Eating and Exercise:
Should You Eat After Exercising? Before?
How Long and What?
© 2015 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
Many of us grew up with the strict advice to wait at least one hour after eating to go swimming -- or else we'd be stricken with severe cramps and inevitably sink to the bottom.
Eating a small snack about an hour before your workout may help give you energy, as long as it's something high in carbs and low in fat (like a piece of fresh fruit and a mini whole-grain bagel).
Now that we're grown, many of us are still holding on to the notion that we shouldn't eat anything before we exercise. Meanwhile, many of us don't take the time to stop and eat something after we workout either, but should we?
Eating Before Exercise: Should You?
Your body needs fuel (i.e. food) to make it through your workout, but too much of it can actually slow you down. So when it comes to eating and exercise, timing, quantity and the type of exercise you're doing make all the difference. Here are the major "rules" you need to know:
If you exercise first thing in the morning, get up early enough (two to three hours ahead of time) to eat a full breakfast. If you only have an hour to spare you should still eat something, just make it a light snack.
You should wait to exercise if you've eaten a large meal (at least three to four hours, but sometimes up to six, is required). This is because it takes your body some time to digest a large meal, but intense exercise slows your digestion (and instead diverts energy to your muscles). The result could be cramping, an upset stomach and diarrhea. If you've eaten a small meal, you should still wait two to three hours before working out intensely.
Experiment with snacks. For some people, a small snack (like a banana) right before, and even during, exercise provides an energy boost. For others, it can make them feel lightheaded. You should do whatever feels good to you.
When it comes to eating before exercise, the type of food, and your workout, are important. If you are going to engage in high-intensity activity (such as running, aerobics or kickboxing) you need to give yourself a longer lead time for your food to digest.
On the other hand, if your workout is going to be more gentle (a long walk, for instance) you can get away with eating closer to your workout time.
You should refrain from eating foods high in fat prior to your exercise, because these foods will stay in your stomach longer (and could upset it). Foods that are high in fiber should also be avoided, as they could stimulate your digestive system when your energy is needed elsewhere.
How long you need to wait before exercising after eating also depends on the intensity of your workout. You should give yourself longer to digest if you're going to be working out intensely (running, aerobics, etc.) than if your workout will be more gentle (walking).
Instead, foods that are high in carbohydrates and moderate in protein will satisfy your hunger, be easily digested and help normalize your blood sugar, so you feel at the top of your game come workout time.
Examples of good before-workout snacks include:
Fresh fruit and a small amount of almond butter
Low-fat soup (vegetable, chicken noodle, etc.)
A whole-grain bagel with whole-fruit jelly
A banana and yogurt
Should You Eat During Your Workout?
If you are going to be working out intensely for an extended period of time (over one hour), your body will likely need to be replenished to avoid getting tired. A small piece of fruit or a sport's drink would suffice (but keep in mind that sport's drinks often contain added sugars, artificial flavors and artificial colors).
However, most of the time just drinking water is enough to keep your body going during your workout.
After Workout Eating Tips
Exercise, though incredibly good for your health, puts stress on your body. Eating the right foods after you exercise is essential to helping your muscles recover and replace their glycogen stores for energy. This is especially important if you work out intensely or often (daily or more).
You should eat carbohydrates (such as a piece of fruit, raw veggies or whole-grain crackers) as soon as possible after exercising, and eat some protein (a hard-boiled egg, nuts, turkey, chicken, etc.) within two hours of your workout.
Though you may not be in the habit of paying attention to what you eat before and after your workout, doing so can help you get the most out of your exercise. Experiment with different foods and timing and you'll easily find the combination that feels best for your body.
What to do AFTER a Workout to Get Maximum Benefit From Your Exercise
It's somewhat instinctive to warm-up before a workout. You may jog in place a little, shake out your arms, do a few stretches, and some other movements to get your heart pumping and your body feeling loose before you exercise. After you're done exercising, however, you may be tired, and taking the time to cool down and support your body post-workout may be the last thing on your mind.
What you do AFTER your workout can mean the difference between sore muscles and fatigue, or stronger muscles and increased energy.
But as you may suspect, establishing a proper after-workout routine is incredibly important. Taking care of your body after exercise will impact your muscles (their strength and soreness), how well your exercise is received and even how much strain you put on your heart. So if you're taking the healthy step of exercising, be sure to extend it to include these simple, yet essential, after-workout tips.
Stretch Right After Your Workout
According to the Mayo Clinic, stretching is beneficial both after your warm up and before your cool down session, but if you only have time to do it once, you should do it after your workout, before you cool down. At this time, your muscles are warm and more elastic, and stretching increases your flexibility and maximizes the range of motion around your joints. You should stretch all the major muscles groups that you used during your workout.
If it feels more comfortable to you, you can also cool down and then stretch. Some experts recommend cooling down (to slow your heart rate) first, and stretching after.
After you stretch, it's time to cool down (stretching is not all it takes to cool down). During the cool down, your heart, lungs and blood flow slowly return to their normal states, which is essential to reduce strain on your heart and help prevent muscle strain and soreness. It also keeps you from feeling dizzy, faint or sick after your workout.
To cool down, you should slow your aerobic activity down to a level that allows your heart rate to gradually decrease. A five-minute walk on a treadmill, for instance, works well.
How High do You Prioritize Your Health, Really?
We all know how important it is to stay healthy by eating properly, exercising, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and more. But do you? Knowing something intellectually and actually living it out in your day-to-day life are two very different things.
Our weekly e-Newsletters are inteded to help you and your loved ones (who you pass-along our articles) to learn, know and stay on the best life-style path.
You know it's important to drink water during your workout, but it's just as important to stay hydrated afterward as well. Experts typically recommend drinking an additional two to three cups of water within two hours of finishing your workout. You should then keep drinking water regularly, as even if you don't feel thirsty it's still quite possible to be dehydrated.
Eat a Mix of Protein and Carbs
Though exercise is extremely beneficial, it does take a lot of effort on your body's part. After your workout, it's important to repair your muscles and replenish your glycogen stores for energy.
Most experts recommend eating something within 90 minutes of finishing your workout, but sooner is better. What should you eat? Ideally, a mixture of high-protein and complex carbohydrate foods. The protein helps repair muscles while the carbs will help give you energy. Some examples of healthy, post-workout foods include a tuna sandwich on whole-wheat bread, nuts and fruit, yogurt or cheese and whole-grain crackers or raw veggies. Having a protein shake after a workout is also satisfactory.
Eating a combination of protein and carbs after exercise may also help to reduce muscle soreness, according to a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Thirty minutes after finishing a workout, exercisers were given either a drink containing 6 percent carbs, 10 percent carbs or 8 percent carbs plus 2 percent protein. Those who drank the carb/protein beverage reported feeling only half as sore as those who had the carbs-only drinks.
So next time you exercise, remember that your workout isn't complete until you've done these simple post-workout tips. They'll ensure that you get the maximum benefits from your exercise, with a minimum of strain to your body.
ESPN Sports Nutrition
The Mayo Clinic
The Mayo Clinic