If we are talking about survival, getting enough calories whenever you can is key. As long as the food isn’t poison, you have to eat what you can, whenever.
If we are talking about our comparably cushy lives where we are concerned about performing great in sports and optimizing our health, when you eat is rather important.
Eating all of your food in the morning but only training at night is far from optimal.
Going all day on 1000 calories “because I’m just not hungry” is a quick way to not be at your best.
Life is already annoying when you’re “h-angry”. Why train that way?
So, when should you eat? Well let’s keep it in perspective of training & exercise. The goal is taking advantage of your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. There are photos for before, during, and after training/competition below.
You should have a meal of 400-800 calories, depending on your needs. 2-4 hours gives your body enough time to digest the food. Nutrient dense, starchy carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables. This is a great time to include some healthy fats!
Within 1-2 Hours
A small meal or large snack. To the tune of 200-400 calories. A sandwich, oatmeal, granola bars, fruit, yogurt, etc. Or a smaller version of what you’d have for dinner. Something that digests quickly but is still filled with complex carbohydrates. A big smoothie is a great choice!
If you have a large meal prior, this isn’t always needed though.
Simple sugars such as fruit, sports drinks, granola bars, even “sweets” at times if you absolutely have to. These digest fast. 50-150 calories is plenty. Once you start moving, the blood leaves your stomach and intestines to help you move. If you have a tummy full of food, there’s a decent chance it ends up on the ground, or at least your stomach will hurt.
This is recommended no matter if you ate a lot earlier.
If you are doing 1-1.5 hours of training or competition, you probably don’t need to consume any more calories unless it’s very intense and you haven’t eaten enough prior. If you are training hard for 2 hours or longer, the calories from a sports drink or some fruit or granola bar are useful to keep you energized.
Eat as soon as possible after you are finished. Many athletes say they can’t eat soon after training. Again, a smoothie is a great way to get nutrients in until your appetite picks up. High quality protein and complex carbs (starches) is what your body craves.
The first 4 hours after training is when your body has an increased window to absorb nutrients.
*Fun fact, your body doesn’t absorb all the nutrients you eat. Exercise increases its ability to absorb nutrients. Cooking your food increases it. Overcooking it decreases the ability. Certain veggies don’t absorb as well when raw. Eating uncooked rice is unlikely to help you out.
Waiting too long decreases the absorption of protein, carbs, micro nutrients, etc. Within 30-60 minutes of finishing exercise is when this window is the highest.
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Listen to my 2 part series on sport nutrition on my podcast, Training Well Done, available on all streaming platforms!