How long before a workout should i eat? The answer, as with most questions about nutrition, is that it depends. The type of activity you plan to do affects the best time to eat before exercising.
When it comes to planning a workout strategy there are many different opinions from fitness experts. Some say you should eat before the workout, some say you should eat after the workout, and some say exercising when you’re hungry will boost your adrenaline. So how many hours before working out should you eat? Well It depends.
Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?
A well-planned workout begins and ends the same way: with eating the right foods.
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How you fuel and refuel before and after exercise helps determine the actual fitness-building benefit of the session. That’s true whether you’re lifting weights, running miles or swimming laps, too.
So how can you maximize the effort that goes into spilling every drop of sweat? Let’s find out with sports dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CCSD, LD.
How food fuels exercise
One question comes up repeatedly when it comes to food and workouts: Is it better to eat before or after a training session? That’s a tough one to answer, and here’s why: They’re both important, says Patton.
Munching before exercising provides your body with the energy it needs to power through the session. Chowing down afterward helps with recovery.
Not just any old fuel will do, though. It’s important to put the right stuff in your tummy tank. Foods rich in carbohydrates and protein provide the nutritional building blocks your hard-working body needs.
“Carbs supply the energy to carry you through your workout,” says Patton. “Protein provides amino acids that your body uses to repair and build muscle.”
Together, they form a mighty one-two punch that would gain a CrossFit instructor’s approval.
Timing, though, is key.
Eating before a workout
You wouldn’t start a road trip without gassing up the car, right? The same principle applies to preparing your body for exercise. “You don’t want to start on empty,” says Patton.
Ideally, try to eat a well-balanced meal three to four hours ahead of your workout. Your plate should feature carbohydrates and a moderate amount of lean protein. Limit fats and fiber, which digest more slowly and can upset your stomach while bouncing around during a workout.
The closer you get to exercise time, the less you want to gobble down to avoid belly issues during the activity, says Patton. Think more along the lines of a snack than an actual meal.
“Everybody is different, though,” says Patton. “It comes down to what you can tolerate.”
What about early morning exercise?
If you’re waking up and working out, loading up with a meal a few hours ahead of time isn’t exactly an option. (Unless you want to set your alarm clock for 2 a.m., of course… but who wants to do that?)
“When you wake up, your blood sugar is at your lowest,” says Patton. “Eating something like a piece of fruit or granola bar can give you a needed boost.”
Consider the intensity of your workout, too. If it’s an easy-going, 30-minute session, you may be able to get away with skipping a pre-workout snack. “But if you’re going for an hour or more, you really should get something to eat,” says Patton.
Working out on an empty stomach also could cost you what you’re trying to build — namely, muscle. It’s beneficial to have some protein, the building blocks of muscle, in your system while training If you want to grow and strengthen muscles.
Stamina may also be an issue if your body is running low on fuel, meaning your workout could quickly turn into a dud.
“You’re better off to eat,” says Patton. “It doesn’t have to be much. Just enough to get through.”
Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
One of the most common questions for sports dietitians: “What should I eat before and after a workout?”
Sometimes the answer depends more on the athlete and the specific activity, but there are some common truths that apply for pre- and post-workout nutrition, whether you’re a weekend warrior or a seasoned veteran.
Don’t Skip the Carbs
Carbohydrates are fuel for your “engine” (i.e., your muscles). And, the harder your engine is working, the more carbs you need to keep going.
So you may be asking — how soon before a workout should I eat? It depends.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to eat immediately before a workout because while your muscles are trying to do their “thing,” your stomach is trying to simultaneously digest the food in your stomach. These competing demands are a challenge for optimal performance. And, even more of a factor, eating too close to a workout may cause you to experience some GI discomfort while you train or play.
Ideally, you should fuel your body about 1 to 4 hours pre-workout, depending on how your body tolerates food. Experiment and see what time frame works best for your body. If you’re a competitive athlete, this is something you need to explore during your training days and not during game day.
Here are some suggestions for pre-workout fuel:
- A peanut butter and banana or PBJ sandwich
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit
- Apple and peanut or almond butter
- Handful of nuts and raisins (two parts raisins: one part nuts)
Notice that each of these suggestions include some protein as well as carbohydrates. Carbs are the fuel. Protein is what rebuilds and repairs, but also “primes the pump” to make the right amino acids available for your muscles. Getting protein and carbs into your system is even more vital post workout.
Post Workout Nutrition
Your body uses stored energy (glycogen) in your muscles to power through your workout or game, but after that workout, you need to replenish the nutrients lost. What to do?
After a competition or workout, focus on getting carbs and protein into your body. This gives your muscles the ability to replenish the glycogen they just lost through training and helps your tired muscles rebuild and repair with the available protein and amino acids. Try to eat within an hour of completing an intense workout.
Post-workout meals include:
- Post-workout recovery smoothie (or post-workout smoothie made with low-fat milk and fruit)
- Low-fat chocolate milk
- Turkey on a whole-grain wrap with veggies
- Low-fat yogurt with berries
The above offer mainly carbs, some protein and are convenient — with the first two liquid options also helping to rehydrate the body.
How Long Before My Workout Should I Eat?
Why Is Fueling Up Before Working Out So Important?
Food is NOT the enemy…it’s your energy, and it’s important to make sure you have enough energy for your workout. While there are some studies that support exercising in a fasted state, more medical advice points to consuming smart, nutritious snacks before you hit the gym to enhance your performance. Exercising on an empty stomach can lead the digestive system to break down muscle tissue, which isn’t helpful if you’re training to get stronger, faster or lose weight. A personal trainer or coach can help you set these goals and decide how to fuel for them. Of course, how much food to eat, and when, will vary from activity to activity, the time of day you’re exercising, and—ultimately—your personal preference. But, to be succinct, you absolutely need to eat before you exercise!
