounts of energy, carbohydrate and protein that you require depend on the type, duration and frequency of training you do, as well as your individual body mass/composition. 

A typical one to two-hour training session may use 1,000-2,000 calories, so overall energy requirements for a 24-hour period can be large, depending on your build and frequency of training sessions. To fuel three hours of training per day an open weight male may require around 5000-6,000 calories, and an open weight female around 4,000-4,500. A lightweight male may require 4,000-4,500 calories per day and a lightweight female 3,000-3,500.

Low glycogen stores can result in poor sports performance and may increase the risk of injury

1 Carbohydrates

The most important fuel for the working muscle, carbohydrates are essential for any form of high intensity exercise. Carbohydrate is also an essential energy source for the brain and central nervous system, so play a vital role in rowing where precision, dexterity and coordination are required. 

Carbohydrates include sugars – for example, glucose, fructose and sucrose and polysaccharides (sugar units joined together), which include starch. Carbohydrates cannot be digested or absorbed by our gut – those found in the cell wall of plants are commonly referred to as dietary fibre, for example cereals, fruits, vegetables, dried peas, nuts, lentils and grains.

Polysaccharides are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but these stores are quite small, so a regular intake of carbohydrate is needed to keep supplies topped up. 

Low glycogen stores can result in poor sports performance and may increase the risk of injury. Research shows that low carbohydrate diets can also result in lower levels of muscle glycogen and higher rates of perceived exertion, reduced tolerance for training and increased levels of fatigue. It is therefore essential to make sure you eat enough carbohydrate to match your level of training.

How much is enough?

The amount of carbohydrate you need to eat each day depends on the amount of training you do on a daily/weekly basis.

The following is a guide to the amount you should be eating:

Activity level

Light training programme (low intensity / skill based) or to reduce body fat

Moderate exercise programme – 1 hour per day

Endurance programme, moderate-high intensity – 1-3 hours per day 

Extreme exercise programme, moderate-high intensity – 4-5+ hours per day  

Grams per kg body weight





Note: in general, a range of 6-10g per kg body weight should be sufficient, but actual requirements depend on the individual.

Good sources of carbs that also provide other nutrients

  • Breakfast cereals
    Choose wholegrain varieties such as porridge, muesli, granola, bircher muesli, Weetabix, Oatibix, shredded wheat, raisin wheats, etc.
  • Bread/English muffins/bagels/wraps
    Choose wholemeal, granary, multigrain, seeded varieties where possible.
  • Pasta, noodles and rice
  • Couscous, polenta, bulgur wheat, quinoa, millet and other grain products
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Crispbread, oatcakes, rice cakes, crackers
  • Beans (baked, red kidney etc.), peas and lentils
  • Root vegetables such as carrots, swede, parsnip, swede, beetroot
  • Sweetcorn and popcorn (buttered popcorn has a high-fat content)
  • Fruit (fresh, dried and canned) and fruit juice
  • Milk and yoghurt.

These sources of carbohydrate also provide a variety of other nutrients and so are good choices. Wholegrain varieties are a useful source of fibre and have a better nutritional value than white varieties.

Beware of these carbs

The carbohydrates below can be eaten in small amounts, but are not as rich in other nutrients and may be high in fat.

  • Cereal bars (fat content can vary and may be high) 
  • Biscuits – rich tea, fig rolls, plain digestives, ginger nuts, and jaffa cakes are lower in fat than many other biscuits. 
  • Cakes – again be aware that many cakes have a high-fat content. Lower fat alternatives include malt loaf, hot cross buns, and fruit loaf. 
  • Jam, marmalade, honey, syrup and treacle 
  • Sweetened soft drinks 
  • Sport products such as drinks, bars, gels 
  • Sugar confectionery – e.g. Jelly Babies, wine gums

Sports drinks/gels and sugar confectionery can be useful during certain regattas with multiple races in one day or during longer training sessions, but may not be necessary on a daily basis.

Wendy’s tip > The energy and carbohydrate requirements of rowing are large, so eat a substantial portion of carbohydrate with each meal and include some carbohydrate-rich foods in snacks.

