“To eat or not to eat [before a workout]. That is the question.”
Okay, okay, that’s not exactly how the saying goes, but it is a question that fitness devotees of all levels ask themselves pre-workout.
If you hit your spin class, weight lifting routine, or head out for a run on an empty stomach, you risk having low energy, or feeling lightheaded and dizzy. But if you eat too much or eat the wrong thing, you could end up feeling crampy or gassy mid-workout. Chances are you’ve made that mistake and had the uncomfortable feeling of food bouncing around in your stomach. And runners likely know about “runners’ trots” all too well.
Before diving into pre-workout do’s and don’ts, it’s important to remember that while there general do’s and don’ts, there’s no one-size-fits all regiment when it comes to eating and exercise, or how you combine the two. So be sure to listen to your body's cues as you try these recommendations. Your body is an incredibly intuitive and powerful machine. It will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t!
Food is our fuel source. Our body needs a generous combination of macro and micro nutrients in order to function. With that, it should come as no surprise that good nutrition yields positive results when it comes to fitness.
How Soon Can You Workout After Eating?
The right food - eaten at the right times - can give you the energy to sustain both low and high intensity workouts and help your muscles recover, but it begs the question: how long should you wait after eating to workout?
The simple answer is that you should allow your body enough time to digest the food you ate, so that you can use the nutrients as fuel. The more complex answer involves variables like how much time you have between eating and exercise and the type of workout you’re doing.
As a general rule, experts recommend that you wait 3-4 hours after a meal and 30 to 90 minutes after having a snack. The closer you get to your workout the more simple and easily digestible your meals should be.
If you’re doing an intense workout, you may want to plan a simple, easily-digestible snack about an hour before your workout, but if you’re doing a workout that requires less energy and have eaten within four hours, you may be fine skipping the snack. Again, remember, everyone’s body is unique and what you need may be different than what your workout buddy needs—that’s IIN’s core concept of bio-individuality in action.
But what about those early morning sessions when you quite literally roll out of bed, throw on your gym clothes (or maybe, for efficiency, even sleep in them) and dash out the door?
This another example of when you want to tune in with your body’s cues. If you can make it through your workout feeling energized and strong, there’s no harm in waiting to eat until after. But if you find yourself exhausted halfway through, try having something easy to digest before you lace up your sneaks. Even a spoonful of peanut butter or a banana could suffice depending on your hunger levels.
Your body uses the three core macronutrients for fuel: protein, carbs, and fat. Each plays a unique role in exercise performance. So when it comes to what to eat before your workout, your body uses each differently:
Eating protein enables your muscles to synthesize the protein which allows for muscle growth. But this doesn’t mean that it will make you “bulky,” it will simply aid in your performance by delivering amino acids to your muscles that also allow for recovery and repair.
Carbs are turned into glycogen and stored in our muscles. They’re also the main fuel source for our workout and how we get our energy. When it comes to carbs there are two main kinds: complex carbs and simple carbs. Long story short, complex carbs are more difficult to digest and have a lower glycemic index—think whole grains, lentils, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and quinoa. Simple carbs move through the body quite quickly and are often thought of as less nutritious than their complex counterparts. However, both can play an important role when it comes to fueling a workout.
Fat takes longer to digest than protein and carbs, which means that your body can likely pull from fat that already exists in your body to support your workouts. Fat is a great macronutrient for those longer, less intense workouts.
You’ll want to get most of your nutrients for your workout from protein and carbs as your body has many fat stores it can extract energy from, while the protein and carbs burn off faster.
Pre-Workout Meals (3-4 hours before)
- Oatmeal with banana and nuts
- Turkey sandwich with whole grain or gluten free bread stuffed with veggies and avocado
- Grain bowl with quinoa or wild rice, dark leafy greens, roasted veggies, and protein of your choice
- Baked salmon, brown rice, and veggies
- Loaded sweet potato
Pre-Workout Snacks (60-90 minutes before)
- Peanut butter and banana
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Handful of nuts
- Slice of toast with nut butter
- Rice cracker with nut butter
- 1 or 2 hard boiled eggs
While it’s recommended to get your fuel from whole food sources as often as possible, we are often in need of something quick, like a granola bar, to have on-the-go. For the moments you’re in a pinch try a GoMacro, RX Bar or Larabar*.
Equally important as eating is hydration. Your body needs fluids to operate properly and since you lose fluids during exercise from perspiration, it’s crucial that you’re hydrated before you even start exercising and sometimes you may even need to drink more water while you exercise. Hydration ensures many bodily functions including temperature regulation, detox through sweat and excretion, and lubricates your joints.
Like with eating, how much you need is bioindividual, but you should aim to get at least 8 oz of water per day. As a rule of thumb, especially when you’re exercising a lot, try to drink water before you’re thirsty. It can take your body time to catch up with dehydration.
Before Workout Warm Ups
Whether you’re doing HIIT, going for a run, hopping on a spin bike, or lifting weights, it’s crucial that you warm up your muscles. Think of your muscles like elastic bands. When it’s brand new, it’s harder to stretch, but as you slowly begin to stretch it out, it becomes easier. Your muscles are exactly the same. If you move too quickly, soo soon, you run the risk of injury.
Stretching is one of the most important things you can do. Not only does it prevent injury but can even improve your performance. Consider a round or combination of these moves for a quick warm-up to get you ready for your next workout:
- Jumping jacks
- Downward dog
- Runner’s lunge
- Sun salutations
- Air squats
- Push Ups
- Lateral lunges
You’ve finished your workout, you're flying high on endorphins feeling energized because you ate the right thing at the right time pre-workout, but now what do you do? Do you wait for your next meal? Or do you grab a bite to eat?
Experts recommend that you eat within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Of course, what you eat will depend on your caloric needs and how intense your workout was. And while it may feel counterintuitive to eat after your workout, especially if you’re trying to lose weight, remember that food is your friend and food is fuel. The right nutrients have the power to fuel your fitness and overall health.
Most importantly, you just worked out! That’s a celebration in and of itself. Feeding and moving your body well are two important parts of living a holistically healthy lifestyle, and finding what works for you will improve your health even more!
*IIN is not affiliated with any of the brands mentioned in this blog post.