Does It Really Matter If You Eat Before a Workout? The Answer Might Surprise You.
Do you feel like you need a meal before you eat? Are you one of those people who only like working out on an empty stomach?
This is another question that comes up with my clients a lot. After all, shouldn’t you do whatever makes your body feel better? And does it really make all that much difference, anyway?
Well, the short answer is yes— meal timing can have a huge impact on your success (or failure). But just because the answer is simple, doesn’t mean it’s straightforward. Whether or not you should be eating before a workout depends on lots of different factors— the intensity and length of your training, your performance goals, your overall nutritional consistency, your ability to recover, and plenty more.
Here’s a basic look at when you should be eating before your workouts (and when it’s probably okay to skip that pre-training meal).
Here’s when it’s okay to pass on food before exercising...
Your goal is to exercise in a fasted state.
Fasted exercise is a hotly debated topic in the fitness world— people either swear by it or swear it off. But in my experience, fasted training (particularly cardio) can be extremely beneficial, especially when it comes to burning fat. And it’s not just anecdotal, there’s research to back it up. Researchers from a recent study at the University of Bath found that participants burned less adipose tissue (body fat) after a meal than they did during a fasted state. Why? Because when they ate prior to training, their bodies were more focused on using carbohydrates from the recent meal to fuel metabolism than burning fat that had already been stored.
So if fat burning is your focus, go ahead and skip the meal before your morning cardio session. Just make sure to have a post-workout snack on hand to refuel once you’re done.
You’re working out for less than 60 minutes.
As long as you're consistently eating a healthy and energy-rich diet, your body should have enough stored energy to make it through even a workout 60 minutes or less without needing to refuel. In fact, healthy individuals generally have a baseline of about 600 grams of glycogen stored in their liver and muscles that can be used for fuel, as needed. As long as you plan to replenish those stores with a post-workout meal or snack, you should be fine to pass on food beforehand.
You’ve eaten in the last 3 hours.
Getting the best results from your training happens when you find the right balance, and timing your meals is no exception. Eating 2-3 hours before a workout is ideal— your body is properly fueled, but has had enough time to begin the initial digestion process, reducing your risk of gastric discomfort. As long as you’re within that 3 hour window, you should have no need to add extra food to the mix.
You’re doing an easy workout or an active recovery session.
There’s a time to push your body and a time to give it a break— and people who see the most success understand that it takes both types of training to see results. Active recovery and easy workout days aren’t less important than the days with bigger workloads, they just use less energy to get the job done. That means you should be fine to forgo the food on these types of training days without sacrificing performance.
You’re planning to eat immediately following your training session.
If you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy eating before a workout, planning your recovery fuel needs to be a priority. If you’ll be heading to a meal right after you finish up— say, out to breakfast straight from the gym— you’ll be fine to skip the food ahead of time. Just don’t stretch that post-workout refeeding window too far— not only will you be denying your body the nutrients it needs, but you’ll be opening yourself up to the type of extreme hunger that can lead to binge eating and other negative food behaviors.
Here’s when that pre-workout meal is a good idea…
You’re planning a monster training session.
Intense training requires proper fuel, and that means eating before your session to get your body ready to go. If you’re working out for more than an hour, practicing a high-intensity style program, or just want to have energy to push yourself all the way through, your body is going to need food to perform at its best. Not only will that pre-workout meal keep you energized, but you’ll be helping to protect against injuries that can occur when your muscles are fuel-depleted.
You had a light meal or an early dinner the night before.
Eating light meals or a long time before bed means your body will be in a more intensely fasted state come morning. Without replenishing those carbohydrate stores, you’ll be setting yourself up for a workout that feels more difficult than normal. Instead of suffering through a frustrating training session, fuel up with a meal or snack that includes a quality source of carbohydrates (and throw in a glass of water, while you’re at it).
You’re chasing results.
Big results— a deadlift PR, hitting a pace goal, or beating your last AMRAP— require your body to use more energy. And while you might be able to battle through it without a meal, you definitely won’t be performing at 100%. When you need readily-available energy, opt for a meal with a protein source and fast-acting carbs. My go-to before a workout is always quick and simple: a scoop of Isothority in a shaker along with a banana. It isn’t complicated, but it’s definitely effective— just the way I like it.
Your last meal was more than 3 hours ago.
This one is aimed at all of you that like to train in the evening. When you haven’t eaten a meal since lunch, it’s no wonder that you’re struggling to find the energy for an after-work training session. Cut yourself a break and add a snack to your routine later in the afternoon, ideally about an hour before you train. By bridging that gap, you’ll be setting yourself for a much more productive (and enjoyable) workout.
You struggle with cravings or binge eating after a workout.
If you feel the need to stuff your face immediately after a workout, your body is probably trying to tell you that it isn’t getting enough food to meet its energy needs. Plus, those feelings of extreme hunger can have a spiral effect— not only will you be starving after you train, but you might be more likely to battle intense cravings throughout the day. By putting a little something in the tank before you get going (and having something to snack on post-workout), you’ll help to dampen the urge to eat everything in sight.
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