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Fuel Your Workouts: Time Your Eating

By H.K. Jones

With all of the marketing hype surrounding the eating end of the exercise industry—"Eat This Energy Bar!" "No, Eat This One!"—it's not surprising that many people don't know jack about what they should eat before and after a workout. Some people think they should avoid food before working out because they fear they’ll get cramps or feel sluggish. Others believe they’ll burn more fat and calories if they exercise on an empty stomach.

The truth is, unless you eat a heavy three-course dinner just minutes before hitting the gym—in which case your muscles and digestive system will compete with each other for resources—cramping and fatigue from food should not be an issue. But while what you eat before or after exercise won't affect the number of calories you burn, it will affect your energy and endurance during the activity. Why? Because food is your fuel, and just as you fill your car with gas before taking it on a trip, so should you fuel you body before taking it on a workout.

But just how much you should eat and when depends on the time of day, as well as when you last ate and what was on the menu. Here’s what you need to know about fueling up before you start your workout.

Early Risers
Millions of people hop out of bed, down a cup of coffee, and head right for the gym or work. That's called a bad way to start the day—drinking coffee by itself on an empty stomach produces a hypoglycemic effect, a sure-fire recipe for a terrible workout. Your body and brain need food to perform. Follow these guidelines to make your morning workout work for you:

Early Risers Pre Workout: When you first wake up, you’re likely to be low on energy. After all, you've just gone 10 to 12 hours without food fuel. And even though you have fat stored to be “burned” or metabolized to help keep you going, your body will be low on its preferred source of energy—carbohydrates. Carbs are stored in small amounts in your liver and muscles as glycogen, and come morning, these stores are nearly depleted.

At least 30 and preferably 60 minutes before working out, you should refuel with a pre-workout snack or meal that is light—low in calories, fat, fiber, and sugar—and consists mostly of easily digested, low-glycemic complex carbohydrates. Try to eat a meal that includes both these slow-release carbohydrates and proteins in an approximate two-to-one ratio. In particular, when choosing what to eat before your workout, Nancy Clark, MS, RD, and author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook," suggests you limit consumption of high-fat proteins, which delay gastric emptying and can contribute to sluggishness, as well as sugary foods with a high-glycemic index, which will lead to a blood-sugar spike and subsequent crash, probably right in the middle of your workout.

Some easy-to-prepare examples of morning pre-workout meals include eggs with whole-wheat toast; a smoothie made with yogurt, fruit, and orange juice; oatmeal with milk and raisins; or even leftovers from the night before, provided they are not high in fat and contain a good balance of low-glycemic carbs and some protein. Feel free to drink coffee or tea with your morning meal, but also drink plenty of water to ensure you don't dehydrate before your workout.

Early Risers Post Workout: No matter what time of the day you work out, consider the meal or snack you eat right after your workout mandatory—your body needs it to build muscle and replenish energy sources. This 60-minute period, known as the golden hour, is when the muscles soak up the most nutrients and when the body replaces glycogen most efficiently. Ideally, you should eat as soon as possible after working out, and preferably within 30 minutes.

The post-workout snack or meal should be a well-balanced combination of carbohydrates, protein, and a little fat. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends refueling with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates. Blend that with high-quality protein in a four-to-one carb-to-protein ratio, which will not only help restore glycogen levels, but will also promote muscle recovery and growth.

Below find some healthy grab-and-go post-workout morning meals that meet these refueling requirements:

  1. Stuff a whole-grain pita with low-fat cottage cheese and sliced fresh fruit
  2. Spread hummus on a whole-grain bagel
  3. Blend plain low-fat yogurt and orange juice with a frozen banana and strawberries
  4. Layer a whole-grain toaster waffle with plain low-fat yogurt and berries
  5. Combine ricotta cheese, sliced apples, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and Grape Nuts
  6. Spread nut butter on whole-wheat bread and wrap around a banana
  7. Melt a piece of cheese over sliced tomato on a whole-grain English muffin
  8. Roll a whole-grain tortilla up with scrambled eggs and salsa
Midday Warriors
Do you do your workouts in the afternoon? Your body will need similar pre- and post-workout and recovery fuel—low-glycemic carbs and protein. But when working out in the afternoon—in between the two big meals of lunch and dinner—you want to make sure you don't overfeed your body, the most common mistake of those who work out in the middle of the day.

Midday Warriors Pre Workout: If you’ve had a balanced meal within the last two hours, you shouldn’t need to eat before starting your workout. But if it’s been longer than two to three hours since your last meal, or if you’re even a little bit hungry (remember, never hit the gym hungry), a snack about an hour before exercising is a very good idea.

Your pre-workout afternoon snack should have the same general characteristics as a morning pre-workout meal—light (low in calories, fat, fiber, and sugar) and easily digested complex carbohydrates and protein. Dried fruit and nuts, trail mix, a piece of fruit with some low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt, or half of a whole-wheat English muffin with nut butter are all good choices to fuel your tank midday without bogging you down. Just remember to make it small, make it carbs and some protein, and make it an hour before you hit the gym.

If you only have 15 minutes between leaving your office and hitting the gym, try an easily digested quality sports drink, as the body can digest liquids more quickly than solids. It's not ideal, but it's a lot better than working out without any fuel.

Midday Warriors Post Workout: If you plan to eat dinner less than three hours after you finishing working out, be sure your post-workout snack is under 200 calories; try a high-quality energy bar with at least three grams of filling fiber, a piece of whole wheat bread with nut butter, or any of the post-workout morning snacks mentioned above. Just remember to keep your portions in control to avoid adding too many calories to your diet.

Night Owls
The tired old argument that you should not exercise within three hours of going to bed is dead in the water. More recent research shows that exercising before going to bed does not interfere with sleep.

Night Owls Pre Workout: If you’re working out at night, most likely you’ve had a meal within the last two hours, so you shouldn’t need to eat anything before you train. If you haven't eaten dinner, be sure to eat a light pre-workout meal following the same guidelines outlined above.

Night Owls Post Workout: While you don't want to eat a big meal after you late-night workout and right before you go to bed, you should try to eat or drink something with enough carbohydrates and protein to replenish your glycogen stores and help promote muscle growth. A homemade protein shake or a piece of whole-wheat toast with one cup of nuts or natural peanut butter make good late-night, post-workout snacks.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to eating and exercise, everyone is different, so let your experience guide you on which eating habits work best for you. Begin by always eating a balanced diet every day as this alone will help your body be ready for your workouts.

Don't be afraid of carbs! Eat adequate high-carbohydrates meals to fuel your muscles so they’ll always be ready for action. But remember, the calories you eat before and after you work out need to fit in to your total daily calorie intake, so be sure to spread your eating throughout the day to accommodate your needs, without sabotaging your workout efforts.

About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.