Do I Eat Before or After Exercise?

running on beach

This is one question I hear and discuss often, and have wondered myself, too. There are so much conflicting advice, urban myths and long-held beliefs that attempt to shape the way we eat and when, as well as how we feel about food and nutrition – it’s no wonder we are all so confused!

While I always advocate for learning to tune into your body and only eat when you feel truly hungry, there is some science worth noting when it comes to what and when to eat around exercise. For those who love food, the good news is that eating BOTH before and after exercise is considered optimal! 

For those who aren’t so into their pre- or post-workout snacks or feel as though eating before working out is counterproductive, don’t stress, there are wide windows and lots of variable factors here. There are no fancy and expensive supplements required either – just real food. Let’s dive in. 

Eating before exercise

Last time you did a workout, how did you feel? Were you energised, smashing through the exercises and feeling like you could put all in? Or were you lightheaded, tired and battling through struggleville? What and when you ate before the session may have had an impact here.

Our bodies primarily use carbs for energy, particularly when under stress such as added movement. Carbs are broken down into glucose (sugar) and travel around our bloodstream to be taken up by the muscles as needed to fuel performance and ensure we get the most from each rep. Our muscles cleverly store glucose as glycogen, which they can tap into when blood sugars dip low and we need the extra boost.

However, if we don’t have enough glucose or stored glycogen floating around, we may find fatigue, nausea and lightheadedness visit while we are trying in vain to get through the session. We won’t get a decent workout, and we will feel terrible and be more likely to get injured. On top of the physical side-effects are the mental and emotional ones – “I’m so unfit”, “I don’t like exercise”, and “this is too hard, I am not interested”.

To solve this problem, aim to time your food intake to match when your body needs the extra fuel. If you have had a larger, balanced meal within 2-3 hours of intended workout time, for example at breakfast, then you should be good to go. No snack required.

For those working out later in the day, lunch may have been too far gone, so a light snack around 30-60 mins before your workout is a good idea. With either a pre-workout meal or snack, carbs should be your main focus, along with a little bit of protein to nourish and nurture those muscles before you tear them up (which effectively is what exercise does to some degree, and it’s a good thing). 

Shy away from too much fat before exercise as it is slower to digest and can make you feel a bit icky. For some people, a liquid snack before a workout is better as it is digested more easily, such as a shake or a glass of milk with some protein powder. 

Eating after exercise

Replenishing your body after a workout is important to help your muscles recover and repair, replace lost electrolytes (minerals) and restore glycogen levels to normal. This recovery is not only critical for short-term gain in terms of strength and reduced soreness, but helps your body adapt to exercise over the long term. 

Getting fitter and stronger is all about adaptation – so giving your body the best chance to become efficient at recovery and repair will help you reach your goals quicker!

You don’t need to smash down a protein shake or bar as soon as the bell chimes and you drop your last rep, just aim to eat something with a good mix of protein and carbs within around an hour of finishing your workout. Enjoy your food, relax and let your body do what it is designed to do.

Pre-workout and post-workout snack ideas

If you can’t stomach anything too heavy before or after your workout, try one of these light snacks before you head out the door and after your cool down.

  • A piece of wholegrain toast with nut butter or an egg
  • A piece of fresh fruit or a few dried apricots with a small handful of nuts
  • A couple of crackers with cheese
  • A piece of cold meat and a carrot or other veggies
  • A boiled egg and a piece of fruit
  • Greek yoghurt with berries
  • 1/4C canned beans (rinsed) in a small salad
  • A small bowl of oats or porridge with fruit
  • A glass of milk (or almond/soy milk) and a piece of fruit
  • Chia pudding with berries and seeds on top
  • A slice of meat on wholemeal or rice crackers

Let’s not forget hydration!

It should really go without saying here, but hydration is critical to ensuring optimal performance and safety when working out. Have a couple of glasses of water in the hours before your session and always take a water bottle with you to sip on between sets. After your workout, keep sipping your water for a consistent replenishing of hydration over the course of whatever is left of the day.

Special mention – early risers

For those who like to get up early and smash out a workout before the sun is up, you may find a few flaws to the nutrition timing ideas outlined above. Getting up even earlier to eat may not be practical, and you are likely to be starting off slightly dehydrated too. 

For you, taking in a glass of water before your workout is important, but sip it slowly so it has time to be absorbed before you start jumping around. Similarly, you may be able to stomach a pre-made shake to drink some of before your workout and finish it off afterwards.

Small protein balls can be handy for a quick fix that won’t sit like cement in your stomach, or some people find a piece of fruit to be an easy and tolerable pre-workout snack for first thing in the morning. 

That said, if the idea of eating before your session just doesn’t sit well – that is perfectly ok, just aim to eat a decent, balanced meal as soon as you can after the workout to aid recovery. In the grand scheme of things, it will be the total amount of protein, carbs and fats you eat over the day that will have the biggest impact on your performance, recovery and overall health.

Every body is different and it can take some experimentation to find what is right for you – these are just some guidelines and ideas to help answer the oft-asked question; “Do I eat before or after a workout?”. 

Pay attention to how you feel during exercise and what your performance is like, and tune into your body’s cues to help steer you towards nutrition timing that fits with your own unique needs.

If you would like to know more or work with me to untangle habits that are holding you back from your health goals, I’d love to chat. Together, we will determine the areas of health and nutrition that you find the most difficult, and work out ways to help you boost healthy habits that will leave you feeling empowered, energised and at ease with your body. Contact me here, or give me a call on 0412 603 163.

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