2 Proteins

Protein is made up of units called amino acids, of which there are 21 in total. Protein can be used as an energy source, but its main role is to provide the amino acids as building blocks which the body requires for normal functioning and metabolism.  These include enzymes, hormones, blood cells such as haemoglobin, antibodies and structural proteins such as hair, skin, bone and muscle tissue.

Nine amino acids are essential, which means they have to be provided in the foods we eat as we cannot manufacture them ourselves.

Animal proteins (meat, chicken, fish, milk, cheese, and yoghurt) and soya have a high biological value and contain all the essential amino acids, whereas plant foods have lower levels of one or two of these essential amino acids. However, if a variety of plant foods is consumed – for example, cereals and pulses (beans, peas and lentils) – then it is possible to meet the requirements for all the essential amino acids.

Strength and endurance training increases the requirements for protein due to the adaptive changes that occur, and because it can be used as an energy source. Additional protein is therefore required during strength training for muscle growth and development.

Many carbohydrate foods also provide small amounts of protein, so as you increase your carbohydrate intake you will automatically obtain extra protein from these foods.

Eat a variety of different protein-rich foods with each meal daily including:

  • Chicken
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Dairy

Animal protein sources include:

  • Meat 
  • Chicken 
  • Fish 
  • Milk, cheese, and yoghurt

Vegetable protein sources include:

  • Pulses (beans, peas, and lentils) 
  • Tofu, quorn, and textured vegetable protein 
  • Nuts and seeds

Wendy’s tip > Animal sources of protein can be high in fat and so it is important to remove fat from meat, skin from chicken and choose lower fat dairy foods where possible.

3 Essential fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fats provide the essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic (omega-3), which cannot be produced by the body.

Omega-6 fatty acids regulate the actions of many cells. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain and retina (eye) function, the immune function, and may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish, linseeds, rapeseed oil, soya and omega-3 enriched eggs. However, evidence suggests that the omega-3 fats in oily fish are more beneficial to health than the other sources.

Aim for a minimum of two portions of fish per week, of which at least one should be oily. Such fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, pilchards, swordfish, anchovies, herring (kippers), eel, and whitebait. These fish count as oily whether they are tinned, fresh or frozen. 

Men can have up to four portions of oily fish per week (one portion is 140g); women two portions per week. Women who aren’t planning to be pregnant in the future can also have up to four portions per week.

Fat intake, particularly saturated fat, should be reduced overall whilst maintaining an adequate intake of the essential fatty acids. Excess fat in the diet is stored very efficiently as body fat – so if fat loss is an aim, fat intake should be significantly reduced.

4 Fats

Fats provide a highly concentrated form of energy as well as fat-soluble vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids. They consist primarily of triglycerides, which are made up of a glycerol backbone and three fatty acids. Essential for the production of hormones and prostaglandins (substances controlling bodily functions), fat is a structural component of brain tissue and creates a protective blanket around essential organs. 

Unlike glycogen, which can only be stored in limited amounts, there is always sufficient fat available as fuel. The types of fatty acids can be classified into three groups: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Aim to choose polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats where you can.

Saturated: found in animal products (butter, cheese, fat on meat) coconut oil, and palm oil.
Monounsaturated: found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Polyunsaturated: found in fish oil, sunflower, corn and soya bean oils.

A low-fat milkshake with a banana provides an excellent start to the recovery process

5 Recovery

Carbohydrate stores (glycogen) must be rapidly replenished during training and competition. This is particularly important when training every day or several times per day.

The highest rates of glycogen storage occur during the first hour after training. Hence, consuming carbohydrate as soon as possible is crucial, particularly when there is less than eight hours between training sessions or races.

You should aim to have 1-1.2g carbohydrate per kg bodyweight immediately after training, which should be repeated at regular intervals until a meal is eaten.

The addition of good quality protein to the recovery mixture 0.3g protein/kg/body weight has been shown to enhance muscle protein production and recovery. Milk or yoghurt-based drinks are convenient post-training drinks and will provide protein as well as some carbohydrate. 