When Should I Eat?
Different people have different preferences on when to eat before a workout. The best rule of thumb is that the closer you get to exercise time, the simpler your choices need to be in order to help your body utilize energy more efficiently. If you can eat 2-3 hours prior to exercise, a large meal with complex carbs will have time to be absorbed and processed. But, if you need to eat closer to your workout (within about an hour, or so), it’s best to choose a simpler snack.
If it’s been more than 3 hours since your last big meal, you’ll want to have a snack about an hour before you work out. Proper fueling at this time will help you feel satiated during your workout, keep the stomach cramps at bay (if you choose the right food!) and give you energy for your workout. Making sure you have enough time to eat and start the digestion process can also help ward off nausea and low blood sugar, which can make you feel faint during exercise. Proper fuel before your workout has many benefits, plus it’s safer too—which brings us to the next question: what to eat?
What’s on the Workout-Fuel Menu?
The general guideline for eating before a workout is that the size of the meal depends on how much time you have to digest it. If you have a lot of time before your workout, feel free to enjoy a large meal. For example, a sandwich stacked with lean protein, veggies and avocado on multi-grain bread would be perfect.
If you have 1-2 hours before your workout, a small meal or healthy snack composed of carbohydrates and protein is best for most people. One tasty example: enjoy a bowl of low-fiber, whole grain (healthy!) cereal with low-fat or skim milk. This would also be a great time for a nutritious energy bar, protein-based smoothie or sports drink.
If you’re working out in the next hour, or first thing in the morning, a light snack that’s primarily simple carbohydrates, rather than complex carbs, is what most studies recommend. You might have noticed that none of the pre-workout snacks recommend fat. Fat isn’t bad – medical advice supports that it’s an important part of people’s diets and of a healthy lifestyle. However, experts suggest avoiding fat if you’re eating a light snack right before a workout, as it slows your digestive system down. You won’t be able to convert as many calories into energy, and you might be working out on a full stomach, which isn’t very comfortable!
It’s hard to answer what the perfect workout snack is, as it hinges greatly on your personal preferences. Studies show that when you eat, your body increases blood flow to the digestive system, which is why it’s best not to eat a large meal right before a workout, as you want that blood flow available for your muscles. However, a small snack can make sure you have enough calories in your system to perform efficiently and proficiently!
What can I Eat 30 Minutes Before a Workout.
The best things to eat 30 minutes before a workout include oats, protein shakes, bananas, whole grains, yogurt, fresh fruit, and more.
Your pre-workout meal often depends on your choice of workout. Some people prefer doing a “fasted cardio.” This means they run, swim, cycle or jog on an empty stomach because it speeds up the burning of calories. For others, it is a must to munch on a little something before they work out.
Eating before a workout is especially recommended if you want to try resistance training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or lifting weights. Each individual needs to try and determine their pre-workout meal.
An ideal pre-workout meal should be low in fat, moderate in protein, and high in complex carbs. This type of meal provides bursts of energy for a resistance workout and spares your muscles from breaking down.
Examples of a good pre-workout meal may include:
- During your workout, oats can act as a go-to pre-workout meal. Much like whole grains, they supply tons of energy that are released slowly.
- Any type of oats, such as steel-cut or whole, may provide a fantastic pre-workout meal. Have oatmeal with added raisins, mashed banana, figs, and some honey drizzled over it.
- Protein shakes
- Many studies have reported the potential of pre-workout protein consumption to boost athletic performance.
- Having protein shakes (in water or low-fat milk) just before exercising can increase muscle protein synthesis and is the best morning pre-workout meal.
- Bananas are considered the best morning pre-workout meal.
- Bananas have double the number of carbs compared to other fruits, such as apples and oranges, which means that they are a more substantial snack that could fuel a prolonged workout.
- Eating half a banana with peanut butter is a good way to add some protein and fat to your pre-workout meal. This may help stabilize blood sugar levels throughout your workout. You may add banana slices to some low-fat milk as well.
- Whole grains
- Whole grains are complex carbs that pack energy. The carbohydrates are slowly released into the bloodstream and help maintain blood sugar levels.
- This could enable you to sustain energy levels through an endurance workout longer than 40 minutes.
- Whole grain dishes include quinoa salads, millet bread, spiced yogurt, whole bread toast, etc.
- Yogurt and fresh fruit
- If you have about half an hour before your workout, unsweetened yogurt and fruit can be a practical snack. This is a good source of carbohydrates, some fluid, and nutrients too, making it the best morning pre-workout meal.
- Boiled eggs
- Boiled eggs are a great source of protein and their yolk has plenty of nutrition. Combine this with a slice of whole-wheat bread to boost your energy levels.
- Caffeine is one of the most tried-and-tested ways to boost energy.
- Strong coffee or an energy drink before a workout will give you a great boost.
- Studies have also shown caffeine has a positive impact on workouts for people who enjoy regular exercise sessions.
- Always have caffeine with some fruit, nuts, or toast to avoid the jitteriness that accompanies caffeine intake.
- Fresh smoothies are an ideal energy source because they are simple to prepare and provide the nutrients that you need before working out. Avoid sugar and include vegetables in smoothies. Add unsweetened yogurt to your smoothies to give them bulk and flavor.
If it’s been a while since your last meal and you want to boost your energy with a snack before a workout, try snacking on easy-to-digest carbs, such as grains, fruits or vegetables and protein (dairy, meat, or protein powders, such as collagen peptides or whey protein isolate). Bananas with peanut butter and Greek yogurt with some fruit are good snack options to eat 30 minutes to one hour before a workout.