The answer, like with many things, is it depends.
In general, you need energy to exercise and to recover, so yes you need to eat beforehand and afterwards. With that in mind, it’s also warranted to use other strategies with eating and exercise, depending on what your goals are. The following are some scenarios to think about, as well as some recommendations:
With a weight loss goal, some fasting is a good thing. The key with weight loss is to get the body to start using fat as an energy source, without becoming too catabolic. Catabolic means in practical terms the use of muscle proteins as an energy source and that your metabolism is slowing down. When you are in a weight loss phase, you are going to use “some” muscle protein as an energy source, but it doesn’t have to be a significant amount if you do things right. When losing weight, you will always lose some muscle, but you can maintain most of your lean muscle tissue if you do weight training exercises and don’t restrict calories too much.
Recommendation: Fast 2-12 hours before your workout and 1-2 hours afterwards to promote the use of stored fat as an energy source both during exercise and for recovery. Exercise at moderate intensity with some power (1-10 seconds) and anaerobic (30-90 seconds) interval training.
Sample: Eat Dinner at 6pm. Sleep from 10pm until 6am. Train from 7-7:45 with water beforehand but no food before. Light breakfast at 9 or 10.
When you’re trying to gain strength, calories and available energy to train hard and nutrients for recovery are the key. You need protein to build muscle and you need carbs for energy if you want to get stronger.
Recommendation: Preferably eat a good meal 2-3 hours before your workout, and then a light snack 20-30 minutes before. If you’re training in the morning, eat a light breakfast 30 minutes before. If you can sip on a simple carb / amino acid drink with Leucine during your workout, even better. 30 minutes after your workout, eat a good meal with a healthy balance of carbs- protein – fat to recover.
Sample: Eat Dinner at 6 pm. Snack at 9pm. Light Breakfast at 7. Train from 7:30-7:45. Larger breakfast at 8.
Athletic Performance or Improving Fitness
In Dr. Dan Bernadot’s book “Nutrition for Serious Athletes”, he makes the point that the number one mistake that athletes make is not eating enough. Dr. Benardot was on my Master’s Thesis committee so I learned a lot from him about metabolism. You must eat to train hard, and athletes train long and hard. So, as an athlete, you need that energy you get from food. The key is to make wise choices and to eat at the right time.
Recommendation: Use a similar approach as the one for strength training, with more of an emphasis on quality carbohydrates. Just don’t go to an extreme. The legendary swimmer Michael Phelps was known for his outrageous eating and training habits with hours and hours of training and multiple gorging sessions of per day on unhealthy fatty foods. This is not healthy in the long-term. Even if you are training 2 hours per day, it doesn’t mean you can eat like a pig and have it not affect your health.
You need to eat more, but more of quality foods!
Sample: Eat Dinner at 6 pm. Snack at 9pm. Light Breakfast at 7. Train from 7:30-7:45. Larger breakfast at 8. Snacks every 2 hours and larger meals. 8-12 glasses of water per day.
Aging, Immunity, & Health
Some research indicates the benefits of fasting and training on an empty stomach. Stick to doing this once or twice per week instead of trying to do it every time your exercise. It’s not easy, but it may boost internal stem cell production, raise your growth hormone and testosterone, and lower your insulin, while raising your insulin sensitivity. This has serious health implications for all sorts of diseases.
Sample: Eat Dinner at 6 pm. Train from 7:30-7:45. Wait to eat breakfast at 9. Regular schedule after that.
When you’re in maintenance mode, you are happy where you are, and you just want to maintain it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve weighed around 180 pounds for years and I plan on staying there.
Recommendation: To maintain your current fitness level, eat 3-4 hours before you exercise. Then fast until time to train, and on most days exercise for 45 minutes or so. Then wait 30 minutes and eat afterwards. This is the program I use, and I mix in 1-2 days per week of fasting. It seems to work well for me and I feel good when I follow it.
Sample: Mix all the above strategies.
How you eat and train depends on what your goal is. To lose weight, you must make and train your body to burn fat as energy, which is difficult but possible.
The good news is that once you get to where you want to be, it’s relatively easy to maintain!
Read Next: NEAT
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