We get asked the same questions a lot and one of the regular talking points is: should you eat before or after your workout? If before, what and when? How about after your hard training session, do you need to refuel then as well?
What you consume is just as essential as what exercise you do, whilst when and how much you eat impacts your body's response to your workouts. One key thing is the post-workout recovery window as this is an important opportunity for your body to recover and adapt from the stresses you’ve put your body through.
Let's get into it!
How Does Food Help You Exercise
To ensure we're all on the same page, let's review how food helps you exercise.
Fuel: Food is the fuel that powers your workouts. Without the right amount of nutrition, you can't perform at your best — or even at all.
Repair: Food helps your body repair after an intense workout. The same nutrients that give you energy also help your body repair the damage from a workout (as that’s what you’re effectively doing during a workout - hopefully in a good and safe way of course!).
Build: Food affects muscle growth, too. The macronutrients in food are the raw materials your body uses to build muscle. Protein is vital here.
Focus: Eating before a workout makes you less likely to feel hungry and distracted during your exercise.
Knowing When to Eat Before a Workout
Eating a couple of hours before a workout is thought to be best to give your body time to digest and prepare. If you do your workout at 8 a.m., you should eat at around 6 a.m. If your workout is at 4 p.m., you should eat at around 2 p.m.
Often, it's essential for those who train out first thing in the morning to have something to eat before a workout as working out on an empty stomach could cause problems like dizziness and nausea. However, some people work well on fasted training - it’s about knowing your body!
On the other hand, if your workout is intense, you might be able to get away with skipping the pre-workout meal. This is especially true for those who work out in the evening — your body will be prepared for the onslaught of exercise after having all day to digest, but, also can be the case for other times of the day too.
A combination of protein and carbohydrates is your best bet when eating before a workout to ensure your body has what it needs. Everyone has their own requirements and different workouts will also impact this, but a mixed meal is your best starting point.
Knowing When to Eat After a Workout
To keep it simple, you want to eat as soon as possible after your workout finishes and not wait too long. Waiting too long to refuel could cause you to get light-headed during the rest of your day. There has been much talk in the past of an ‘anabolic window’ of 30 minute
s after training to consume your post-workout high protein and carb meal or often a shake. While there are studies to reinforce this, recent studies have shown that it could last much longer and up to 6 hours after.
However, you might find that you don't have much appetite after a workout. That's normal, but you still need to try and eat something as soon as possible, especially if you're training hard. You don't need to eat a big meal after and overeating too soon can cause indigestion, making you feel even worse.
Again, eating a food combination of protein and carbs after training is best.
The Importance of Fueling During Your Workout
When you eat before a workout, you fuel your body for your activity. When you eat during a workout, you provide your muscles with the energy they need to work and prevent muscle glycogen depletion. The sooner you eat during a workout, the easier it will be to digest. That's why many athletes eat something before their activities and have something else (like a sports drink) during the exercise. This is especially true for endurance athletes who you want to keep ‘topping up’ your stores to never get to a burnout state - that can be very hard to come back from.
If you plan on eating something during your workout, make sure it's easy to digest. That means avoiding whole grains, seeds and nuts, which can get stuck in your stomach and slow your workout.
Exactly what and how much is a whole other article in itself and is often sport specific.
Eating before and/or after a workout can significantly affect how your body responds to the exercise session. As well as what you consume during as well. Ideally, you'll eat a combination of protein and carbs before your workouts and protein and carbs after your workouts. But, remember to avoid overeating too soon after a workout.