Should you eat before working out? And what’s the best pre-workout meal? Find out in my guide to fueling a morning workout session.
Whether you should eat before working out is a highly debated topic.
On one side of the argument, you’ve probably heard that your athletic performance will suffer if you don’t eat first.
But on the other side of the argument, some say that you can burn more fat by working out on an empty stomach.
So which is right? Unfortunately the answer is: it depends.
For moderate-intensity cardio workouts lasting less than 1 hour, working out on an empty stomach has been shown to:
Now, one thing to keep in mind is that while increased fat burning sounds like you’ll be losing more weight, research doesn’t show that to necessarily be the case.
So, if you’re trying to improve your insulin sensitivity, waiting until after exercise may be a good option.
One other factor to consider is how eating before working out makes you feel.
If you jump out of bed and head straight to the gym, without any time to digest beforehand, you may feel sick or even get side stitches from eating right before your 30 minute zumba class.
If that’s the case, you’re likely better off waiting until after you workout to eat.
However, if you’re jumping out of bed and planning on running or cycling for over an hour, then you may want to think about getting in some fuel before working out. Which brings us to the next section.
For weight lifting and cardio sessions lasting more than 1 hour, research is pretty consistent in saying that it’s best to eat before working out.
Some of the benefits of eating before (or during) these types of workouts include (7):
But what about workouts lasting less than 1 hour? Or even HIIT workouts?
So, should you eat before working out?
For moderate to intense cardio workouts lasting more than 1 hour, or weight lifting sessions, it’s recommended to get some fuel in either before or during your exercise session.
However, for cardio exercise lasting less than 1 hour, it’s really up to you on whether to eat or not.
In this case, to decide whether you should eat before working out, ask yourself:
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, for both endurance and resistance workouts, the best pre-workout meal is one that contains both protein and carb.
For low-intensity, longer-duration activities (such as a hike), a little fat is also helpful to help fuel your body for longer.
So how much of each nutrient should you have? And which types of carbs and proteins are best? Those answers depend on the type of activity you’re doing.
Just one note on the size (and composition) of your breakfast: the less time you have between eating and exercising, the easier the meal should be to digest.
For example, if you wake up and have 2 hours before your workout, then your meal should contain protein, a healthy fat, and complex carbs. Think peanut butter overnight oats or a whole wheat english muffin with avocado and an egg.
However, if you only have 30 minutes before your workout, you’ll want to keep the fat lower and opt for something like a homemade energy bar or Greek yogurt with some fruit.
For strength training: Eat a balance of protein and carbs.
How much protein and carbs to consume will vary person to person, as well as how much time you have before your workout.
In general, it’s recommended to consume 20-40 grams of both protein and carbs ideally 60-90 minutes before a strength-training session*.
However, if you only have 15-20 minutes before your workout, you may want to eat a smaller meal consisting of 10-20 grams of both protein and carbs.
And keep in mind that portion sizes will vary based on your personal nutrition needs.
*Note: if you have a current kidney condition, please talk with your doctor or dietitian before increasing your protein intake.
For cardio: Eat mostly carbs with a little protein.
Remember, if you’re doing a short bout of cardio, like a 30 minute run, it’s not essential to have something to eat. But if you feel better with something in your stomach, then keep reading.
However, if you’re going on a long run, bike ride, hike, or swim session, then you’re going to want to ingest a high-carb meal ideally 90 minutes before your workout.
The general rule of thumb for how many carbs to eat is 1 gram of carb per kg of body weight for every hour of cardio.
So, if you weigh 150 pounds and are going for a 1 hour run, you’d want to eat around 68 grams of carbs (150 lb / 2.2 = 68.2 kg = 68.2 grams of carbs/hour).
And for protein, aim for a 5:1 carb to protein ratio. So, in this instance, if you’re eating 68 grams of carbs, that means you’ll want about 14 grams of protein.
Just keep in mind that the closer to working out you eat, the easier your meal (or snack) should be to digest. This means keep the fiber and fat on the low end.
Keep in mind that portion sizes will vary based on your personal nutrition needs.
Also, if you’re preparing for a race day, there are many more tips and tricks for optimizing your nutrition that go beyond the scope of this article.
After a workout is arguably just as important.
Here are some general guidelines regardless of whether you exercises on a full or empty stomach:
While it’s not necessary to take supplements, some find that using them helps with building muscle and strength or improves endurance.
Before trying any supplements, always talk with your doctor or dietitian first to make sure that they won’t interfere with any medications you may be taking.
Also, as supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s important to do your research to find a reputable brand.
Supplements that may benefit physical performance and muscle building include:
Want more info on the benefits of eating breakfast? Check out my nutrition page for more nutrition guides!
Disclaimer: This information is meant simply for educational purposes and should not be mistaken for personalized nutrition advice. It’s always important to talk with your doctor or dietitian before making any changes to your diet.
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