Jul 29 2009

What is best to eat before a workout, and when should we eat it?

Snacks, sports drinks, or fruit? 30 minutes before, 1 hour before, or on an empty stomach? We go to the experts and find out exactly when and what you need to eat before working out.

WHAT DO THE EXPERTS HAVE TO SAY?

As I started researching this question online, I was expecting the usual: contradictory advice from a lot of different sources, some far more reliable than others.

Thankfully, that wasn’t what I found. Although there are some differing opinions, a kind of general consensus has formed around what’s best to eat before your workout, and when you should do it. Below, we’re going to summarize the main schools of thought, and try hard not to bury you in health-sciences jargon—this is advice you can use today.

WHY YOU NEED TO EAT.

Over the years I’ve heard lots of anecdotal evidence about people waking up and going for a run “on an empty stomach.” I always assumed this had something to do with forcing your body to burn stored fat instead of the food that you had just eaten. Apparently there’s a tiny bit of truth to this, but the negatives of not eating before working out usually outweigh the positives.

In fact, I couldn’t find any professional who recommended working out on an entirely empty stomach. Here’s why, according to the experts at  Columbia University: “If you hit the road without any breakfast, you’ll be running on fumes, not fuel. It’s like choosing not to put gas into your car before driving to work. A few gallons will get you farther than if your tank is on or below empty.”

The Australian Government explains it further: “Exercising in a fasted state (8 hours since the last meal) results in a greater proportion of fat being used as the exercise fuel [...]  However, it is possible that you may be able to exercise harder and for a longer period if you consume carbohydrate before exercise.  Overall, this will result in greater energy use and a better contribution to the negative energy balance that is needed to cause fat loss.”

So that part, at least, was clear—don’t skip the food entirely. But why, besides this ‘negative energy balance’, do we need to eat before working out? According to Jenna A. Bell-Wilson: it “speeds up recovery, protects you from fatigue, and gets you ready for the next workout.” 

And the New York Times says: “people are not going to run well with one running shoe or ride with a flat tire on their bike. Your food is just like your running shoes or your skis. It really is the inner equipment. If you think of it this way, you usually have a better outcome when you’re physically active.”

WHAT YOU SHOULD EAT, AND WHEN YOU SHOULD EAT IT.

So what should you be eating? For that, we also have to answer what you should be eating. Depending on how close you are to your workout, or what time of day it is, you’ll need to be consuming different things.

There’s a basic principle that most of the experts adhere to: eat nutritious food and have it out of your stomach before you exercise. 

ESPN’s in-house experts explain: “Many athletes avoid food within two hours of a very hard workout, but can tolerate a lighter snack within one to two hours of a light workout. Eating a high carbohydrate snack two hours before exercising can leave you ample energy and a calm stomach for a great workout.”

And once again the New York times gives us some similar advice: “I like it to be an hour before exercise. We’re just talking about a fist-sized amount of food. That gives the body enough food to be available as an energy source but not so much that you’ll have an upset stomach. So if you’re going to exercise at 3 p.m., you need to start thinking about it at 2 p.m.”

How about those of us who work out early in the morning? We know we have to eat something, but what, and how soon before? It depends. If you can get to some food an hour before your morning workout, you can eat different than if you’re up and out the door within 20 to 30 minutes.

The pros at About.com tell us: “If you have an early morning race or workout, it’s best to get up early enough to eat your pre-exercise meal. If not, you should try to eat or drink something easily digestible about 20 to 30 minutes before the event. The closer you are to the time of your event, the less you should eat. You can have a liquid meal closer to your event than a solid meal because your stomach digests liquids faster.”

But what does ‘early enough’ mean, exactly? According to the Australian government: “If you train early in the morning you should opt for a light snack about an hour before exercise.  For example, some fruit or a cereal bar on the way to training along with some fluid such as a glass of milk or juice.”

About.com also tells us that if you only have a short time before your workout, try and stick to a bit of fresh fruit that contains lots of water (watermelon, peaches, apples, grapes, oranges). 

