Eating and Training: How to Time It Right

A great deal of the best athletes know full well what they should be eating and when they should be eating it. However, the factor that trips them up most times is the actual continued application of this principle. Knowing what is best is one thing, following that advice is another!

For some individuals it is either that they don’t find themselves hungry after a stint of training; or they find that they are extremely hungry while they are training. The glaring issue is that trying to get a quality workout while leading a busy life can often put the trinity of: muscles, stomach and brain out of sync at times.

when to eat for exercise

For instance, if you go for a run early in the morning you might be left with intolerable fatigue for the rest of the day - not great for your lifestyle. Similarly, a workout in the middle of the day can face problems as well – if you succumb to the pangs of hunger your workout might not even happen. Lastly, if you try to work out after a long day you may inadvertently push dinner back closer to bedtime - beware the excuses we find not to exercise!

If you find that these problems speak to you, then the following information could be just what you need to help you sync up your workout schedule with your mealtimes.

Early Morning Training

If you are like so many others who prefer to get running or training early in the morning then you are probably always faced with the dilemma of if you should eat beforehand or not. The short and simple answer is – yes.

If you have the chance you should always try to get something in your system before a morning workout or run. Two things are gained from doing this. Firstly, you provide your muscles with a supply of energy to get through your workout. Secondly, your brain and the rest of your body gets the relevant nutrients and fuel needed for ideal performance.

Various studies have shown that by eating before a workout can boost your performance and endurance; and volunteers of these studies who ate beforehand rated their workout as “more manageable and less strenuous” compared to individuals who went without eating.

However, knowing all of this, there are still some individuals who still can’t squeeze a meal into their early morning schedule. If you eat too close to your workout you run the risk of ruining it with feelings of nausea and cramps. If you are one of the individuals who finds it easy to wake up early, get your morning tasks completed, and have a decent meal – or you want to try your best to squeeze a meal into your morning “rush hour” – here are some guidelines that can push you in the right direction.

Early Risers

If you fit into this category then you should make an effort to select foods that have a low fat content, reasonable protein levels, and are most importantly – high in carbohydrates. Ideally, you should set a target for 400 to 800 calories (and no more). This amount is perfect for giving you the needed energy boost without “weighing” you down; you should experiment until you find the exact calorie number and foods that are best for you.

Also, an hour before your workout, you should make an effort to drink at least half a pint of water – this is important because it should compensate for dehydration lost by sweating.

Here are some sample pre-workout breakfasts that fit the 400 – 800 calorie criteria:

  • A piece of fruit with a bowl of cereal and skimmed milk (or semi skimmed)
  • Fresh fruit and two slices of toast
  • Tomato slices, cheese (low fat) and a toasted bagel

Late Sleepers

Sadly, most of us will unintentionally fall into this grouping, and therefore we probably think that we won’t have the time to get a real meal in before we run out the door. If you identify with this category then you should not lose hope; instead, make an effort to experiment with various foods and your stomach to see what your body (and schedule) can handle before a workout.

Here are some examples:

  • Half of a bagel
  • Carbohydrate drink (half a pint)
  • An energy gel and a glass of water

If these don’t suit your tastes or stomach then another option is to eat a large meal for dinner the night before. If your workout isn’t too strenuous or intense then a high carbohydrate meal the night before should be able to give you the energy that you need.

For Both Types

It doesn’t matter if you wake up early or you like to sleep in a bit, an active body will need nutrients (especially carbohydrates and protein) to supply the calories that it requires after a workout.

A good meal after a morning workout is essential to fend off any post workout fatigue that you may feel and help you get through the early part of your work day. Ideally, you should get something to eat, which is rich in carbohydrates and protein, no later than an hour after your workout.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Fresh fruit/fruit juice with whole wheat toast and eggs
  • Dinner leftovers (Soup, pasta, veggie pizza, chili)
  • Fruit smoothie with a tablespoon of protein powder

The Lunchtime Training Crowd

Many of the individuals who run or workout in lunch hours will often realize that they succumb to the effects of hunger. This is because if you have an early breakfast, say around 6am or so, then by the time midday rolls around you will have had to endure at least 6 hours without food. At this time any energy that your breakfast would have provided is no more and your blood sugar would most likely start to get noticeably low.

