On Nutrition

With abundant daylight, minimal rain, fewer clothing layers, it feels easier to be physically active in the summer than in the winter. Whether you’re hitting the air-conditioned gym or biking along Lake Washington, what to eat before exercise is probably on your mind. How do you keep your energy up and hunger at bay without ending up with an upset stomach? What should you eat after exercise to refill your tank and nourish those muscles you’ve been working?

There’s no shortage of advice about fueling for fitness. Unfortunately, a lot of it is pure opinion, appropriate only if you’re a competitive athlete, and outdated, incorrect or simply contradictory. For example, some studies suggest that exercising in the morning before you’ve eaten breakfast — aka fasted exercise — forces your body to use more of its fat for fuel. (Never mind that physical activity has inherent value for health and well-being and may not lead to weight or fat loss.) Another group of scientists and fitness experts assert that you must eat an appropriate snack preexercise, with the implication that failure to do so will guarantee some horrible outcome like passing out or having a terrible workout.

You are the best authority on what and whether you should eat before exercise. Finding your sweet spot will take some experimentation, and your body, type of activity and activity duration are the most important variables. You don’t want to experience digestive distress, but you also don’t want to hit the “I’ve run out of fuel” wall. For some, eating before a bike ride is easy, but eating before a run? Not so much. (More stomach jostling.) When exercising later in the day, allow enough space after your previous meal so that you are not in major digestion mode, but you’re also not ready for your next meal yet. If you do feel a few hunger pangs, you may need a light snack.

What about during exercise? Unless you are moving for a long time — think: a lengthy bike ride or a day hike — you probably don’t need to refuel mid-activity. Staying hydrated with water is enough. You can also relax about eating after exercise. Experts used to think that you had to eat within a “post-exercise recovery window” of 30 to 45 minutes if you wanted to build muscle, but newer research shows that this really only applies when someone will be working out again in a few hours, which doesn’t apply to most of us. If you’re hungry after you’ve cooled down, eat a nutritious snack if it’s too soon for a meal.

Generally speaking, a small snack that includes some protein and complex carbohydrates works well for both pre- and post-exercise snacking (but again, experiment to learn what’s best for you). Here are a few ideas:

  • Nut butter with apple slices or a banana
  • Almonds with cherries
  • Cheese stick with whole-grain crackers
  • Half a turkey or peanut-butter sandwich
  • Greek yogurt with cereal and fruit
  • Fruit smoothie with yogurt and protein powder

It’s easy to get bogged down in details about when to exercise and what to eat before and after you do. Unless you are a well-seasoned amateur or professional athlete looking to fine-tune your routine to reach a specific performance goal, don’t sweat those details. To benefit from exercise, focus on finding activities you enjoy and making them a regular part of your life.