Fitness corner: Should you eat before your workout?
Welcome to a new series on the blog I’d like to call the fitness corner. This is a chance for me to address a specific fitness/nutrition/health-related question.
Today, we’re covering the popular topic of eating before a workout. Should you eat? What should you eat? When should you eat it?
Before we begin, I want to remind you that while I’m a certified NASM personal trainer and a certified Precision Nutrition Coach (and let’s not forget group fitness instructor), I’m not an expert on you and your body and needs, and I’m also not a dietitian. Therefore, let’s remember that my words and thoughts are not the gospel on this topic. But this is a question I’ve received over and over again, so it’s time to address it.
We’re all very different. And what works for you may not work for the next person. Proceed with caution, and if you’re not yet working with a coach for your workouts or nutrition, I would highly recommend it.
Fitness corner: Should you eat before your workout?
Here’s the deal, there are often reasons for eating or not eating, depending on your needs and goals. Let’s go through them …
If you work out in the morning …
If you work out in the morning, you may wonder whether you should go straight into your workout or if you should take the time to consume a meal or a liquid meal. If you consume something with calories, this would be your “breakfast,” because it is actually breaking your fast from overnight.
First of all, good for you for choosing morning workouts. There are a lot of benefits to morning workouts. For instance, you often stick with them when they are the first thing on your calendar each day. And usually, when you work out in the morning, it can encourage you to make healthier choices throughout the rest of your day. But should you eat before you sweat?
Think about this: When you are sleeping overnight, the processes in your body are still taking place, so your metabolism is running, and you’re also getting dehydrated from not consuming liquids for a six- to-nine-hour span. When you wake up, you have already emptied out the fuel you consumed the day before, and you’re also in need of water for your cells. That means you aren’t in an ideal state for a big workout. You definitely need to rehydrate right away (and may I recommend adding some pink sea salt to your water for some minerals and electrolytes?). And you also may need some fuel/food, depending on the type of movement you’re doing and your goal.
If you’re planning to do a light or low-impact workout like gentle yoga or walking, you may be totally fine to do your workout without fueling up — because low-to-moderate intense workouts can be performed fasted. But if you’re planning to lift weights, take a tough group fitness class or train for an event, then you need fuel. You will not perform as well if you’re in a fasted state, thus won’t be getting as good of results in the long term.
This is a big thing: You’ll perform better in a fed state. Your body cannot achieve maximum optimum output without fuel, so you know you’re setting yourself up for less-than-your-best as far as performance. But maybe that’s okay with you?
You have to ask yourself: Am I working out to get stronger? Am I trying to increase the size of my muscles to speed up my metabolism and be able to eat more food? Am I training for a race or physical event? If so, you want to perform. Or are you just moving to move? Then, maybe a less-intense workout in a fasted state will suffice.
Let’s look at it this way: When you exercise, your body uses carbohydrates first as fuel (in the form of glucose, because once you eat carbs, they are called glucose in the bloodstream). But the body doesn’t actually store carbohydrates/glucose for very long.
If you don’t eat overnight, you usually don’t have many carbohydrates or much glucose left for use at all. That means, you’ll be using a different source of energy during your workout. The body can also convert protein and fat into fuel — but that comes with a downside, including elevated cortisol and potentially depleting muscle stores as well. And when your cortisol is elevated, you may burn less calories.
There’s much more to it than that, but we don’t need to get into the weeds with this.
In addition, as women, our hormones are much more sensitive, and you may find that fasted workouts, especially more intense ones, can alter how you feel overall and alter your monthly cycle regularity. Personally, when I did fasted cardio in the mornings many years ago, it was when I was very lean and my cycle was all messed up. Are these two things related? Yes, I do think my fasted workouts played a part. And now, I don’t do fasted workouts ever … I’m always fed, and I prefer it.
But, we can’t neglect to talk about the idea of burning extra fat when you exercise before you eat. There have been some studies that have shown when you do a fasted workout in the morning, you do continue to have increased fat oxidation for up to about 24 hours. Yet, at the end of the day, the calories you consume vs. the calories you expend will determine (mostly) whether you’re losing weight, gaining weight or maintaining your weight overall. But you also need to remember that this extra fat burn can come with a trade-off, meaning less performance, less focus on muscle growth and less focus on improvement.
If you work out in the afternoon or evening …
If you regularly work out in the afternoon or later in the day, you may not be as concerned with whether or not you need to eat, because you’ve likely had your usual meals.
Even then, it can be beneficial to have a small snack combining carbohydrates and some protein about 90 minutes to two hours before your workout to improve your performance and energy. Mostly the same rules apply as they do above in this instance.
But if you already had your usual lunch at noon and plan to exercise around 3 p.m., you should be good to go. Of course, try to avoid any foods that can cause your stomach to get upset, and get that mixture of carbohydrates and protein.
What should you eat before your workout and when should you eat it?
Don’t just eat to eat. Think about what you’re eating and how it will fuel you. A random banana two minutes before your lift isn’t ideal. But, a well-thought-out oatmeal parfait with protein powder and a banana 90 minutes before your HIIT workout could work great.
