How long should you wait to exercise after eating?
May 18, 2024

How long should you wait to exercise after eating?

Trainwell Trainers

Properly fueling your workouts can depend as much on when you eat as what you eat.

A healthy and well-balanced diet (with lots of fruits and vegetables) is essential for reaching your fitness goals, but how long should you wait after a meal before hitting the gym?

Timing your meals and workouts is a delicate balance that can greatly impact your performance and comfort. Digestion plays a significant role in this balance, as it can affect your energy levels and physical activity.

Does this mean you should wait hours before exercising? Not necessarily. The common myth that you shouldn’t eat before a workout is just that — a myth. According to trainwell (formerly CoPilot) trainers, eating the right foods before a workout can give you the energy and nutrients necessary to power through your exercise routine.

Why should you avoid eating right before a workout? 

Exercising immediately after eating can cause unpleasant side effects like indigestion, nausea, and decreased performance. When you eat, your body directs blood flow to your digestive tract to help break down and absorb nutrients. 

But when you exercise, your body directs blood flow to your muscles and lungs to provide oxygen and nutrients. You can probably see the conflict here.

When you exercise too soon after eating, your body can't keep up with the demand for increased blood flow to both your digestive tract and your muscles. If it prioritizes blood flow to support performance, your digestion slows, leading to GI issues like indigestion, stomach cramps, bloating, and nausea or vomiting. 

On the other hand, if your body prioritizes blood flow to aid in digestion, you won’t get that performance boost, and you may feel sluggish, weak, and tired during your workout.

Should you exercise on an empty stomach?

Fasting workouts have become a popular trend in the fitness world. They involve exercising on an empty stomach, typically in the morning before eating breakfast, to avoid any of those unpleasant side effects we talked about above.

Proponents of fasting workouts tout their potential to aid in weight loss. The idea is that by exercising on an empty stomach, your body will use stored fat as fuel, promoting fat loss. 

However, studies have shown conflicting results, and experts say that fasted workouts are no better than regular workouts. In fact, depending on your goal, they might be worse. 

When you exercise on an empty stomach, your body doesn't have readily available energy sources to fuel your workout. This can lead to reduced energy and endurance, making it harder to push through intense workouts. 

Additionally, fasting for extended periods can cause muscle breakdown, which is counterproductive to building and maintaining muscle mass.

The optimal approach is to consume a small amount of food before exercising, particularly if you have a high-intensity session ahead or your workout exceeds 30 minutes. This strategy ensures your body has accessible carbs for fuel, so you can keep the nausea at bay and your performance levels high.

What is pre-workout nutrition, and why does it matter?

Pre-workout nutrition is the food and nutrients you consume before a workout. Its primary goal is to fuel your body with the necessary energy and nutrients to perform at its best during exercise.

The most important macro that will impact performance is carbohydrates. You should make sure your pre-workout snack or meal has some simple carbs in it (nothing too sugary, but you also don't want a massive plate of pasta immediately before working out). Your body can readily use simple carbs as fuel for your workout. 

Ideally, you should include protein in your pre-workout meal as well. That way, you’ll already have it in your system post-workout for recovery. But you don’t need a ton of protein — it’s mostly about getting some simple carbs in — and you’ll want to minimize fat intake.

Some good pre-workout meal options include:

  • A small bowl of oatmeal with a banana
  • Whole grain toast with peanut butter and a side of fruit
  • Greek yogurt with a granola bar and berries
  • A protein shake or smoothie made with protein powder, fruit, and almond milk 

These options provide a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fats to sustain energy and minimize discomfort during exercise. But remember, hydration is equally important. Stay hydrated before, during, and after your workout to optimize performance and avoid dehydration.

Foods to eat before a workout

Effective pre-workout nutrition is easy to digest, offers quick energy, and provides essential nutrients for optimal performance. Excellent pre-workout food options include:

  • Complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole grain bread, oatmeal, sweet potatoes): These provide a steady energy source and do not spike blood sugar levels. They also contain fiber, which aids in digestion.
  • Lean proteins (e.g., chicken breast, eggs, fish, tofu): Proteins provide essential amino acids for muscle repair and maintenance. They also keep you full for longer and prevent muscle breakdown during intense workouts.
  • Fruits (e.g., bananas, berries, apples): Fruit is a great source of natural simple carbohydrates for quick energy. It also contains vitamins and minerals that support overall health. 
  • Healthy fats (e.g., avocado, nut butter, olive oil): While it's essential to limit fat intake before a workout to avoid stomach upsets, incorporating small amounts of healthy fats can provide sustained energy and keep you feeling satisfied. 

