Should you eat before you work out?

The final word on how to time your eating to reflect when, and how, you'll be working out.
blonde woman stretching outdoors at sunrise, workout and fitness Getty Images

In December I started doing hot yoga before work (a mere 20 minutes after waking up) and have been struggling with what, if anything, to eat pre-workout. Too much food makes me nauseous and eating nothing leaves light-headed (which the heat only makes worse). So when I was given the opportunity to chat with friends and business partners Trina Lambe (a certified personal trainer) and Stefanie Senior (a registered dietitian) my thoughts instantly went to asking them about the best practises around food and fitness. Read on for their helpful tips:

Q: How soon before a workout is it best to eat something? Stefanie: It is best to eat two to three hours before exercise to give your body time to digest the food and convert it into the energy that you need to fuel your workout, delay hunger and enhance performance. You can have a meal three hours before and a lighter meal two hours before. If you can only eat an hour before your workout, choose a small snack. Your pre-exercise meal or snack should be high in carbohydrate, relatively low in protein, and low in fibre and fat. Also, don’t forget to stay hydrated!

Trina: Whether you eat or don't eat before exercise, research shows the body burns the same amount of fat. If it’s small (less than 100 calories) you can do it -- there are a variety of healthy choices to choose from. However, from a muscle performance standpoint, it’s even more important to remain hydrated.

Q: For people who work out in the morning, should you always eat something first, or is it OK to wait until after? S: Ideally, people should get up early and eat breakfast two hours prior to exercise, especially after fasting over night. This will help fuel your workout and delay hunger during exercise. However, getting up this early might not be realistic for some people. In this case, as soon as you wake up drink water and consume a light snack such as a banana, yogurt, slice of toast or a beverage that will help raise your blood sugar such as low fat milk.

T: I suggest that they do have something, even if it's seven almonds -- they need something for instant energy. Sometimes it’s as simple as a few sips of juice or vitaminwater.

Q: How intensely does someone need to be working out to add calories to their diet? S: It really depends on the duration of the activity and individual needs and goals. If a person is wishing to maintain weight and is either starting an exercise regimen or increasing the frequency, duration or intensity of their activities, they may need to increase their calories. If the same person is wishing to lose weight they may need to continue eating the same number of calories or even reduce their calories at the same time as increasing their activity level. A registered dietitian can help individuals determine the best diet and exercise strategy for reaching their personal health and fitness goals.


Q: When it comes to the best thing to drink, I’ve heard everything from chocolate milk to protein smoothies -- what should people be drinking? S: It is very important to stay hydrated before, during and after exercise to prevent dehydration. The best thing for most people to drink right before and during a workout is water. After a workout, you could continue with water or other hydrating fluids such as low fat milk, herbal tea or vitaminwater zero.

T: I feel that hydration is so important. It’s not just about drinking enough so you pee clear, but it really does help muscle recovery and contraction. What’s your body really doing when you exercise and contract your muscles? If water isn’t present in your body to the full extent necessary your muscles cramp. We have all had those nasty toe or calf cramps!! Hydration (or more so a lack of) is what causes that, at least in part. Now as for what to drink -- water is the best option but gets a little boring, so I like vitaminwater zero. It’s sweetened with stevia (a natural sweetener) so you don’t have the sugar guilt!

Q: What should people watch out for when it comes to energy boosting and recovery products on the market today? S: Many foods, drinks and shakes specifically developed to enhance either performance, results or recovery are high in calories, sugar or artificial sweeteners. Most people can get the calories and nutrients their body needs through a healthy balanced diet containing adequate fluids and by consuming the right things at the right times before, during or after exercise. Athletes or individuals that exercise at higher intensities and sweat for periods lasting longer than an hour may benefit from a sports drink containing adequate fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes. For periods lasting less than an hour, water is usually the best thing to drink.

T: When it comes to drinks [look] if it’s not florescent and you can see through it, if it’s not high in sugar or caloric content and if you can read everything on the label, I say go for it! As for food much of the same. The more in season the better.


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