February 18, 2010

Food & Workouts: Not Mutally Exclusive Anymore. Sort Of.

Dude, you're gonna need a bigger breakfast.
Photo: Sorgatron

So you’re working out to get fit and you’re so into this new goal you’ve set for yourself that maybe you’re not eating enough to have it work right. What?! You’ve always thought that calories out had to exceed calories in for this fitness thing to work. True enough. Eating is an important part of fitness and there are some foods that actually compliment your workout routines. You still need fuel in your machine to make it go.

Avoid working out on an empty stomach. This can result in low blood sugar which can make you feel weak and lightheaded. You don’t want to be wobbling all around the gym, bumping into walls and having people mistake you for Amy Winestein.

About an hour before you begin your workout, you should have a small snack primarily composed of carbs with about 100 to 200 calories; something like half a banana, grapes or toast with jam. Or you could work out within 2 hours of a light meal. Avoid working out on a full stomach (3-4 hours prior to your workout) or you could have problems with nausea and cramps as the blood flow is focused on digestion rather than supplying energy to your muscles. You should also drink 8 – 16 ounces of water within an hour of working out to avoid dehydration. A good rule of thumb is to drink 6 to 8 ounces of water for every 15 minutes of exercise. If you’re at it for longer than an hour, try a sports drink like Gatorade. Chances are you’ll have enough fuel to finish your workout (generally less than an hour) but if not, try having half an energy bar for a quick high-carb snack.

Post workout eating should include a protein snack or light meal for muscle repair and recovery within 2 hours of exercising. Some suggestions for after workout snacks are low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit, apple slices with peanut butter or half a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread. A light meal should contain protein, complex carbs and healthy fats. And again, take care to rehydrate yourself within an hour.

But beware! According to this article, there’s a little something called “compensation” that can occur after workouts. It’s a little “post-workout binge” where people tend to bribe or reward themselves for working out more than they normally would have. While it’s true that exercise can induce hunger, it’s often temporary and doesn’t affect everyone. If you’ve done a little extra time on the elliptical and on your way home you stop at your usual coffee shop but get a chocolate donut burrito versus your typical medium black coffee, you just may be a compensator.

Why, yes, I DID just finish my workout. Why do you ask?
Photo: ultrakickgirl

Compensation can be triggered by intense workouts or it may be as simply explained as people overestimating the amount of calories they burned during a workout. We’ve all got the wiring that tells us hard work deserves some reward. The good news is that even if you do compensate, you’re still reaping some health benefits – although you’re not losing the weight as quickly as you could, your cardiovascular system is working better and your waist circumference is a bit smaller. I frankly would need Magellan and his boys to circumnavigate my waist, but that’s a post for another time. It was found that this desire to have éclair lasagna for dinner eventually goes away on its own. But if it doesn’t, you can take some of the following steps to break the pattern: track your caloric intake AND the amount of calories burned from exercise, find another way to reward yourself or workout with a friend who will help hold you accountable.

So how do you all “eat your way to fitness” when working out? And do you find that you “compensate” after working out?


  1. I always generally try to have something small in my stomach shortly before I know I will be working out. I have heard that it can be a more effective fat burn if you don't eat first, but it just doesn't feel right to me. I do what works for my system!

  2. I am so not into this tracking thing. I just eat, and exercise, and whatever happens. I don't usually want to eat until I've been awake for an hour or two, but I'm emphatically not a morning exerciser, either.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  3. Plan, plan, plan. I know a day in advance what I am to eat and when I am to eat it. If I leave these things to chance, who knows what will go down the gullet!


  4. Hmmm...an hour before I workout is 4 AM. So could I just have a snack before I go to bed? :)
    I workout in the AM and if I eat first I get very nauseus...So I do as soon as I get finish.
    Does that make me an evil worker outer??

  5. I remember when in college having that big pre-meet meal when I ran track! I was slow :-(
    Now, nothing except some coffee before running. Now, fast :-)
    If you are working out to lose weight, and you can do it without eating, I'd go that way as you want to do the fat burning thing. That's my opinion.

  6. I'm more likely to eat healthy after a workout than if I hadn't worked out at all. So for me, compensation isn't an issue. My husband on the other hand, likes to eat burgers and fries after a workout because, he says, he just worked for it. I try to explain the silliness of that. I guess it's leftover from college sports days.

  7. Recently I've started splitting my protein/greens/fruit shake to drink 1/2 before I work out and 1/2 after. (like, immediately before and after). I find I push my longer-getting a good additional 15 minutes of work before I tire too much to continue- and still recover nicely afterward.

    Of course, I have stomach of iron so don't suffer from nausea, etc. I think that whey boost really helps.

    But, yes, sometimes when I've pushed it hard a couple hours later I'm ready to eat a horse. Sometimes I will give in to less than perfectly healthy choices- but I often believe that if my body is crying for fuel I've got to give it some.

