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!