Planning out your daily schedule is a big part of adopting a regular exercise routine. Unfortunately, the best opportunities to exercise often fall near mealtime, such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Working in a run or bike ride around a meal can be difficult, especially if your tummy doesn’t fare well digesting your lunch while on the treadmill.
To help you arrange your schedule and settle into a regular exercise routine, we’ll answer the commonly asked question: “How long should you wait to exercise after eating?”
How long should you wait to exercise after eating?
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, you should wait:1
- 1 to 2 hours to exercise after eating a small meal
- 3 to 4 hours to exercise after eating a large meal
- 30 minutes to 1 hour to exercise after eating a small snack
Although these recommendations are based on scientific research, you know your body best! Listen to it and time your meals and exercise accordingly. Depending on what or how much you ate, the time you need to digest and rest before hopping on your bike or treadmill can vary greatly.
What are the potential side effects of eating right before a workout?
If you only have a short window of time to fit in a meal and a workout, it might be tempting to do both, but you should consider your options carefully.
Every body is different, so not everyone will have the same side effects if they eat right before a workout. However, more than likely, you can expect to experience the following things:
It shouldn’t be a surprise that you’ll probably have some unpleasant physical symptoms if you try to exercise right after eating. These can vary a lot, but might include:2
- Acid reflux
- Stomach cramping
Chances are, you’ve heard of a “food coma.” If so, you can understand how exercising immediately after eating could hamper your athletic performance.
That sluggish feeling you get after consuming a meal isn’t going to do you any favors if you’re trying to smash your PR. On the contrary, fatigue and low energy will likely tank your performance, leaving you more frustrated and tired than anything.
Additionally, if you eat a meal high in refined carbohydrates (like pasta), your blood sugar will spike and then crash, making you feel extra tired and sluggish, which is not ideal before a workout.
How does timing vary by activity?
In general, it’s best to wait a couple of hours after eating before participating in a high-intensity exercise like running. If you don’t, you’re more likely to have gastrointestinal problems, like runner’s stomach.3 On the contrary, you’ll probably be fine to do 30 minutes of yoga shortly after you eat.
Depending on your preferred exercise type, you may be okay to eat shortly before you exercise but tread carefully. It all depends on your unique body processes, which you may need to learn by trial and error.
If you’re wondering why it matters, here’s a quick explanation of what’s going on inside your body:
During exercise, like riding a bike or playing soccer, your body directs more blood flow to your muscles because they’re working extra hard to support your physical activities. However, that means less blood is directed to your digestive system, causing some of the digestive upset listed above.
When in doubt, the more physically demanding the sport or exercise, the longer you should wait after eating to begin it. Especially if you’ve eaten a full meal instead of just a snack.
The one exception to this rule is walking. You can walk immediately after eating a meal.
Is it better to exercise on an empty stomach?
One 2022 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that fasted exercise helped people burn 70% more body fat than those who waited 2 hours after eating to exercise.4 However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your best choice.
For instance, the same study also found that the participants who fasted covered less distance while cycling, enjoyed the exercise less, and felt less motivated when fasting while exercising.4 Can you relate to this at all?
With all that in mind, it’s important to consider your overall goals:
- If your primary goal when exercising is to lose body fat or shed pounds, it might be better to exercise while fasting.
- On the other hand, if you’re chasing a performance-related goal, it’s best to fuel your body with food beforehand.
- If fasted exercise makes you miserable, don’t do it!
What foods should you eat or avoid before exercising?
Again, the type of food you should eat before a workout depends on your body and how it responds to certain foods before exercise.
However, the best diet for runners, cyclists, and other athletes is one that incorporates a variety of healthy, whole foods that include protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. For a full meal, this might look like:5
- Breakfast: Whole wheat toast, eggs, and fresh fruit
- Lunch: A nut butter sandwich with dried fruit
- Dinner: Chicken, sweet potato, and steamed broccoli
A snack is best if you only have 30 minutes to eat before working out. Some combination of protein and carbs is ideal, such as:5
- A banana with nut butter
- Plain yogurt with berries and honey
- A smoothie made with fresh fruit and vegetables
- Oatmeal with fresh fruit
- Trail mix
And remember: the more you eat, the longer it will take for your body to digest it.
Key Takeaways:The best time to exercise after eating varies depending on several factors, including the intensity of your workout, what you ate, how much you ate, and how your body responds to food and the digestive process. Finding what works best for you might take some trial and error, but waiting about 1 to 2 hours is a good place to start.
- Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S. M., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2008b). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-5-17
- De Oliveira, E. P., Burini, R. C., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2014). Gastrointestinal Complaints During Exercise: Prevalence, Etiology, and Nutritional Recommendations. Sports Medicine, 44(S1), 79–85. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0153-2
- De Oliveira, E. P., & Burini, R. C. (2009). The impact of physical exercise on the gastrointestinal tract. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 12(5), 533–538. https://doi.org/10.1097/mco.0b013e32832e6776
- Slater, T., Mode, W. J., Pinkney, M. G., Hough, J., James, R. M., Sale, C., James, L. J., & Clayton, D. A. (2022). Fasting Before Evening Exercise Reduces Net Energy Intake and Increases Fat Oxidation, but Impairs Performance in Healthy Males and Females. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 33(1), 11–22. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2022-0132
- Tennessee, Y. O. M. (2021, September 23). Ask the RDs: When and What Should I Eat Before a Workout? | YMCA of Middle Tennessee. YMCA of Middle Tennessee. https://www.ymcamidtn.org/health-and-fitness/articles/ask-rds-when-and-what-should-i-eat-workout