Here we examined the use of stable isotopes, [13C]starch and [15N]protein, as dietary tracers to study carbohydrate assimilation and distribution and protein utilisation, respectively, by rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). The capacity of glucose uptake and use by tissues was studied, first, by varying the digestibility of carbohydrate-rich diets (30 % carbohydrate), using raw starch and gelatinised starch (GS) and, second, by observing the effects of two regimens of activity (voluntary swimming, control; sustained swimming at 1·3 body lengths/s, exercise) on the GS diet. Isotopic ratio enrichment (13C and 15N) of the various tissue components (protein, lipid and glycogen) was measured in the liver, muscles, viscera and the rest of the fish at 11 and 24 h after a forced meal. A level of 30 % of digestible carbohydrates in the food exceeded the capacity of rainbow trout to use this nutrient, causing long-lasting hyperglycaemia that raises glucose uptake by tissues, and the synthesis of glycogen and lipid in liver. Total 13C recovered 24 h post-feeding in the GS group was lower than at 11 h, indicating a proportional increase in glucose oxidation, although the deposition of lipids in white muscle (WM) increased. Prolonged hyperglycaemia was prevented by exercise, since sustained swimming enhances the use of dietary carbohydrates, mainly through conversion to lipids in liver and oxidation in muscles, especially in red muscle (RM). Higher recoveries of total 15N for exercised fish at 24 h, mainly into the protein fraction of both RM and WM, provide evidence that sustained swimming improves protein deposition, resulting in an enhancement of the protein-sparing effect.