For other options, we turn to Columbia University, who also explain how to choose foods that are geared towards the length of your workout: “Eat for the duration of your workout. If you are going to exercise for less than an hour, you’ll simply need foods that digest easily. Choose high-carb, low fat foods, such as crackers, bagels, or bread. If you are going to exercise for longer than an hour, choose carbohydrates that last longer, such as yogurt or a banana.”

Ok! That gives us a general idea of what’s good to eat, and what kind of time-frames we can do it in. Let’s move on to the bad stuff.

WHAT YOU SHOULD AVOID EATING.

Let’s say you’ve got a full fridge and the dilemma of unlimited choice: what kind of foods should you consciously avoid before working out? Never fear—all the experts have some pretty consistent advice about that, too.

In general, the first principle is not to exercise on a full stomach, no matter what you’ve eaten. You need to digest your meal, and according to about.com, “this generally takes between 1 to 4 hours, depending upon what and how much you’ve eaten.”

What about fiber? Most suggest steering clear of it, for the obvious reasons: “too much fiber may stimulate the digestive system at an inappropriate time,” says ESPN, while the Mayo Clinic suggests that “foods high in fiber and fructose right before an intense workout may give you gas or cause cramping.”

Foods with too much fat are also to be avoided entirely—they’re slow to digest, which is bad news for anyone trying to work out. And they “also will pull blood into the stomach to aid in digestion, which can cause cramping and discomfort. Meats, doughnuts, fries, potato chips, and candy bars should be avoided in a pre-exercise meal,” says About.com. Most of those things should be avoided in general, but especially before you exercise.

One thing that’s important to keep in mind is sugar/glucose. “Some people do not perform well after a blood glucose spike,” says About.com, but there’s also evidence that “eating some sugar 35 to 40 minutes before an event may provide glucose to your exercising muscles when your other energy stores have dropped to low levels.” Tread lightly on this one—unless you know you can handle the spikes, don’t go chugging down two litres of sports drinks before every workout.

What about coffee? Can we have a morning espresso before a workout? Apparently, some experts once thought it actually stimulated a greater use of fat or energy, but “research doesn’t support that theory,” says About.com. What caffeine does do, is “act as a stimulant.” Just like it does any other time we drink it.

In other words: if you’re going for a 30-minute run, have a strong stomach, and need an extra little boost, a shot of espresso won’t kill you, and might make you feel a little more energetic during your run. But drinking more than that will stress out your stomach, and using coffee before a longer workout ensures that the caffeine ‘crash’ will happens during your workout, which is no fun for anybody.

IF YOU TAKE AWAY JUST ONE THING FROM THIS ARTICLE…

In the end, everyone is a little bit different. Exactly when and what to eat is “something only the athlete can determine based on experience,” says About.com, but these are their general guidelines to remember: 

Full Meal = 4 hours before exercise

High carb snack/drink = 2-3 hours before exercise

Fluid Replacement (sports drink/certain fresh fruit) = 1 hour before exercise

The Mayo Clinic suggests the same, personal approach: “Everyone is different. So pay attention to how you feel during your workout and your overall performance. Let your experience guide you.”

With the advice we’ve gathered here, you’ll have more than enough information to start building that experience, working out, and understanding what your body needs to thrive!

Best,

Frederick

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Around The Web
  • Xxfisherxx17

    i need to know what types of nutrition u need for waight training

  • Martina

    Hello! I’ve been reading your articles and watching your exercise videos for two days now. I came across this article and now I’m wondering …

    School starts on September 1st. I will be getting up every day at 6 am. From there I have approximately an hour and ten minutes to eat breakfast, do some exercise (usually I do 50crunches and 20squats) and get ready for school. Is it still OK if I eat my breakfast at about 6.05 and then exercise at half past or a quarter to seven? What should I eat?

