From the complete beginner to the highest level athletes on the planet, everyone looks forward to enjoying a meal before a big workout.
It doesn’t matter whether you hit the weights, run a marathon, or just take a casual bike ride through the countryside — we all want to fuel up properly and get to work!
But as with all aspects of health and fitness, researchers have dug deep into the science of the pre-workout meal and determined that there are some rules to follow for optimal nutrient absorption and performance. Timing is everything. (As if this wasn’t complicated enough already!)
Don’t sweat it; we’ve got you covered with a pre-workout eating guide that’s easy to understand and backed by real science. Here is everything you need to know about chowing down before a workout, how long you should wait, and the best type of food to eat for your goals.
The Pre-Workout Window
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: you should definitely eat something before working out, no matter who you are or what your goals may be.
You may come across studies online that say it’s okay to work out in a fasted state, but trust us when we say that it’s safer and smarter to eat before exercising, especially if you are just starting out on your fitness journey.
Do you think that top-level athletes and marathon runners avoid eating before a big competition? Do Olympic weightlifters just sip a cup of coffee on the day of the main event? Absolutely not.
Food is the fuel the propels our bodies forward and ultimately allows us to burn more fat and build muscle in the long run.
Going with zero food is out of the question, but should you hit the gym immediately after scarfing down a pre-workout snack? That’s also a bad idea, according to research.
As you might already know, your body requires a lot of energy and blood to chew, process, and digest food, even if it’s just a light meal. That semi-sleepy state we enter after we eat is nature’s way of telling us there is important work going on in the digestive system, and it’s time to put all other activities on hold.
It’s perfectly fine to take a light stroll after a meal — that has actually been shown to have its own benefits — but you want to avoid bringing your heart rate too high above normal until your food is fully digested and you feel light and limber once again.
If you aren’t fully in tune with your body quite yet, follow the two-hour rule when it comes to eating before a workout. When first starting out, don’t begin your exercise session before you’ve waited two hours after eating anything. This will help ensure you avoid cramps, indigestion, and other issues that could sabotage your training.
Here is an easy outline to follow in the hours leading up to a workout:
- Plan exactly when and where you’re going to work out.
- Have a healthy meal two or three hours before you expect to begin exercising.
- Try to walk around and hydrate after eating to aid digestion.
- Check in with yourself prior to the workout and gauge energy levels.
- If you’re still digesting, do some light stretching or cardio to speed things up.
- Wait until you feel 100% before launching into an intense workout.
The lesson here is to learn to recognize the signals that your body constantly sends you. This is a huge part of health and fitness in general, and the balance of eating and exercise is at the crux of it all.
As you advance on the path towards better health, you’ll find that your metabolism speeds up and processes food more efficiently, allowing you to shorten the timeframe between eating and working out. Play it safe to start off and pay close attention to what your body tells you.
Big Meals vs. Small Snacks
You’ve got a basic idea of how long to wait after a meal before hitting a workout, but it’s also important what you choose to eat, and how much of it is necessary for your chosen activity.
If you’re new to the game, you may think that the bigger the meal you eat beforehand, the better your workout will be. This may be the case for someone about to embark on a massive triathlon or climb a steep Himalayan mountain, but for your average daily workout, it’s better to keep things a bit lighter.
Depending on when you workout, you’ll want to have at least a few hundred quality calories in the tank so you can power through your session with confidence and clarity.
For example, if you like to workout breakfast, you can get away with having a few eggs and some toast, sip some coffee or tea while digesting, then hit the gym or cardio a couple of hours later when you feel ready.
The after-work gym session is more common for the 9-to-5 crowd, which lines up nicely with a 1 pm lunch break. Enjoy a sandwich or wrap with whole wheat bread and make sure you get some veggies or fruit in there as well. That should give you enough energy for an evening workout, and you can always have a quick snack beforehand if necessary.
Remember, your body will make it clear to you whether or not it’s ready for a high-energy workout, and that’s never going to be the case after a heavy meal.
For beginners, try nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day to avoid these big energy peaks and valleys.
What About Post-Workout?
So, you’ve just wrapped up an epic lifting session in the gym or completed a high-octane dance workout at home.
The only things on your mind are 1) catching your breath 2) showering off all that sweat, and 3) eating something tasty to refuel your body and reward yourself for a job well done! The question is: should you wait a while to eat, or hit the kitchen ASAP?
Researchers have found that our bodies respond very well to quality food almost immediately after a workout, and it’s actually better to eat sooner than later for the better digestion and absorption of nutrients.
That’s right, you shouldn’t wait too long after you finish exercising to eat if you want to make the most of every bite. Get yourself showered up, cooled down, and ready to chow as soon as possible. Don’t miss that two-hour window!
A protein shake is a classic post-workout snack because it can be made quickly with just some powder, water, and a shaker bottle. You can knock it back in the car on the way home from the gym or even hit the showers while sipping a tasty shake.
When it’s time for some real food, make sure you have a well-rounded meal that includes mainly protein, with moderate levels of healthy fats and unprocessed carbs to refuel.
Figure Out Your Ideal Routine
Like all other aspects of fitness, there’s no cookie-cutter answer to the question of food intake and workout timing, only general guidelines and suggestions. To maximize your results, you need to be your own scientist and see what works best for your body and lifestyle.
The key here is to find the sweet spot between feeling energized and not weighed down by a big meal. Some folks prefer to pack three or four smaller meals (300 or 400 calories each) in a cooler to keep that fuel burning all day like a coal furnace!
Other people find it more convenient to eat larger meals and let themselves relax a bit during the digestion process, even if it means being a bit less productive in the short term.
At the end of the day, what matters most is getting the job done. In this case, that means eating the right foods (clean and lean), getting that workout in (cardio or weights), and properly recovering and resting so you can do it all again the next day.
Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in the details, but if it helps to join up with an online fitness group to get some extra help and accountability, take that route. It’s better to get the answers you need fast so you can focus on doing the work daily.
Eat, exercise, recover, repeat — this is the tried-and-true formula for fitness success, and it can work for you if you set your mind to it and stay consistent.
If you’re ever a bit foggy on how to time your meals and workouts, refer back to this guide and adjust your routine accordingly. Experimentation is the best teacher, so keep trying different tactics and never give up! Your fitness transformation is closer than you think!