Most experts will advise that the best time to eat is before you work out. You want to have enough energy to get through your workout, but eating too much and exercising too soon can lead to some unpleasant side effects.
It’s the feeling of nausea when you stop on a treadmill after munching on a few too many snacks pre-workout, or feeling full and lethargic when you go to hit the weight room.
Just like there are certain foods you should avoid before (and after) a sweat sesh, there’s also a recommended time you should wait after eating to hit the gym.
We’re diving into what the experts have to say and giving you everything you need to know about pre-workout meals and exercise.
When To Exercise After Eating
After consuming a meal, food doesn’t immediately move through your digestive tract and out the other end.
The body moves food slowly through the gastrointestinal tract—starting with the stomach, then into the small intestine, large intestine, and colon—to break down the food, absorb the nutrients, and excrete what it doesn’t need.
In general, food takes anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to move from the stomach to the small intestine, where the process of nutrient absorption starts 1.
Here’s a general guideline of how contents empty the stomach:
- 50% of stomach contents emptied = 2.5 - 3 hours
- Total contents of stomach empty = 4 - 5 hours
- 50% of small intestine emptied = 2.5 - 3 hours
- Transit through colon = 30 - 40 hours
The process of digestion isn’t quick, so expecting to consume a meal and be ready to fire immediately after likely isn’t going to turn out well.
And research suggests that eating before exercising is not ideal, whereas eating post-workout can help to enhance recovery and minimize muscle damage.
A 2017 study published in The American Journal of Physiology found that men who exercised on an empty stomach burned more fat than people who consumed a meal 2.
The debate between fasted training for fat loss is a huge topic that we’re not going to get into now, but experts generally agree that the differences aren’t anything to write home about.
With all of that said, waiting 1 to 2 hours after a meal or 30 minutes after a small snack before exercising is sufficient for most people. However, the exact time depends on things like meal composition, size, digestive function, and the like.
Meal Size And Composition Matter
It’s not as straightforward as "X amount of time" when it comes to food and exercise.
What you’re eating and how much you’re eating play a big part in how long you should wait before exercising. Although everyone’s needs are different, generally speaking, the larger the meal, the longer you need to wait, as more food means greater digestion time.
On top of that, we also have what you’re eating. Foods that take longer to digest—high-fiber foods, fat, and protein—will require a longer waiting period, as they don’t move through the stomach at the same pace as something like a simple carbohydrate does.
If you’re keen on hitting the gym soon after you eat, opt for simpler carbs and lean protein. Both of these are sufficient to provide sustained energy throughout your workout without having a major interference with your digestion.
Possible Side Effects Of Exercising Too Soon
Physical exertion too soon after eating diverts resources towards active muscles and away from digestion, which means the food you’ve eaten isn’t being digested. That's why we sometimes say that a meal is “sitting heavy” because it’s essentially just vegging in your stomach.
This is further exacerbated but the size of the meal. If you’re eating a massive plate before exercising, you’re putting your body into snooze mode rather than sprint mode, which can have a major impact on your performance.
While the side effects are going to vary between people, jumping the gun too soon after your meal can result in some unpleasant symptoms like:
- Abdominal cramping
- Acid reflux
One small study of 10 male basketball players that exercised immediately after eating a protein and carb was experienced nausea, belching, and bloating compared to those who ate a high-carb meal without protein3.
Our 4 Best Tips For Training After Eating
Keep the meal simple
When you start to combine all sorts of foods, it can be difficult to digest and can take longer than something simple.
Opt for protein and carbohydrates like chicken and rice, fish and quinoa, or even a banana with some nuts. It’s simple, relatively easy to digest, and will provide sustained energy to power you through your workout. Meals higher in fiber and fat take longer to digest and therefore may harm your performance.
Keep notes: If you’re dead set on consuming a meal pre-workout and really want to optimize your performance, take note of which foods give you the coveted post-workout high and which foods make you feel queasy mid-squat.
Cater to meal to your activity
If you want to optimize your performance, you need to eat to support it, but what you eat shouldn’t be standard across the board.
For high-intensity exercise like CrossFit, you want to have no more than 20g of protein and some carbs. If you’re doing endurance exercise like running, drink water and eat something small with carbohydrates. For yoga, stay hydrated and eat a small snack. What you eat directly affects your performance, so tailor it to what your body needs during exercise.
Opt for a pre-workout instead
If you find that you’re not performing well after a meal or you’re experiencing major mid-sweat sesh side effects, cutting out the meal may be to your benefit.
If you can’t afford to lose the energy, you may find adding in a clean pre-workout helpful. But not just any old sugar-filled, artificially-colored pre-workout. We’re talking about the best of the best when it comes to pre.
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It’s designed to help you crush your workout—pre-workout meal or not—with an exhilarating blood flow boost, better energy, peak muscle power, extended endurance, laser intensity, and calm clarity. If you want to go longer, finish stronger, and accelerate muscle recovery, this is the pre-workout for you.
Finding the energy to get through a gruesome workout can be tough, and having a meal pre-workout can give you that energy. But if you’re downing your meal on the way to the gym, chances are you’re going to feel it mid-workout.
Ideally, waiting 1 to 2 hours after eating to workout is the best for your body, but if you can’t afford the time, opt for a clean pre-workout to give you all the same benefits as a pre-workout meal with none of the discomfort.
- P Vasavid, T Chaiwatanarat, P Pusuwan, et al. Normal Solid Gastric Emptying Values Measured by Scintigraphy Using Asian-style Meal:A Multicenter Study in Healthy Volunteers. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2014;20(3):371-378.
- YC Chen, RL Travers, JP Walhin, et al. Feeding influences adipose tissue responses to exercise in overweight men. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2017;313(1):E84-E93.
- HL Gentle, TD Love, AS Howe, KE Black. A randomised trial of pre-exercise meal composition on performance and muscle damage in well-trained basketball players. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11:33.