November 18 2021
WHEN TO EAT
We've gone over what to eat pre-workout in our previous articles...now what about WHEN to eat. Digestion varies depending on what you're eating and will effect you differently depending on intensity...
There is a lot of discussion in the athletics world these days about not only what to eat pre-workout, but when to eat it. While, of course, everybody is different and there are no set-in-stone pre-workout rules, there are a few general guidelines that apply to most athletes. As Nancy Cohen, the head of the Department of Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts put it: “how and when to fuel your body is the same for all exercises to some extent, but your routine may warrant a few nutritional tweaks.”
When considering when to eat pre-workout, it’s important to consider the type of fitness you are doing, the time of day you are training, the type of food you plan to eat, and what your short- and long-term goals are. For example, while the weight lifter trying to put on ten pounds of muscle and the acrobat who needs to stay light are going to have different nutritional tweaks to meet their goals, the core of the pre-workout nutrition needed to fuel exercise and skill development will be the same. In this article, we’re discussing how to tailor your pre-workout meal timing to your unique training schedule.
For your pre-workout meal, you’re going to want to focus on consuming complex carbohydrates. These carbohydrates take longer to digest, and the energy is released at a slower pace. This helps to sustain energy during long-races without getting fatigued.
A meal heavy in complex carbohydrates (3-5g per pound of body weight) the night before an endurance event is beneficial, and should include foods such as whole-grain pasta, rice, sweet potatoes, lentils, or quinoa with lean proteins and veggies.
This will raise the glycogen stores within your body and prepare you for endurance work. You’re then going to want to top off these glycogen stores 2-4 before your workout with whole-grain bread, pasta, sweet potatoes, broccoli, oatmeal, or beans (aim for 0.2-0.4g of carbs per pound of body weight).
WHEN TO EAT IF YOU WORKOUT IN THE AM
Eating for morning workouts can be especially tricky because of limited time...you're looking for foods that can be easily digested to give you energy with out digestive distress.
For athletes who train early in the morning, it is going to be important to eat a good meal the night before. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, and the energy from these foods is released a slower pace. A meal that is heavy on complex carbohydrates the night before a difficult training session will raise the glycogen stores in your body and prepare you with a surplus of energy that can be utilized in the morning. Complex carbohydrates that are beneficial to prepare in your night-before meal include:
- Whole-grain pasta
- Whole-wheat bread
- Brown rice
- Sweet Potato
When you wake up in the morning, it is beneficial to top off these glycogen stores with a light snack that includes simple carbohydrates. This snack should be eaten about 30 minutes to 1 hour before your workout to give your body time to digest to food and uptake the sugar into your cells to be used for energy. Some examples of simple carbs to eat before your workout are:
- Fruit Smoothies
- Breakfast cereals
When to eat if you are working out in the afternoon....
The key is a meal 2-4 hours beforehand with more variety
If you are working out in the afternoon, you don’t have to worry as much about having a super carb-heavy meal the night before. Instead, you should focus your energy on having a meal with high levels of complex carbs and high levels of protein 2-4 hours before working out. Regardless of the workout you are doing, it is important to fuel your body to maintain optimal muscle and nerve health and reduce the chances of injuring yourself of becoming overly fatigued.
SO WHAT'S GOING ON?
When you eat carbohydrates, the glucose (sugar) molecules from the carbohydrates are used by your body to fuel your muscles during a workout. Glycogen is the way in which glucose is stored, so essentially your glycogen stores are the energy stores for your body. For both low and high intensity exercise, your muscles use these glycogen stores to fuel your workout. When these glycogen stores are depleted, your ability to perform exercises and movements with the same intensity and accuracy lessens.