  8. One thing I found helped with the overcompensating bit is having a huge protein shake after a long workout (an hour or more).

    I generally can't tolerate more than a banana before my workouts or I cramp.

  9. I have a bad habit of working out before breakfast. Low blood sugar and wobbling around are even more non-good when you're riding a bicycle and there are evil cars around.
    There are companies that have designed food packages so you can eat while staying on the bike and pedaling. The food tastes like @#!$%, mind you, but it's one way to eat just enough to keep going.

  10. I usually plot meal time around working out. If working out at an *odd* time, I'll have an apple -- or Clif Kid bar before working out.

    I'm definitely not a compensator. After seeing how long it takes to burn off calories, I have no desire to stuff my face.

  11. I eat half of a protein bar while driving to my morning workout, and afterward I usually have a protein shake. I've heard of that "overcompensation" eating - in fact, I used to do it years ago when I would go to Jazzercise and then out for breakfast tacos afterward! So I try to be aware that I really didn't burn off THAT many calories and to not eat the kitchen sink, although eclair lasagne does sound pretty good!

  12. Re overcompensating, have you ever noticed that ice-cream shops are often located right outside gyms?

  13. I just can't eat before a workout. If I have anything within 2 hours, I'm tasting it the whole time. Urp. Not pleasant. (Plus I usually work out at 5 am. I ain't gettin' up any earlier just to eat something.)

    And I do well checking my compensation binges as well. If I really feel I need a treat for an extra hard workout then I break out the best dark chocolate, have one little square and let it melt in my mouth. Satisfies the cravings without the massive calorie splurge.

    If only I was so disciplined with my semi-regular evening ice cream consumption...

  14. I am one that really can't have food in my stomach when I work out or I feel like crap... In the old days when my only option was to work out after work, I always felt like crap with food sitting in my stomach. Now, with 24 hour gyms, I just feel better on an empty stomach. I know a lot of people need something but for me, it does not work.

    I do refuel after with a healthy post workout meal!

  15. Great Blog! Self-awareness is important. We are so used to go through the motions without thinking of the actions and end results!

  16. I'll only eat an apple or a piece of bread before my workouts. If I know I'm in for an intense session, however, I make sure to have a small meal. The only time I compensate after is if I don't get a chance to eat before the workout which is slim to none if I can help it.

    Rahim Samuel
    Publisher, Wellnessbymanymeans.com

  17. I try to eat at least an hour or two before working out, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. Saturday I have to go to farmers market first, then I can shove in a bagel and coffee 30 minutes before gym. Not ideal, but I'm not skipping shopping or working out, so compromise has to happen. I prefer not to eat afterwards for a few hours, unless I'm really hungry.

    Even though I'm at the gym 2+ hours, I'm not so athletic that it matters.

  18. I know I should pay more attention to what I eat both pre and post workout, so I appreciate all the tips.

    Yet the "éclair lasagna for dinner" option has me seriously intrigued...

  19. I wait 2 hours after a light meal before running. I find that I feel like throwing up if I run on a semi/full stomach. But I still get really light headed after a run. Maybe I'm not eating enough to fuel my body.... So after a run, I eat! But not sweets and calorie-loaded things. I eat veggies and rice usually. Or some meat.

  20. OMG - Couldn't even finish the first couple of paragraphs with out commenting - I have NEVER Eaten prior to working out. Not since I became serious about results anyway. I used to have a small breakfast (kashi go lean with skim or a piece of fruit or a granola bar - thats it) and never got the mass reducing results I was looking for....NOW, after many years, Having food in me prior to working out is reason for me not to even go. Have never felt light headed or dizzy or anything other than eerily focused for 5 or 6 am workouts, to which after I will happily oblige myself to sasauge egg and cheese omelette, with a glass of water....I know it's taken a long time - 5 years - But I have never felt deprived, or as if I were forcing myself to workout or eat right. I first worked out at night - which was better than my previous nothing, and got me some results coupled with watching what I ate (low carb - first diet attempt and it worked), but then after my first 15 pounds I wanted to work out in the AM, so I ate my small breakfast and went to the gym - 3 months of no progress, and I switched to my current configuration of doing whatever gets my heart rate up for 45 minutes within an hour of waking, 5days a week, and lifting heavy things for an additional half hour 3 days a week, usually right after cardio, with energy to spare. The reason it has taken me so long (i think) Is that there have been many bumps along the way that were actually consecutive months in where I just didn't care. So anyway, I know follow a mostly primal/paleo diet (effin coffee, creamer and splenda),and have lost 95 lbs, and went from a size 18 to a 6 - My BF went from 34%!!!! to 17%.....I am currently 10#'s from getting serious about contest prep...


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)