Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: Nutrition for Exercise Performance

By: Marybeth Mitcham, Ph.D., MPH, Assistant Professor, Director of the Online MPH Program, Department of Global and Community Health

“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have the safest way to health.” – Hippocrates

The food you eat helps fuel your mind and body when you exercise. If you lack good nutrition in your diet, you won’t be able to perform your best. But if you eat healthy food before exercising, you’ll strengthen your ability to hike, work out, or do any other fitness activities well. Here’s why good nutrition is important for exercise performance, a recipe you can use to make a healthy snack for energy, and related well-being resources.

What the Research Shows

Numerous studies exist that support the relationship between regular consumption of nutrient-dense foods and physical performance. Furthermore, there is also an established relationship between intentional nutritional intake and high-endurance performance, overall wellness, and emotional and mental well-being. This information is not only important in the context of supporting the regular physical exercise that helps to keep us holistically healthy, but it also is important in supporting the cognitive alertness needed to remain mentally sharp in all of our responsibilities, whether for fun (like hiking!) or fulfilling our responsibilities at work or in the classroom.

My Nutrition Story

When I was a child growing up in a regularly food-insecure home, my food preferences were whatever my mom had available for us to eat, whether I liked that food or not (spoiler alert – I usually didn’t like it). Although she did a wonderful job with the little she had available, the poor quality of that food – outdated boxed and canned goods, squidgy produce, greenish rinds of cheese, and the bits of meat that no one else wanted – could not be masked by the spices and creative preparation techniques she employed.

Food, then, became a tool for survival, not something consumed for enjoyment or even with deliberative selection for health.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because my body was not regularly receiving nutrient-dense fuel, I struggled to be successful in – or enjoy – physical activity of any sort. Although I did try to compete in school sports and also tried to keep up with my active friends as they rode bicycles and played impromptu games of flag football, I simply did not have the necessary nutrients to support my body’s regular needs – much less the increased needs that exercise required.

Now as an adult, the activity that I used to dread and detest as a child because I lacked energy and endurance – long-distance hiking – has become one of my favorite activities. Where, as a child, I struggled to even run one lap around the track while wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I am now able to carry 40+ pounds of gear and complete 20+ mile hikes with several thousand feet of elevation gain in one day. The difference is that I now know what fuel my body needs to operate well. Since I know what my body needs to operate well, I am very intentional about properly fueling it.

Although I am more food secure now as an adult than I was as a child, I am also mindful of being food-aware. I am intentional with my resources, avoid food waste, and try to be creative in food preparation so that I can meet my nutritional needs (on a budget) to remain active and productive. When possible, I will make ready-to-eat food ahead of time, so that I do not have to rely on pre-packaged foods that are often less nutrient-dense but more expensive than some self-made alternatives. This strategy is especially helpful when I know that I will be especially active, and so will need a little more nutrient support during the day.

One on-the-go recipe that I regularly make is these no-bake energy bites. They are a simple way to create a delicious and nutrient-dense snack that can be customized to dietary restrictions and preferences. I hope you enjoy one of my favorite trail nibbles, in good health!

A Recipe to Try: MB’s Energy Bites

Servings: 20


  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
  • ½ cup ground flax seed
  • ¼ cup chia seeds
  • ¾ cup nut butter
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chips OR chopped dried fruit of your choice
  • 1/3 cup honey (or agave nectar)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Add all ingredients into a medium-sized mixing bowl and mix until combined.
  2. Place the bowl in the refrigerator and let chill for about half an hour (helps to ensure that the mixture will stick together when being rolled).
  3. After chilling, measure a tablespoon of the mixture and roll into a ball. Repeat until all of the mixture is used.
  4. Store in an air-tight container in a refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, or in the freezer for longer than 2 weeks.

Nutrition Information: (1 serving. Servings per recipe: about 20. Analysis prepared using chocolate chips and honey) – Calories: 163; Total Fat: 10.1g; Saturated Fat: 3g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 41.8mg; Carbohydrates: 15.9g; Fiber: 4.3g; Sugar: 7.7g; Protein: 4.9g

Additional Resources

Learn more about nutrition for exercise performance through these resources:

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