By eating complex carbs 2-4 hours before your workout, you are giving your body time to digest the fiber and absorb the nutrients before your workout. Complex carbohydrates are higher in fiber than simple carbs, and it takes the body longer to break them down into forms that can be used for energy. By waiting 2-4 hours, this helps prevent any digestive issues or stomach pain during your workout, and also allows you to make the most of the slow-burning energy you are given from your pre-workout meal. If you feel you need a pick-me-up 15 minutes to 1 hour before your workout, eating simple carbohydrates such as fruit or yogurt that can be broken down easily by your body can give you a quick boost so you feel ready-to-go.
Consuming protein is also important 2-4 hours before your workout, as this has been shown to lead to a positive anabolic response in the muscles during the workout. Essentially, this means that the carbohydrates you eat are used as energy sources and the protein is free to be used to help build, repair, and maintain your muscles. More details about what to eat is given in our “What to Eat Pre-Workout” article.
When to eat if your workout is over 60 minutes...
So. For most workouts, eating either a high complex carbohydrate meal the night before or 2-4 hours before your workout is recommended.. and this stays true for workouts over 90 minutes!
However, workouts over 60 minutes run an increased risk of leading you to deplete your glycogen stores and start to feel lightheaded or less-than-coordinated. We recommend giving yourself a 15 minute break after 60 minutes to eat a quick snack of simple carbohydrates to refresh your glycogen stores and help keep your energy and focus high. Bananas, apples, and yogurt are all great option for this quick snack.
WHEN TO EAT IF YOU INTERMITTENT FAST...
Take a cautious approach...stay low intensity or time high intensity workouts after a meal...
There’s a big push in the health and wellness community to talk more about intermittent fasting. Many people swear by it—either for weight loss reasons, hormone optimization, or just because eating this way makes them feel their best. However, athletes under-go daily stresses that most people do not, and it is important to fuel the body accordingly.
Generally speaking, if you are fasting you aren’t going to build muscle because you will likely be in a calorie deficit. If your goal is losing weight, this may be a more appealing option. High intensity activities, such as lifting weights, sprinting, and other activities that use bursts of energy, depend on carbohydrates for fuel. When you don’t eat before workouts, your glycogen stores will be low and your body may feel slower and weaker. There is minimal evidence to support fasted cardio as a weight loss technique in comparison to a “normal” eating schedule (when considering both in a calorie deficit), however many fitness folks swear by 30 minutes of fasted cardio before eating to help define muscles and speed weight loss. If you lift during your workouts but would still like to intermittent fast, we recommend scheduling your workouts after your eating window in order to allow your body to use the nutrients you ingested to fuel your workout.
Overall, there have been research studies that both support and condemn working out fasted. There is some evidence that cardio while fasted can increase endurance and certain hormonal benefits, while there is also evidence that working out fasted can break down muscles quickly and decrease strength. In general, if you follow intermittent fasting, we recommend to only perform low-intensity cardio while fasted and to time any high-intensity exercise after your eating window.
Additional Tips & Tricks
To maximize your pre-workout meal timing, it’s important to understand your short and long-term aims. Here are a few tips that may apply to your goals:
- If your goal is to build muscle: increase your protein in your pre-workout meal 2-4 hours before your workout to help increase muscle growth.
- If your goal is to increase endurance: sip on drinks with electrolytes throughout your workouts to stay hydrated. A dehydrated body will not allow yo to exercise as effectively for long periods of time.
- If you tend to have a nervous stomach: simple carbohydrates, liquid meal replacements or smoothies 1 hour before your workout will help you body easily digest and use the nutrients
- Drink at least 16 ounces of water 2 hours before your workout to ensure your body is hydrated enough to endure an intense workout.
Josie Burridge: Josie has always had a passion for food and cooking. From a young age, she was always in the kitchen mixing up new recipes and making her family try her way-too-elaborate meals. She was a competitive gymnast for 12 years, which inspired her to pursue her bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering, emphasizing her studies on biochemistry and biomechanics. She is currently a graduate student studying nutritional epidemiology, and loves combining her knowledge of science with her love of food to provide athletes with high-quality, up-to-date nutritional information and research.