How long should you wait to exercise after eating?

Woman sitting on floor while eating cereal.

Eating and exercise are a bonded pair. You won’t get the most out of your workout if you are fueling your body, and if you don’t refuel afterward, your body won’t recover the way it should. But how long before you hit the gym (home or otherwise) should you eat to get the most out of your sweat session? And what are the consequences of exercising after eating?

If you listen to my mother, you must never ever swim/bike/run or do anything remotely strenuous for 20 minutes post-meal, but I think we should leave this one to the experts. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you’re planning on eating a large meal, experts say you should do so at least three to four hours before exercising. If you’ve penciled your workout into your calendar and it’s coming up within one to three hours, they recommend eating a small meal or snack.

Of course, snacks aren’t all created equal. Experts recommend items packed with protein and the right amount of digested carbs to give your body the energy it needs. Good options include an energy or granola bar, banana, brown rice, yogurt, fruit smoothie, or a peanut butter sandwich.

So why not eat something immediately before you go on that run? The Clinic offers that “snacks eaten soon before exercise probably won’t give you added energy if your workout lasts less than 60 minutes,” meaning your body can’t digest and process food that will offer meaningful benefits if you eat right before.

The type of workout also factors into timing. If you’re going on a walk, you can probably feel more comfortable eating 30 minutes beforehand. If it’s high-intensity interval training on your schedule, the guidelines above will ensure you get the most out of your time.

Riska Platt, M.S., R.D., a nutrition consultant for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, told heart.org that the ideal time to nosh before a workout is two hours in advance. Not doing so is like “driving a car on empty,” she said.

As with snacks, not all bodies are created equal, either. While some can experience cramping, digestive problems, nausea, or fatigue if they eat too close to a workout, other people seem unbothered, especially if your body is used to it.

Not everyone has three to four hours before a workout to eat. When I run, it’s first thing in the morning (because if I wait, I’ll think of 10 excuses not to run). I’m certainly not setting my alarm three hours in advance, so I put a banana next to my bed and eat it immediately upon waking. By the time I scroll through emails and social media, get dressed, and out the door, 30 minutes have gone by, and I’m ready to go.

If that sounds familiar, carbs that your body can easily digest like a banana or rice cakes are advised.

One thing most experts agree on is that you have to stay hydrated. That means drinking water or a sports beverage before, during, and after a workout. Dehydration can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort (especially for cardio lovers), including cramps, bloating, burping, and tummy troubles.

If you have an important race, event, or workout you know your body needs to be 100% ready for and you’re not sure exactly how you’ll withstand certain foods, it may be wise to play around with timing in relation to your workouts before the big day to see how your body responds. Practice makes perfect, right?

You must actively consider the time you exercise in relation to your meal schedule. It may not seem important to regard the timing of your meals pre-workout, but if you’re spending your precious time engaged in any activity, you want to get the most out of it.

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