    Thanks for the reply :D Your videos and articles are great :D

  • wandersoul

    well,that was such an interesting post…i was looking for that kind of information for about a year now..the only thing that i can just say is that every person is different and has to find out expirementaly what really suits to his training programms…so,try many things and you’ll find out whats best for you..when i wake up i usually drink 300 ml of water and then i eat a banana and 250 ml of low fat milk..about 45 minutes – 1 hour later i go for a morning run or do some other exercises at home like push ups,squats etc..it works just fine for me..a bit of coffe will also help your energy..after i finish my program i eat my regular breakfast which is commonly low fat milk with cereals and a fresh orange juice

  • Ar’lanna

    Hi! I had a look at this article and am a bit confused as I don’t see anything about protein mentioned. I believe that especially in the morning it is very important to get carbs AND protein. Especially if working out everyday protein will be important first thing in the morning to restore that which was used during the night for recovery. Carbs also for energy during the workout. The best combination I found as breakfast/pre-workout is hot porridge with half a scoop whey protein mixed in. The other half I take after my session. Any thoughts?

  • Sylvia

    Hello,

    “Let your experience giude you” thats true! Great article. I made a huge mistake once, and it was terrible believe me. I ate to much before a training. My stomach showed me my error. I won’t do it again! :)

  • http://www.infertilityhealthcenter.com Dwight Evans

    Avoid foods that cause bloating to you. Not all the foods will be taken in the same way by everybody’s digestive method. Some people might find that they are allergic to few foods whereas the others might eat them more.

  • Victor

    Hi,

    I’m from Brazil and studdent of Physical Education in Universidade de São Paulo. About the consumption of food before doing any type of exercise, there is another fact that you missed on the post, that when you eat carbs before exercising you get your metabolism to “start to work” and you’ll burn the fat only when your metabolism is already active. So you must ignite it, otherwise it will take longer to bagin the fat-burn process.

    Thanks for the diet and workout tips.

  • Eliza

    Hi Zuzana, Frederick

    Great website. You guys really help me on days when I can’t make it to my university gym and help me mix up my routine when I can!

    I just wanted to put my 2 cents in on this article. Again, I think this is a “different strokes for differents folks” idea. You mentioned people who “can’t handle the glucose spike”. This is very much true for me. I have chronic hypoglycemia, which means I have to manage my carbs very carefully to make sure I don’t overload carbohydrates at one meal and have a proper ratio of carb:fat:protein at each meal/ snack I have throughout my day. The way my endocrinologist explained it was that while I do not have the high blood sugars of a diabetic, for some reason my pancreas overreacts to ingestion of carbohydrates. If I don’t have some sort of protein or fiber in my snack to help my body slow the absorption, I spike and fall very quickly.

    However, carbs are very important to my health- without them, I get pretty medically ill very fast. This is especially true during and before exercise. I believe that combination snacks are the best – yogurt and a dash of nuts, fruit and a hard boiled egg, or a low fat protein bar about an hour before my workout works for me. I bet, even if your readers weren’t hypoglycemic, if you advice them to add some protein to their diet, they may see even more increase longevity in their energy.

    Thanks!

    Eliza

  • Rhiannon

    Dear Zuzana or Frederick,

    First I want to say thank you for this website. Many years ago I was quite the round young lady and embarked on a fitness regimen that helped me to shape up and I lost about 23 kilos over a 6 month period (granted I was also a waitress at the time, so I was on my feet all day along with my regular work out). I felt fantastic and looked great as a result of all the hard work. My current weight is about 80 kilos, but remembering what I did before and watching your workouts reminds me that I can do it again.

    With regards to food though, I was wondering what your experiences are with regards to buttermilk? I have been looking up the health benefits of it because I cannot handle most dairy due to lactose intolerance. However, in looking up buttermilk and starting to drink at least one small cup a day, I am finding it to be very helpful for my stomach. Have either of you had any positive results from having buttermilk in your diet? Are there any recipes in your diet/recipes section in which you use buttermilk?

    Thanks for your time,

    Rhiannon

  • hardik

    Hi,
    You guys are doing a great job by helping people like us. Keep it up.

    Does our sleep affects our health like wise do have to have a 7 hour sleep or 5 hour can do.

  • tani

    HI There,

    Your site is great and just wondering if you could post a few more quick breakfast ideas. I hate oatmeal and don’t have much time in the morning to cook.