Foods to avoid before a workout

Not all foods are suitable for pre-workout consumption. Some can hinder performance and lead to discomfort or sluggishness during exercise. Foods to avoid before a workout include: 

  • High-fat foods (e.g., deep-fried foods, fast foods, creamy sauces): These can be hard to digest and delay the absorption of necessary nutrients. They’re also high in calories and may affect your weight loss progress. 
  • Simple sugars (e.g., candy, pastries, sugary drinks): Sugar provides a quick energy boost but can lead to a crash later on, leaving you feeling tired and sluggish during your workout. It also offers minimal nutritional value and can contribute to weight gain when consumed in excess.  
  • Spicy or acidic foods (e.g., hot sauce, citrus fruits): These can cause gastrointestinal distress and discomfort during exercise. They may also increase the risk of heartburn or acid reflux. 

How long should you wait to work out after eating?

Some foods take longer to digest than others, so depending on what you ate and how much, you may want to wait anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours before working out. Generally, the larger the meal, the longer you should wait before exercising to avoid discomfort and optimize performance. 

The amount of time to wait after your pre-workout meal also depends on the intensity and duration of your workout and the type of exercises you’re doing. A full stomach might cause nausea during a cardio workout but be perfectly fine for lower-intensity strength training. 

When to eat different types of meals

It’s essential to adjust the timing of your pre-workout meals according to their size and your tolerance. For example, you can eat a small, easily digestible snack closer to your workout time for a quick source of energy without causing discomfort. 

On the other hand, a large meal full of fat, fiber, and protein requires more digestion time to prevent an upset stomach and performance issues. The table below shows approximate timings for different meal sizes before a workout.

Remember, these are general guidelines. It's best to listen to your body and eat intuitively, adjusting based on how you feel during your workouts. People have different sensitivities and preferences, so it's essential to find what works best for you. 

You may find that you need more or less time for digestion, depending on your unique metabolism and digestive system. Additionally, if you're doing a high-intensity or long workout, you may need to eat more complex carbohydrates before your exercise session to provide enough energy and avoid fatigue. 

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. So experiment with different meal sizes and timings to find the optimal pre-workout nutrition plan that works for you. 

When to eat larger meals

Larger meals take longer to digest — and not just because of their size. They usually contain complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and your body needs more time to break down these macronutrients and convert them to energy. Eating a big meal too close to your workout may lead to stomach upset, bloating, and impaired performance.

Aim for a 2–3 hour window between eating a larger meal and working out. This will give your body enough time to digest the food, absorb essential nutrients, and provide sustained energy during exercise. If you can't wait this long, consider adjusting your meal size and opting for a lighter meal or snack instead.

When to eat small meals

The good thing about smaller meals is that they're easier to digest and provide a quick source of energy. So they’re great before shorter, high-intensity workouts when you need immediate fuel for optimal performance. 

A general rule of thumb is to eat a small meal 1–2 hours before a high-intensity workout. Aim for a balance of simple carbs and protein to provide quick energy and prevent muscle breakdown. 

If your workout is low-intensity or short, you can probably get away with eating a small meal or snack closer to your workout time. But we generally recommend giving your body at least 30 minutes for digestion before exercising. After a session, you can enjoy a post-work snack to boost your energy levels and fuel your recovery.

Does it really matter?

Ultimately, what matters is that you complete your workout. Optimizing your pre-workout nutrition is simply that, an optimization. What matters most is actually doing the workout and being consistent. So, never skip a workout “because you just ate.” 

Yes, you might not have timed things perfectly, and you may need to adjust your workout accordingly. But doing any workout is usually better than nothing. So if eating right before a workout feels best for you, do that. If you hate the way you feel working out after eating, then don’t do that. Keep it simple and stay consistent!

How do trainwell trainers help you with your diet?

Many trainwell trainers are Precision Nutrition Certified and can help you form healthy eating habits. 

During your initial consultation, your personal trainer will learn about your unique health and fitness goals and dietary preferences. They’ll use this information to provide personalized recommendations for pre-workout nutrition to support your goals and workouts.

While they are not registered dietitians and can’t provide full meal plans, trainwell trainers can offer valuable insights on what foods to incorporate into your pre-workout meals and when to eat them. This personalized training approach helps clients optimize their sports nutrition and overall performance, leading to better results.

But remember: it all comes down to consistency. Perfect nutrition won’t matter much if you’re not consistent with your workouts. That’s why your trainwell trainer will focus on developing a customized plan that you can stick to for real results.

Get personalized training and nutrition guidance to help you achieve your fitness goals — sign up for trainwell today and enjoy a 14-day free trial.

Written by trainwell trainers

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