Deciding whether to eat before or after a workout can have a big impact on your body and reaching your fitness goals. It's therefore important to get it right.
Whilst food gives you the fuel to push yourself during training, it can also cause you some discomfort if it sits on your stomach while you're working out. And let’s face it, no-one enjoys running when they can feel food jiggling up and down. That's why knowing what to eat before exercise (opens in new tab) and what to eat after a workout is just as important as knowing when to eat.
With so much misinformation on exercise and eating out there, we decided to get the answers straight from the professionals. Offering their recommendations, these experts discuss factors like workout length and personal goals to help you decide whether to eat before or after a workout.
Should you eat before or after a workout?
In short, there’s no right or wrong answer. Deciding to eat before or after a workout is very much down to the individual, depending on your personal fitness goals. Many of the diets that work fast (opens in new tab) for weight loss advise eating before workouts for maximum energy.
If you’re wanting to get the most out of your workout, you should eat before exercise, says Becs Sandwith, a qualified Nutritionist at Innermost (opens in new tab). With food providing your body with energy, eating before ensures you get the fuel needed for a solid performance.
“If you are aiming to improve performance or push harder in workouts then you might as well fuel the tank and go into that workout feeling charged and full of energy,” she says. “Otherwise you may not be feeling 100%, perhaps a little lethargic and lacking motivation.”
Hollie Grant, a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor and founder of Pilates PT (opens in new tab), supports this food equals fuel statement. She advises against exercising on an empty stomach. Especially if you workout in the morning.
“If you’re going to train at 7.30 in the morning and you’ve been awake since 6am, the worst thing you could do is have nothing in your stomach as you will have nothing in the tank,” she says. “Even though it’s early, because you’ve been awake for a long time before training, it would have a negative effect on your performance. So I would always ask you to at least have a banana.”
If your workout goals are weight-loss based, Roxane Bakker, a dietitian at Vitl (opens in new tab), suggests not eating before exercise can work in your favour. “Research suggests that you are more likely to burn additional fat if you do not eat before a workout,” she says. “You’ll also have a prolonged calorie deficit which aids weight loss.”
There’s also a consensus that eating after a workout has it’s plus points too, with food helping your body - particularly your muscles - to recover post-exercise.
The pros of not eating before a workout
- Good for weight loss
- Food eaten straight before is harder to digest
- You won’t feel too full
- It’s not essential to eat before if your workout is under an hour
Not eating before exercise is a big benefit for those hoping to lose weight, says Roxane.
“Research has shown that exercising in a fasted state increases fat oxidation (fat used as fuel), which is why it’s often a preferred method for those who are looking to burn fat and lose weight,” she explains.
Roxane also advises against eating immediately before for digestive purposes.
“It is generally not recommended to eat straight before a workout because the blood travels to the muscles, leaving less to help with the digestion process,” she adds.
This advice is echoed by PT Hollie, who believes not eating straight before is also more comfortable.
“When you’re doing HIIT, the body tries to conserve as much energy elsewhere as possible because it’s having such a demand on the muscles. The energy needs to go to the muscles, so the body tries to divert energy use away from other areas like the tummy. So what it does is it tries to get rid of what’s in the stomach.
“That’s why sometimes when people do HIIT they feel like they’re going to throw up,” summarises Hollie.
What’s more - the NHS says you only need water (opens in new tab) if your exercise is under 60 minutes. Anything longer and you should have a snack - but eat this at least half an hour before.
The cons of not eating before a workout
- Not performing at your best
- Feeling faint from low blood sugar levels
- A lack of energy
- Not recommended if engaging in long duration exercise
Though eating before a workout has its benefits, it also brings with it some negatives - particularly performance-related ones.
“Not eating before a workout may mean you don't perform to your best and don't push yourself like you could if you had more fuel in the tank,” says nutritionist Becs. “You may burn valuable energy stores by dipping into energy reserves and low blood glucose may leave you feeling lightheaded, nauseous and shaky.”
This supports the NHS stance, whose website suggests a light healthy snack an hour before exercise. They claim this will make you perform better during training and help your body to recover afterwards. Their website recommends eating a main meal three hours before exercise to give you that energy hit.
There is further evidence to support this, as Roxane reveals that studies show a carbohydrates-based meal eaten before is advantageous.
“Currently research would suggest that it’s best to eat a carb-rich meal two to three hours before exercise,” she says. “However further research is still needed to definitively establish when the best time is to eat.”
Not eating before a workout is also discouraged if exercising for over an hour. Anything long-distance based requires food for energy.
“If someone is running a marathon, they need to think about carb loading,” says Hollie. “Make sure you’ve got that energy ready, stored in the muscles to go.”