13th October 2015
One of the most common questions I get asked is about pre-workout nutrition and meal timing before a workout. How long before a workout should you eat to get the most benefit? Here’s my advice…
The timing of your food before a workout can make a big difference to how you feel and also to your performance. There are no hard and fast rules but, for most, workouts, you should leave 2 – 4 hours after eating before exercising, depending on the size of your meal and what foods you’re eating. In a study at the University of North Carolina, athletes who ate 3 hours before a run were able to exercise longer than those who ate 6 hours beforehand.
Essentially you need to leave enough time to digest the food but not too long a gap otherwise this energy will be used up by the time you begin exercising. Eating a meal too close to training could make you feel uncomfortable, ‘heavy’ and nauseous as the blood supply diverts from the stomach and digestive organs to the muscles to provide the necessary energy for muscular work. That’s why stomach cramps and stomach aches are the most common complaints when trying to run on a full stomach. The body is not designed to digest a big meal AND exercise at the same time!
On the other hand, leaving too long a gap means you may feel hungry and light headed during exercise and lacking energy. The closer your pre-workout meal is to your workout, the smaller it must be. If you have only a couple of hours before your workout, then eat a small meal of 300 – 400 calories. No time for a meal? Then have a small snack (e.g. bananas, yogurt or porridge) or a smoothie 30 – 60 minutes beforehand. It’s a myth that eating during the hour before exercise results in hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). If you are able to eat 4 hours before your workout then you can probably eat a larger meal of 600 – 800 calories, or approximately 10 calories/ kg body weight. You should feel comfortable at the start of your workout, neither hungry nor full.
In practice, the exact timing of your pre-exercise meal will probably depend on constraints such as work hours, travel and session times. Try to plan meals as best you can around these commitments. For example, if you work out at 7 o’clock, plan to eat a substantial lunch followed by a small (300- 400 calorie) pre-exercise meal at 5 o’clock. If you prefer training at 5 o’clock, then eat your pre-exercise meal (lunch) at 1 o’clock followed by a snack of 100 – 300 calories 30 – 60 minutes before your workout if you’re feeling hungry.
For best results, listen to your body. You may need to experiment with timing – if you feel like the meal hasn’t settled, wait longer before working out and eat earlier before your next session.
If you enjoyed this post and want to find out more about sport and exercise nutrition, then read the new edition of my book:
A sports nutrition guide and recipe book rolled into one, Food for Fitness dispels popular myths and gives you the tools you need to reach your maximum performance. It is the ultimate resource for anyone who is serious about sport or fitness. Now in its fourth edition, this bestselling book has been updated to include the very latest nutrition research for exercise and performance, and is packed with easy, delicious and nutritious recipes, snacks and helpful new menu plans.