Workout Nutrition: Timing Meals

If you read the first article in this three part nutrition series, then this article may seem in direct contradiction to my advice in the Pre-Workout Nutrition article, but I promise it all ties together. A common mistake many people make when it comes to properly fueling a workout is eating too much food too close to the workout. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of timing your meals.

If you’ve already eaten adequately throughout the day, you’re more likely to have a less effective workout by eating than by not eating. Ideally, an easily digested meal centered around carbs and lean protein about three hours before your workout is your safest bet. Oatmeal and milk, fruit and yogurt, or a turkey sandwich are all great options. If you are headed to the gym directly after work or over the lunch hour, it’s easy to get distracted and lose track of time. Packing what you’ll need the night before or setting a reminder to eat your pre-workout meal as close to on-time as you can may be helpful.




It’s important to be conservative about fueling closer to your workout, especially if you miss your meal time window. You may need to go lighter in fiber and protein as the window between eating and your workout decreases, including sticking to simple carbs if you’re forced to fuel within the hour before your workout. You’ll also likely find that your tolerance for eating near your workouts increases over time as you experiment and become more comfortable in your training program.

Stay tuned until next week when I’ll cover the final part of workout nutrition: what to eat after your workout.

About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more on the Meet Our Writers page.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

As you establish your training plan, it’s important to support your activity through sound pre-workout nutrition. The most common struggles related to sports nutrition includes not eating enough, eating the wrong foods at the wrong times, or skipping workout nutrition entirely. Let’s take a closer look at how skipping a pre-workout meal can set you back before you even begin.

It’s no secret that your body needs fuel. By skipping a meal before you workout, you are more likely to hit the wall during your workout, reducing the effectiveness, quality and overall calorie burn of your workout. You will also increase the likelihood of breaking down muscle in order to fuel your activity.

So what is the best way to keep this from happening? Keep in mind the nutritional adage, “fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.” This refers to glycolosis, which is how our bodies create fuel for our exercise. We require some carbohydrate within our muscles to access our fat stores. If it’s hard to time a meal right before your workout, your best bet is to provide your body with some simple, easily digestible carbs shortly before your workout. This might include fruit or fruit juice, a breakfast bar, or toast. You’ll make up the calories by improving your workout and will help your body to access the fat stores you’re trying to reduce.




Meeting your training goals takes more than just completing the workouts, you need to support your training efforts by eating the right foods at the right time. These efforts will result in stronger training sessions and helping you to get stronger and fitter faster. Eat smart and have a great workout!

About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more on the Meet Our Writers page.

Ask an expert: Workout nutrition

It never fails, halfway through my workout I end up lacking energy. I know I should have protein immediately following my workouts, but do you have any advice on what I should be doing and eating before my workouts to sustain my energy?  –Alec

Your awareness during your workouts is a great first step in making changes to resolve the situation. There are a variety of variables that can have that effect on your workout energy including not getting enough quality sleep, pushing too hard in a workout and not having enough recovery in your workout routine.That said, nutrition plays a vital role in maintain energy during and after your workouts.  A good first step is to keep track of what you eat for a week to gain a sense of the overall quantity and quality of foods you’re eating.

You can eat plenty of calories, but if your menu consists of too much processed, synthetic foods, it can leave you feeling drained and lacking energy. The more ingredients that are hard to pronounce on the food, the harder the body has to work to digest it and the more it lacks the vital nutrients it needs to live an energetic life.

Keeping a fuel log, whether online or on paper will help you get a better understanding of what you’re putting in your body. Focus on making small changes by switching out a few things at a time rather than revamping your diet all at once. For example, if you eat chips with your sandwich at lunch, add cut veggies like carrots or celery instead. Or add a piece of fruit to your breakfast and veggies to your dinner. The more you lean into a clean diet, the better you’ll feel. Simply put, garbage in = garbage out.

Total caloric consumption is also important as many fall prey to eating too few calories, which results in energy drain. A prolonged low caloric diet also puts the body in survival mode and shifts the metabolism thinking it needs to conserve fat.  Rather than focusing on counting calories, it’s better to invest in eating whole, clean foods throughout the day. For instance, eggs, blueberries and toast for breakfast, a salad with chicken for lunch and fish, veggies and brown rice for dinner. It’s a little like putting clean gas in your car. Your body will run better, feel better and move better.

Finally, we are all an experiment of one. Some perform best on a meal two hours before the workout. Some do better on a light meal an hour before the workout. And others still perform best with no meal before, or a glass of fresh juice. It’s best to experiment and log what works best for you.

If you are going to eat a meal, give yourself 1.5-2 hours to digest it before you workout and focus on consuming high quality carbohydrates, and lower in fat and protein. This allows the food to digest more readily and avoid having stomach issues due to having undigested food in your stomach. (Example: oatmeal with berries and nuts.)

If you’re going to eat a light meal, allow an hour before your workout and go for foods that have a higher concentration of water and carbohydrates. (Example: banana and teaspoon of almond butter.)

Also try working out on an empty stomach if your workout is in the morning. You may find that you have the most energy with nothing in your stomach first thing in the morning. Again, everyone is different and the best way to find out what works best for you is to experiment with timing, size of meal and the variety of foods.

Happy Trails.
Coach Jenny Hadfield

Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.