Remember that if your recovery time before the next session is short, then try to eat a recovery snack/meal that is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. If your recovery time is longer, then choose something with a lower glycaemic index instead. A mixture of both usually works well.

Wendy’s tip > A low-fat milkshake with a banana would provide an excellent start to the recovery process as it provides carbohydrate, protein and essential vitamins and minerals.

If you need more carbs then cereal bars, dried fruit, bread or cereal can be added to meet individual needs.

Choosing the right drink can help maximise training during long endurance sessions

6 Fluids

Know your sweat rate

It’s important to establish the amount of fluid lost in sweat during training, so sufficient fluid can be consumed to minimise weight loss, ideally to less than 2%. It is well established that exercise performance is impaired if there is only a 2% decrease in body weight (due to fluid loss) and the magnitude of decrement increases with the degree of dehydration.

So, when you are training, fluids should be replaced in sufficient amounts to minimise weight loss to less than 2% of body weight – thus preventing adverse effects on both physical and mental performance. The amount required will depend on your sweat rate, which can vary on average between 0.5-2.0 litres per hour, depending on environmental conditions.

To calculate your sweat rate:

  1. Record your pre-training weight (kg) in minimum clothing > [A]
  2. Record your post-training weight (kg), removing sweaty clothing first > [B]
  3. Subtract your post-training weight from pre-training weight to obtain weight lost. Convert kilograms to grams i.e. multiply by 1,000 – for example, if weight loss is 1.2kg this would be 1,200g;
    1,000g weight loss equates to 1,000ml fluid loss > [A – B]
  4. Add the amount of fluid (ml) consumed during training i.e. weigh drinks bottles before and after training, noting any refills > [C]
  5. Subtract the volume of any urine (ml) passed  during that time. This volume will only be subtracted if urine was passed prior to post-exercise bodyweight > [D]
  6. Divide by the length of time spent training in hours > [E]

Sweat rate = (A – B) + C – D all divided by E

A = pre-exercise body weight
B = post-exercise body weight
C = fluid intake
D = urine volume
E = exercise time in hours

Sports drinks

Carbohydrate electrolyte drinks (sports drinks) can be beneficial during hard blocks of training in the rowing programme to help with hydration and provide extra fuel during long outings. Knowing what, when and how much to drink is essential.

Two of the main factors that can limit prolonged exercise performance are depletion of the body’s carbohydrate energy stores and dehydration; choosing the right drink can help maximise training during long endurance sessions.

A carbohydrate-electrolyte drink should have the following qualities:

  • A palatable flavour to encourage greater fluid intake
  • Contain around 6% carbohydrate (6g CHO per 100ml) i.e. 30g carbohydrate per 500ml
  • Contain sodium (salt) to encourage continued drinking, to stimulate glucose absorption in the gut and to replace sweat losses
  • Be non-carbonated
  • You can make your own sports drink with squash/orange juice and salt, but if you do ever use a commercial product it must be a batch tested product and used only in compliance with the British Rowing supplements policy.

If fluid requirements are high, due to high sweat losses, or a lower carbohydrate intake is required then a low-carbohydrate electrolyte drink could be used such as sugar-free squash with added salt.

Choose your drink carefully as you don’t need a carbohydrate source for every session.

  • Ordinary full-sugar squash, plus added salt, is useful for long training (>90minutes) sessions where additional fuel may be required – see recipe below.
  • No added sugar squash, plus salt, is useful when additional fuel is not required, but provides electrolytes to help maintain hydration status.

Make your own sports drink

  1. Take 250ml of ordinary squash or 200ml high juice squash (not sugar-free or low calorie) mixed with 750-800ml cold water. Or try 100-110ml of standard Ribena mixed with 890-900ml cold water.
  2. Plus: 1.25g salt (¼ level teaspoon) for 491mg/21.3mmol of sodium per litre. This is 6-7% of carbohydrate solution, though the exact content will vary depending on the squash used.