While you may be tempted to simply eat a bigger breakfast, it is not a recommended course of action. By doing this you run the risk of leaving yourself open to lethargic feelings. Instead you should try to have a pre-workout snack that is reasonably light.

For your workout/run you should keep three things in mind:

  • Content – You should choose foods that are low in fat but have high carbohydrate content.
  • Quantity – The actual amount will differ based on your body size; however you should aim for 100 – 400 calories.
  • Timing – You should eat your meal 1 to 2 hours before your workout to allow for full digestion.

Here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Fruit spread on a single slice of wheat toast
  • A serving of instant oatmeal (using skimmed milk)
  • ​An energy bar with less than five grams of fat
  • Vegetable juice with a serving of dried fruit (75g)

Post-run Lunch

There is one very glaring issue with having a lunch hour exercise routine – you obviously won’t have the time for lunch. However, this should not stop you since your mind and body will need food and fluids to not only recover from the activity, but also to keep you functioning throughout the remainder of the day. Unless you have a healthy work cafeteria, you will then be required to start packing your own post workout foods.

Here are a few starter tips:

  • Make a serious effort to always have fruit. A piece or two of fruit can be a good source of carbohydrates and other essential nutrients.
  • Utilize convenient food choices that save on time and effort (cereal bars, yogurt, nuts, etc.)
  • Make use of your leftovers. Last night’s healthy dinner can be today’s hassle free healthy lunch option.

Evening Exercise People

Aside from the obvious physical benefits, an evening workout can be a great stress reliever after a hard day’s work. However, after a long day many people find that they are simply too tired or too hungry to stick to their workout regimen.

For those of us who do go out for our run or workout, we face the issue of going home practically starving afterwards. Leading us to either eat too much or eat unhealthily (or both). What can you do to avoid this? It is actually very easy to avoid this problem if you follow two guidelines:

1. During the day you need to ensure that you eat healthily and adequately. This is so that you avoid having digestive discomfort and so that you have enough energy to have that after work workout.

2. After you exercise you should then eat lightly so that you can recover properly but also have a good night’s sleep.

Here are a few tips you should follow:

  • Don’t forgo breakfast. You should always try to get at least a 500 calorie meal for breakfast. Skimmed milk and cereal with nuts is great if you have a few minutes to sit down in the morning. On the other hand a fruit smoothie is great if you need something while you are on the go. Make sure you pair any of these choices with a piece of fresh fruit.
  • In more ways than one, lunch should be your central meal of the day. Try to get a good source of carbohydrates and a piece of fruit paired with high quality proteins like chicken, tofu, or fish.
  • Three or so hours before your workout you should squeeze in a light afternoon snack. A piece of fruit or a healthy energy bar with a glass of water can make a great difference.
  • ​Always try to get enough fluids in your system. This is important, not only because you need to replace any water lost by sweating but also because this helps to keep your appetite in check when you feel the urge to overeat.
  • Lastly, have a healthy moderate dinner. After you go to sleep your body will utilize this food by storing it as fuel in your muscles. However, ensure that you do not overeat, since this will lead to excess food being stored as fat.

Don't forget that poor nutrition can lead to reduced efficiency in your training - in the worst case scenario, this can even lead to increased risk of injury. And we don't want that!

Find Your Balance

We can talk all day about the "best nutrition practices" but ultimately you need to experiment and find what works for your circumstances. Staying motivated to continue with your exercise program is crucial. Find ways to overcome your problems - no time, snack on the go; can't eat in the mornings - try smoothies or shakes.

There is always a way, just recognize the importance of what you eat and how it can affect your workout performance.

Brad Beckwith

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