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Eating and Exercise: Should You Eat After Exercising? Before? How Long and What?

Many of us grew up with the strict advice to wait at least one hour after eating to go swimming -- or else we'd be stricken with severe cramps and inevitably sink to the bottom.

eating before exercising

Eating a small snack about an hour before your workout may help give you energy, as long as it's something high in carbs and low in fat (like a piece of fresh fruit and a mini whole-grain bagel).

Now that we're grown, many of us are still holding on to the notion that we shouldn't eat anything before we exercise. Meanwhile, many of us don't take the time to stop and eat something after we workout either, but should we?

Eating Before Exercise: Should You?

Your body needs fuel (i.e. food) to make it through your workout, but too much of it can actually slow you down. So when it comes to eating and exercise, timing, quantity and the type of exercise you're doing make all the difference. Here are the major "rules" you need to know:

  • If you exercise first thing in the morning, get up early enough (two to three hours ahead of time) to eat a full breakfast. If you only have an hour to spare you should still eat something, just make it a light snack.

  • You should wait to exercise if you've eaten a large meal (at least three to four hours, but sometimes up to six, is required). This is because it takes your body some time to digest a large meal, but intense exercise slows your digestion (and instead diverts energy to your muscles). The result could be cramping, an upset stomach and diarrhea. If you've eaten a small meal, you should still wait two to three hours before working out intensely.

  • Experiment with snacks. For some people, a small snack (like a banana) right before, and even during, exercise provides an energy boost. For others, it can make them feel lightheaded. You should do whatever feels good to you.

Meanwhile, when it comes to eating before exercise, the type of food, and your workout, is important. If you are going to be doing high-intensity activity (such as running, aerobics or kickboxing) you need to give yourself a longer lead time for your food to digest.

On the other hand, if your workout is going to be more gentle (a long walk, for instance) you can get away with eating closer to your workout time.

You should refrain from eating foods high in fat prior to your exercise, because these foods will stay in your stomach longer (and could upset it). Foods that are high in fiber should also be avoided, as they could stimulate your digestive system when your energy is needed elsewhere.

eating before exercising

How long you need to wait before exercising after eating also depends on the intensity of your workout. You should give yourself longer to digest if you're going to be working out intensely (running, aerobics, etc.) than if your workout will be more gentle (walking).

Instead, foods that are high in carbohydrates and moderate in protein will satisfy your hunger, be easily digested and help normalize your blood sugar, so you feel at the top of your game come workout time.

Examples of good before-workout snacks include:

  • Fresh fruit and a small amount of almond butter

  • Low-fat soup (vegetable, chicken noodle, etc.)

  • A whole-grain bagel with whole-fruit jelly

  • A banana and yogurt

Should You Eat During Your Workout?

If you are going to be working out intensely for an extended period of time (over one hour), your body will likely need to be replenished to avoid getting tired. A small piece of fruit or a sport's drink would suffice (but keep in mind that sport's drinks often contain added sugars, artificial flavors and artificial colors).

However, most of the time just drinking water is enough to keep your body going during your workout.

After Workout Eating Tips

Exercise, though incredibly good for your health, puts stress on your body. Eating the right foods after you exercise is essential to helping your muscles recover and replace their glycogen stores for energy. This is especially important if you work out intensely or often (daily or more).

You should eat carbohydrates (such as a piece of fruit, raw veggies or whole-grain crackers) as soon as possible after exercising, and eat some protein (a hard-boiled egg, nuts, turkey, chicken, etc.) within two hours of your workout.

Though you may not be in the habit of paying attention to what you eat before and after your workout, doing so can help you get the most out of your exercise. Experiment with different foods and timing and you'll easily find the combination that feels best for your body.

Recommended Reading

The 10 Keys to Start an Exercise Program -- and Finally Stick to It!

What to do AFTER a Workout to Get Maximum Benefit From Your Exercise


ESPN Sports Nutrition

The Mayo Clinic

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