It’s ideal to eat about three hours before your workout, if you’re having a full meal. You’d want that meal to include a combination of carbohydrates, protein and maybe a little bit of fat. This could be your regular breakfast or lunch, so make it look like you normally would.
However, eating three hours before your workout usually doesn’t work for an early morning workout, in which case, you can try having a smaller meal about an hour before your workout. You can also have a liquid meal, like a smoothie, which is easily digestible. Once again, this pre-workout meal should definitely have a mixture of carbohydrates and protein, with minimal fat. This could be a scoop of protein powder and some berries mixed into a smoothie with water, or something like that.
If you normally wake up at 6 a.m. and work out at 6:30 a.m. in a fasted state, you could try waking up at 5:45 a.m., having a small snack or smoothie, then working out at 6:45 a.m. While you don’t have to wait a full hour if you’re having something small, you should at least wait about 30 minutes to digest some of what you consume. But everyone is different, so see what works for you.
No matter what, whenever you work out, you need to drink water. Going into a workout dehydrated can also affect your performance and energy levels, so drink up. It’s a good rule of thumb to drink a big glass of water as soon as you wake, and keep up with that sipping throughout the day.
Also, let’s not forget the importance of post-workout nutrition, which we can cover on another day. Once your workout is complete, make sure you rehydrate and try to get in some protein and carbohydrates within about two hours of finishing your workout. Exactly what you need to eat will be dependent on the workout you did and what else you plan to eat that day.
Reasons for working out before eating
Here are some reasons to do a fasted workout, meaning you do not eat beforehand …
- You’re very short on time, and you won’t be able to fit in a meal/snack before you exercise, but you don’t want to skip your workout. Choose something low-to-medium intensity and go for it.
- You’re worried that if you wait to eat breakfast, you’ll get derailed off your plans and shorten or skip your workout.
- Every time you eat something before a workout, you get an upset stomach, so you prefer to have an empty stomach.
- You’re planning to do low-impact movement, like walking or gentle yoga and you know that your body can handle it without fueling up.
- You’re trying to burn fat by doing fasted cardio and taking advantage of increased fat oxidation that can occur when you work out without eating. (Use this sparingly and definitely not every single day.)
Reasons for eating before working out
Here are some reasons to do a fed workout, meaning you do eat beforehand …
- You’re training for an event and challenging yourself.
- You’re trying to get faster or stronger or you’re trying to build your muscles.
- You’re a group fitness instructor and will be exercising with others, so you need to bring your best energy. (That’s me!)
- You’re getting back into exercise after injury or illness and want to feel strong and healthy.
- You’re planning to do an intense workout or a workout longer than 45 minutes to an hour. (Fun fact: If you’ll be working out for more than an hour, you’ll also likely want an electrolyte drink to sip on during your session to replenish the liquids you lose during sweat, and if you’re doing an endurance event, you may even want a light carbohydrate sports drink to consume to help fuel your body.)
- You’re dealing with hormone issues, and you know that fasted workouts can elevate your cortisol, which you may not want. (That used to be me!)
- You get light-headed when you exercise on an empty stomach.
- You have any sort of health issue that makes you more sensitive to stress on the body, you’re pregnant or you often deal with low blood sugar.
- You’re trying to increase your lean muscle mass, to help speed up your metabolism.
Based on your thoughts on the above, you should have your answer.
Concluding thoughts on whether you should eat before working out
It’s your personal choice, so there’s really no hard right or wrong way to do things. Props to you for even caring, and props to you for staying consistent with your workouts.
If you know you like to eat before your workout and it’s working for you, stay with that plan. If you know you like to work out before you eat and it’s working for you, stay with that plan.
However, if you’re trying to get stronger or faster and you haven’t been eating, may I suggest a meal? And if you’ve been eating a big meal before your morning walk and feel like you’d be okay without it and want to see if it burns a little extra fat, then try heading out before your meal and see how it goes.
It’s totally cool to try out new ways of doing things, see how your body and energy levels respond, and go from there. I’m sticking to my fed workouts though, as they work with my schedule, and I’m always trying to get stronger!
That’ll do it for today, my friends!
(I’m wearing this workout tank in a small in these photos, and these leggings in a six.)
I hope you liked this post. And if you have a question for the next fitness corner, please leave it in the comments, or send it to me in a DM on Instagram or an email ashley-at-aladygoeswest.com. Have a wonderful day!
Other posts you may like …
- Five healthy eating habits to improve your nutrition
- 10 easy, healthy and quick meals I’ve eaten recently for lunch and dinner
- Five common fitness mistakes I see people making
Questions of the day for YOU …
Do you work out in the morning or afternoon?
Do you like to eat before your workouts?
What’s your favorite pre-workout meal?
As always such good advice. I am always on the fence about this. I work out in the morning as it sets the tone for the day. I feel accomplished and energetic and ready to tackle whatever the day brings. My go to is half a banana with a little peanut butter depending on my activity. Appreciate the other options and ideas!!!
Hi Wendy! I know, I think a lot of people feel conflicted about whether to eat! A banana with some peanut butter does work, especially if you’ve felt good with that option. Thanks for reading, and keep up the good work with your morning exercise routine! 🙂