Eating Before Exercise: What's Good and What's Not

Fitness, News and Advice
on June 7, 2011

Many of us have heard conflicting advice about eating before exercise. When you were growing up, your mother likely made you relax after a meal before you headed outdoors or into the swimming pool. However, we've also all heard of athletes who load up on food (especially carbs) before a big event, and many fitness experts certainly recommend snacking before a workout. As it turns out, what's good and what's not when it comes to eating before exercise varies by the individual and the workout.

Listen to your body. As active, healthy individuals know, learning to listen to your body is very important. When it comes to fitness, expert recommendations should often be taken with a grain of salt, because every body is different and everyone performs at different levels. This is especially true of eating before exercise. How your body feels during a workout will tell you a great deal, and what and when you eat should depend upon whether you're preparing for a casual sweat session or a major athletic competition. With that said, there are some basic guidelines to keep in mind regarding eating before exercise.

Eat a good breakfast. If you like to exercise in the morning, it's generally not a good thing to do so on an empty stomach. It's likely been at least eight hours since you last fueled your body, and most of that energy was used while you slept. If you work out before eating breakfast, you may end up feeling lightheaded or sluggish, and you probably won't perform at an optimal level. If you're worried about feeling too full to work out, aim for a light breakfast one or two hours before you exercise, which might mean getting up a little earlier. Some good pre-workout breakfasts include bananas, whole-grains like toast or cereal, and juice or milk.

Stick with what works. Trying new foods within an hour or two of a workout is never a good idea because you don't know how your body is going to react. Stick with healthy basics and make sure to avoid foods that tend to give you an upset stomach or an overly full feeling.

Practice portion control. Eating before exercise is one scenario where size really does matter. According to staff at the Mayo Clinic, small meals can be eaten two to three hours prior to exercise, whereas you should wait three to four hours before exercising after larger meals. Snacks are great for fueling workouts and can be eaten within one hour of exercise. Many athletes and other fitness-minded folks who perform intense workouts even snack during exercise. Just be sure to stick with basics like fresh fruit, yogurt or smoothies, or granola or protein bars.

It is also important that you stay hydrated before, during and after your workout and that you replenish your energy stores after a hard workout. Experts recommend eating a balanced meal of carbohydrates and protein within two hours of exercise whenever possible. If you're not hungry, a sports drink or juice will at least replace some carbs.