    Thanks,
    Tani

  • sophy

    I just got done reading about whether to eat or not to eat before a workout and I found something very interesting. For those of you who is reading this… continue… I’ve been told by several people (including my trainer) to eat before I work out and after I work out ( I lift weights by the way). And that it’s very crucial for someone like me who wants to pack on some muscle mass. However, I am also interested in being healthy and staying young. So I was reading about human growth hormone and how it’s released from the pituitary gland. As we age… we tend not to release much of it but there are things that we can do to stimulate it. Resistance training is one of them and it’s best to do it on an empty stomach and to eat 1 hour after ( eat a protein-rich mea). The only thing you should consume during workout is water. By doing this, the hormone growth is being released and therefore HELPS YOU STAY YOUNGER!!!…

  • Manuela

    Hi Zuzana,

    Do you take any supplements and if so what is your favorite?

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  • Durand

    Ok, I get WHAT to eat before working out but what about before bed? I seem to lose every thing I worked so hard for at night during sleep. Please help. Thanks

  • Graeme

    I’m about to do a 100km endurance event in two weeks time (Oxfam Trailwalker – Sydney). I’ve been trying to get some reliable information on ‘carbo-loading’ before the event (other than eating pasta everyday for a week!) Are there any sources that you can recommend or information that you can provide?

    • http://www.bodyrock.tv/ Zuzana – BodyRock.Tv

      Hi Graeme, I don’t have any experience training athletes before their events. I am focused on general conditioning for average person. I can recommend you to find some book about periodization for endurance athletes.

  • Deeps

    hey, Zuzana, i need help, im slim n just started weight lifting..wat can i consume to increase in weigth n do i need to do other exercises apart from weightlifting?

  • Krystian

    Hi, can you tell about eating after the training, about time and type of food.
    I think it’s not obvious, especially when your training ends at about 7 or 8 p.m.

  • Natram

    yes i agree with it, you should know how you feel before going to workout.

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  • LaFonda

    Zuzana,
    Love the workouts, and love the advice!
    I have been living a pretty crazy 21 year old lifestyle recently and have been told by several people about the lemonade diet cleanse.
    I am thinking of doing it for a few days to really detox my body and cleanse internally for a good jumping off point for the clean eating way of life.
    I was wondering what your thoughts on this were?
    FThanks!
    LaFonda

  • Travis

    Hello Zuzana,

    What about after the workout meals? How soon and what should you eat for that?

    Thanks!

    Travis

  • James

    I run about 6-7 miles each day in the morning about 30-45 min after I wake up. My own personal experience is that it doesn’t take much food at all to find the sweet spot for energy; maybe 4-5 tablespoons of yogurt, or even just a ricecake. I always eat right when I finish for glycogen storage, and that works extremely well for me. Just to add a subjective view. :)

  • http://www.redbubble.com/people/cantus/art/3415412-2-languid-panda Cantus

    Hi Frederick,
    You might want to go back through the article and check your hyperlinks as none of them seem to be working, making it slightly trickier to read – for those of us that are easily confused ;-)

    Otherwise a well written and fascinating piece. I shall be implementing things I have learnt from it forthwith.

  • Luci

    Hi Zuzana,

    I am a bit confused…we are supppose to be eating every 2-3 hours so we shouldn’t be working out at least 2-3 hours after eating..when to eat or excercise then???
    I usually work out every night around 10 because I have a baby and am too busy during the day, and it is usually one hour after my “jogurt with flax seeds” dinner, my last meal of the day….in the morning I am totaly useless and working out is the last thing I can do….
    any thoughts of yours about this?
    L

    • http://www.bodyrock.tv/ Zuzana – BodyRock.Tv

      Hi Luci,
      it is recommended to eat a light meal that can be easily digested at least an hour before your workout. I am sure that your yogurt with flax seeds one hour before your training is just fine. Your personal experience is the most important thing here.

  • Alana

    I enjoyed reading this research, i work out on a morning and I never eat before workouts i get fatigue faster than if am working out on an afternoon.
    Thank you Z you make it so much easier for us fitness lovers.
    Blessing

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    • Nick Breyen

      I’ve ran varsity track since I was a freshmen and I like to eat carrots about and hour before I run and I drink water up to thirty minutes before the race to prevent cramping. This has worked pretty effective for me.