There’s no worse feeling than starting your workout and 10 minutes in you taste your lunch coming up making you feel sluggish and sick. As you try to push through you feel the food bouncing around in your stomach and you wind up with a stomach ache and an excruciating stitch.
Believe it or not, this is a very common mistake people make but one that can be easily avoided if you time your meals and workouts correctly for the best results in your training and nutrition.
When you get it right you’ll have way more energy, you’ll feel light and motivated with a lot more mental clarity and focus. In this article, we will look into what is the correct amount of time to wait after eating and before working out.
It’s often recommended to eat before working out to top up your glycogen stores so your muscles can work to their full potential. However, there is a balance to getting this right.
How Long To Wait After Eating And Before Exercising
After you have eaten a meal, depending on your digestion, food usually takes between 2-4 hours to completely digest and move from your stomach into your small intestine. Depending on the kind of exercise you are about to do, depends on how long you can get away with waiting.
For most people, you can get away with waiting 1-2 hours after eating assuming you had a normal-sized meal that wasn’t too heavy in fats and oils.
If you are going to the gym and lifting but not jumping around too much then 1-2 hours should be fine. If you are a pro athlete and you are about to run a marathon then you ideally need to wait between 2-3 hours to allow full digestion and avoid things like stitches.
You can get away with waiting 30 minutes to 1 hour if you have a small snack, as this is a lot lighter on the stomach.
Amount Of Food And What Kind
When it comes to eating before a workout, digestion depends hugely on how much you eat and what you eat. The larger and more dense the meal, the longer it will take your body to digest. The smaller and lighter the meal, the faster your body will be able to digest.
Meals that are high in fat, protein and fibre take the body longer to digest. Compared to those containing mainly simple carbohydrates, such as those found in carbohydrate drinks and supplements. It’s recommended to avoid eating foods high in animal proteins before working out, as these take significantly more time to break down and process.
Side Effects Of Eating Too Close To A Workout
Sensations that are commonly experienced when eating too close to working out depend a lot on the individual, some people are more resilient to the negative effects of eating too soon before working out, whereas others are extremely sensitive and need to be more attentive to their needs. Some common side effects are:
- Acid Reflux
- Mind Fog
As we touched on earlier in the article, athletes involved with long-distance exercises such as running and cycling will be far more susceptible to these side effects due to the nature of the sport. Lower intensity sports involving less movement and energy requirements such as lifting, archery, golf etc. will be less likely to exacerbate digestive reactions.
However, all of this can be avoided by timing your meals correctly to allow sufficient digestion.
Runner’s Stitch (Side stitch)
A side stitch, also known as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), is a pain felt on either side of your abdomen. It’s more commonly reported on the right side. Symptoms can range from cramping or a dull ache to a pulling sensation or a sharp, stabbing pain that is almost unbearable when exercising.
A side stitch is usually experienced during prolonged athletic activities, such as running, basketball, or cycling. Researchers in a 2014 study found that around 70% of runners reported a side stitch in the last year.
Staying hydrated, stopping your activity or taking a break to walk, and stretching may help with side stitch symptoms. Although stitches still haven’t been fully understood, it is thought that a key factor in the onset of stitches is eating and drinking too soon before working out.
For the body to perform optimally, it needs to be under as little stress as possible. If you eat too close before a workout, a lot of the body's energy and blood circulation is being directed towards digestion, therefore taking away from the body’s ability to perform.
Common feelings experienced are lack of focus and sluggishness. The other feelings such as nausea and bloating also take away from your ability to perform well.
Waiting Time For Various Sports
Although no data has officially been proven, it’s generally understood that different activities have different wait times after eating due to the differences in motion and intensity.
We have listed a few below:
- Crossfit - 1-2 hours after a meal
- Cycling - 2-3 hours after a meal
- Downhill Skiing - 1-2 hours after a meal
- Golf - 1 hour after a meal
- Cross Country Skiing - 1-2 hours after eating
- Mountain Biking - 1-2 hours after eating
- Running - 2-3 hours after eating
- Swimming - 2-3 hours after eating
- Walking - 30 minutes after eating
- Weight training - 1-2 hours after eating
In some races such as the Le Tour De France Cycling race, you’re racing for up to 6 hours a day. As a result, you must eat on the bike to keep your glycogen stores topped up for the remainder of the race and the race days ahead. Eating easily digestible foods with fast energy absorption is key.
For example, energy gels, drinks and bars with quick-release glycogen are the best way to go. These foods tend to be lighter on the stomach and more easily digested to avoid stomach cramps.
Not Eating Before Short Duration Exercise May Not Affect Performance
It’s heavily disputed whether eating or not before short workouts is better or worse. Although very little has been officially proven, several studies are suggesting little to no difference between the two. This is thought to be because of the body’s naturally stored energy. It is believed the body stores approximately 2000 calories of energy in our fat stores at any given time.
Therefore allowing us to exercise for short periods without needing food. Some athletes claim to prefer this because they feel sharper, lighter and more energized, like the ‘fasted’ ideology claims.
However, there is also evidence that suggests topping up your carbohydrate stores before intense exercise can help your muscles perform to full potential due to having topped up glycogen stores. To summarize, the majority of studies do not show a benefit to eating before short intensity training such as HIIT, however, there are emerging studies suggesting that eating before may help performance.
Some studies have highlighted the effects of eating or fasting before exercise, the most important factor is a personal preference. Eating before exercise may be more important for particular sports, such as high-level athletes and those performing a long-duration exercise.
However, most active individuals can make great progress when exercising fasted or fed. Therefore, your personal preference about when you eat relative to exercise should play the biggest role in your decision, making sure that if you do choose to eat, leaving the correct amount of time afterwards is important to feeling good.
For some people, eating soon before exercise can make them feel sluggish or nauseous. Others feel weak and fatigued without having something to eat before working out. If you exercise in the morning, the duration between when you wake up and when you exercise could impact your choice.
If you head out for a run or to the gym immediately after waking, you may not have time for your food to properly settle before you exercise. If you are going down the fasted route, I believe this is the most appropriate time in the day to do it as it makes the most sense.
The less time you have between eating and exercise, the smaller the pre-exercise meal should be to help avoid digestive issues. Like we have discussed, consuming beneficial nutrients like light lean protein and simple carbs from nutrient-dense foods is important in the hours surrounding exercise.
To summarize all the points we have touched on in this article. Depending on the type of exercise you are doing, leaving the correct amount of time for your body to digest is essential to feeling energized, avoiding side effects such as sluggishness and nausea. Whether fasted or fed is better, well, that is ultimately personal preference as there are studies suggesting benefits for both.
It’s important to remember that no two people are the same. We all work a little differently and respond differently to things. What works for one person may not work for you. So listening to your body is crucial.