Is it better to eat a meal before or after I workout? Why?
On your way to the gym? Wondering if you should eat a meal before or after your workout? Today, I’m going to show you exactly when to eat to get max return on your meal/workout timing.
But before we get to it, I want to give you the highest of fives!
Why the virtual high five?
Well for one, they feel amazing, don’t they? And two, if you’re reading this, you’re looking to up your fitness game and I couldn’t be more excited to help you!
So whether you’re packing on muscle or looking to drop a few pounds, I’m going to cut through all the meal timing confusion and show you exactly what research says works best.
Like most answers, there’s a short and long version. And I’m going to give you both! So let’s start with the TL;DR, then we’ll dive into the details.
First, here’s the instant answer:
Should I eat before or after a workout?
Research suggests if you exercise for more than an hour you may see an advantage by eating three to four hours before starting. If your workout is less than an hour, eating prior is a personal preference. But regardless of how long you exercise, you will want to eat after – preferably within the hour.
Okay! So that’s the short version.
- Less than an hour = a personal preference.
- Longer than an hour = there’s a slight edge in eating 3 to 4 hours before.
- Always eat after.
Quick and to the point, just the way we like it! So now, let’s dive in for a closer look.
To eat before or eat after? It seems like an easy question, but…
It feels like you should be able to get a simple, straight answer regardless of who you ask, but meal timing is a hotly contested topic.
Do you want to run an experiment and test that out?
Just go to the gym and ask ten people if you should eat before or after a workout. Here’s what will happen. You’ll get ten wildly different answers AND some very, very strong opinions.
Or jump on Google and search “Should I eat before or after a workout?”.
Here’s what you’ll see:
- One “expert” claiming that exercising on an empty stomach is the only way to go.
- Another telling you to eat thirty minutes before hitting the weights.
- And yet another saying you should eat a full meal before a workout.
Head to YouTube and you’ll see the same problem. You’ll hear guru after guru giving you advice that conflicts with the last. And before you know it, you don’t know who or what to believe.
In situations where you can’t get a clear answer and broscience dominates popular opinion, it’s best to base your decision on what the research says.
So let’s talk science.
Now, I feel the need to say I love research! And as much as I enjoy getting lost in the minutia of fasted exercise vs. pre-exercise feeding, I’ll do my best to keep us out of the weeds.
Plus, I’ve learned when you say things like “pre-exercise feeding” you can actually see everyone’s eyes glaze over. So I’ll keep this jargon-free and sum it all up for you in a few short paragraphs.
If you’re interested in the pros and cons of timing your meals with your workouts, there is a mountain of research. Seriously, we can easily find more than 50 studies. So if you’re looking for some bedtime material, I have a few reading recommendations for you!
There is no shortage of research, and while that’s amazingly helpful, the real gold lies in studies of those studies (or a meta-analysis). This is where one study examines an entire collection of research to spot trends, inconsistencies, and answer important questions, like…When is the best time to eat for max benefit?
And there is a 2018 review that did just that! Which is a major win for us because we can cut through the confusion and get clear actionable advice—based on 46 individual studies. So the advice I’m sharing with you today is based on this review.
Let’s get to the answers!
Should you eat BEFORE a workout?
Before we can answer the big question, you need to answer these two smaller questions:
Question 1: Will you exercise for less or more than an hour?
Simple enough, more or less than an hour. Got it! Next, decide what type of workout you’ll be doing.
Question 2: Will you be doing an aerobic or anaerobic workout?
If you’re wondering where you land, here are a few examples:
- Aerobic Exercise – this is any form of cardiovascular training. You’ve probably heard it referred to as “cardio”. Examples are jogging, running, hiking, and cycling. Or gym-style classes, like kickboxing and spinning.
- Anaerobic Exercise – these are high-intensity exercises like resistance training, sprinting, HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), or CrossFit-style workouts.
Okay, do you have your answers?
If you’re exercising for less than an hour.
If your answers were:
1.) Less than an hour and aerobic – then eating before you exercise is a personal preference.
In the review we mentioned, the study found there’s no overall performance effect for those who ate or did not eat before working out. So if you feel like you’ll have a better workout if you grab something to eat, then, by all means – go for it!
Or if eating before a workout makes you feel like you swallowed a kettlebell, then let’s skip the meal. It’s your choice. I suggest trying it both ways and seeing which works best.
2.) Less than an hour and anaerobic – there’s a slight edge to eating before your workout.
Although the review shows us there’s no noticeable benefit to eating before an anaerobic workout, there is some evidence you may see a boost. Four of the forty-six studies (4/46) included in the review suggest you could see an improvement by eating before working out.
Again, I’ll recommend you try it both ways and see which you prefer.
If you’re exercising for more than an hour.
You may see an edge by eating three to four hours before starting. 54% of the studies show if you’re exercising longer than an hour, you could see an improvement with a pre-workout meal. But keep in mind that the other 46% show no real performance benefits.
So even with a slight advantage, it’s kind of a toss-up. If you feel like you perform better by eating. Hey, let’s do it! And if you’re curious if this is something that will help you, give it a shot.
So what about eating AFTER exercise?
Okay, so now you know if you should eat before a workout, but what about after?
Well, I like to start by saying this…
Do you know how hard it is to get everyone to agree on what restaurant to eat at or what movie to go see? It’s an impossible task, isn’t it?! But, there are a few rare topics where everyone does agree like gas prices are outrageous, bills are the worst, and taxes are insane!
Well, eating after exercise falls into the second group, which is kind of amazing.
There’s almost unanimous agreement among scientists that you should definitely eat after your workout. And it makes sense. This is when your muscles absorb the most nutrients and when glycogen (or stored energy) is replaced the most efficiently.
Now, no one is suggesting to bust the buffet wide open. But a good, post-workout meal will do you right. And if you’re looking to pack on muscle, you’ll definitely need the amino acids in protein to build new muscle tissue. How much you ask? Well, that’s another hotly debated topic, but studies suggest 20 to 40 grams of protein should do the trick.
Okay, eat after. Great! But when?
The best time for a post-workout meal or shake is in what’s called “The Golden Hour”. The hour immediately following your workout. That’s the window when you’ll see the most benefit! It doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s a good rule of thumb to eat within 45 minutes. But you can push it a bit longer—especially if you ate a meal before.
So there we go! There’s the short and long answer on whether to eat before or after a workout.
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