As a coach, there are a few questions clients ask quite often, and one that deserves a place in the Top 10 is definitely: “Should I eat before or after a workout?”
The short answer is:
If you’re planning a 1+ hour workout, then you should eat 3 to 4 hours before starting. If your workout is less than that, it is a personal preference. But, you will definitely want to eat after you exercise! And the time frame you want to eat in is called the “golden hour” – the hour immediately following your workout.
(*Be sure to read to the end. We’ve included an insanely simple flow chart to help you decide exactly when to eat!*)
Let’s look at the question a little closer.
On the surface, you’d think asking “Should I eat before or after a workout?” has an easy answer.
But, in reality, there’s a lot of confusion.
And, when you look at it, it’s easy to understand why!
Just do a few quick Google searches, and you’ll see what I mean.
- One article recommends exercising on an empty stomach,
- Another says to eat something right before you start,
- And yet another says to eat a full meal a few hours before you hit the gym.
To make matters even more confusing, just head over to YouTube. It seems as if every video has advice that conflicts with the last.
And before you know it, you don’t know who or what to believe.
That’s why we’re going to break this down! We’re going to clear things up, and you’ll know exactly WHEN to eat for maximum benefit.
Should I Eat BEFORE a Workout?
To answer this, the first thing we need to do is decide how long we plan to exercise.
And to make things simple, we’ll separate exercise into two categories:
1.) Short-Duration Exercise – workouts that last less than an hour.
2.) Long-Duration Exercise – workouts that last longer than an hour.
Usually, this is where endurance sports fall, like training for a triathlon or marathon – or long distance cycling.
* If your workout will last longer than 60 minutes, you can skip to Long-Duration Exercise.
In this category, we’ll break things down even further by asking:
Will you be doing an Aerobic or Anaerobic workout?
Examples of aerobic exercises are:
- Running or jogging,
- Spinning, or even a
- Boot camp-style class.
Examples of anaerobic exercises are:
- High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT),
- Jumping, and
- Heavy resistance training.
1.) Aerobic Exercise
If you’re doing an aerobic exercise for less than an hour, then the answer to: “Should I Eat BEFORE a Workout?” is: It’s a personal preference.
Let’s look at why:
There was a review published in January 2018 that looked at 46 individual studies to determine if eating before exercise improves performance.
And they found no overall performance effect for those who ate or did not eat before working out.
If you feel like you’ll have a better workout if you grab something to eat, then, by all means – go for it!
But, as long as you feel like you have enough energy to get you through, feel free to workout on an empty stomach. Especially if eating before you hit the pavement makes you feel like you just swallowed a kettlebell.
2.) Anaerobic Exercise
Although the review shows us there’s no noticeable benefit to eating before an anaerobic workout, there were four studies that showed: those that ate three to four hours before a workout had a direct improvement.
If you plan to hit the weights or knock out a CrossFit-style workout, we can give eating before a slight edge.
But again, you know your body best. If you feel like your workout will suffer, feel free to wait until after your workout.
If we’re looking at a long-duration exercise (workouts that last longer than 60 minutes) the recommendation is to eat three to four hours before you start.
Let’s take a look back to the review we mentioned earlier:
- In the review, 54% of the studies show long-duration, aerobic exercise performance improves with a pre-exercise meal.
- And even though that’s an excellent percentage, the remaining studies showed no performance benefits in eating before.
So, eating before your long sessions has a slight advantage.
For some, there can even be a benefit to eating sooner than three hours before.
And, if you’re curious if this is something that will help you, definitely give it a shot and see how you perform.
What should I eat?
That’s a great question! If you choose to eat before you workout, we’ll want to look at slower-digesting carbohydrates, like:
- Sweet potatoes,
- Wild Rice, or
As a rule of thumb: let’s stick to foods mother nature has made and avoid man-made carbs like: white potatoes, breads, and cereals – or really anything that comes in a box or bag.
Should I Eat AFTER a Workout?
Now, we’ll address the second half of the question.
If there’s one thing that most scientists agree on it’s – you should definitely eat after you exercise!
After training, muscles absorb the most nutrients, and glycogen (an energy reserve in your muscles) is replaced the most efficiently.
You don’t have to have a huge meal but you should eat something with both protein and carbs in it for best results.
If you’re looking to gain muscle, we’ll need the amino acids from protein to build new muscle tissue.
How much protein do you need? Most studies show that 20 to 40 grams of protein should do the trick.
Okay! So, I should eat after a workout, but when?
The Golden Hour
Have you heard of the “golden hour”?
The “golden hour” is a term that refers to the hour immediately following a workout. That’s the window when we’ll get the most benefit!
Although you don’t have to set a timer for exactly when to eat, you should eat within 45 minutes of exercising. But, you can push this a bit longer especially if you ate a meal before.
👉Do you want more practical, real-life tips from coaches that will help you make great decisions?
Just read our success stories from people just like you that we’ve help get into the shape of their lives! We get the results we do by finding ways that work for you and your life.
- Do you know the #1 reason people are overweight? (hint: it’s not what you think).
- When to eat flow chart. Just click the image for the full-sized version.