A friend called the other day with a seemingly simple question: When’s the best time to eat if you’re going to exercise? Before? Or after?
And I supplied the simple answer: It depends.
Some people react differently depending on their condition. And the type of activity can make a difference.
Walking, for instance, is so mild you can do it any time; indeed, a leisurely walk after a meal aids digestion. In general, however, it’s probably better to eat after you exercise.
This sage advice is the fruit of long and often painful experience. Among exercisers, runners are probably most vulnerable and sensitive to gastrointestinal distress because of the bouncing, jouncing nature of their peculiar pursuit. Eat too much or too close to the beginning of a run and you’ll likely pay the price: piercing stitches, gas pains and cramps, which can sometimes be so crippling they force you to halt, or take an urgent ride on the porcelain Honda.
Once, while running the Boston Marathon, my breakfast turned into a volcanic brew, which erupted after only a few miles of trotting.
Similarly, when I’ve tried lifting weights in the evening too soon after dinner, I’ve felt sluggish and weak.
Eating too little or two far in advance of exercise can be equally debilitating. When I wrestled in high school, this was a constant problem because, to make weight, I basically had to starve myself until the match. Between weigh-in and walking onto the mat, there wasn’t enough time to replenish my energy fully and revitalize my malnourished body. Consequently, most of the time I was wrestling on fumes.
Thanks to such foolishness, I have, over time, begun to learn how my body responds to food and what it needs to function most efficiently. Accordingly, my guiding principle with regard to grub and grunting is what I call the 1-2-3 Rule. To be No. 1 (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), eat something substantial and energizing no less than two hours but no more than three hours before revving up your body for hard-core exertion.
This jibes with the wisdom of a pro, specifically Rick Howard, who’s a physical trainer, president of Allied Sports Medicine Professionals Inc., and chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Rick’s fundamental principle is radical and startling, given our obsession with dieting: “Eating,” he declares, “is a good thing.”
In general, my approach to eating and exercise is right on the money, Rick said, though he suggested a few refinements to reflect the latest thinking and scientific evidence.
“You’re supposed to eat before you exercise, after you exercise, and sometimes, depending on how long the event is, also during,” Rick said.
Actually, you shouldn’t be eating during exercise, says Rick, but drinking - water or a high-energy drink to prevent dehydration. The reason? When you’re engaged in vigorous physical activity, your body can’t digest and absorb solid food.
It’s that old tug-of-war between the stomach and the muscles. The muscles may put up a good fight, but ultimately the stomach wins. Vanquished, the muscles sometimes respond by cramping, seizing up just like an engine without oil. “When I was a lifeguard (in Ocean Beach, N.J.),” says Rick, “I had to save lots of people who went swimming right after eating and didn’t realize how turbulent the waves were and the extra energy they’d have to expend to keep themselves afloat.”
There’s nothing wrong with my 1-2-3 Rule, Rick said, but it shouldn’t be hard and fast. In fact, the latest research shows that if you can boost the sugar or glucose in your blood 30 to 50 minutes before you exercise, you’ll enhance your performance. In other words, a pick-me-up swig of one of those glucose polymer sports drinks a half-hour before you hit the iron or the road may loft you into that giddy zone where your body purrs at optimal RPMs and you feel like you’re invincible, immortal and The Force is with you.
The best exercise food is carbohydrates, of course, because the energy they provide is most accessible. Simple carbs, like sugar and honey, are like tinder or kindling; they burn up in a flash, offering an energy jolt that’s intense and short. For the long haul, complex carbs, which are derived from such foods as beans, grains and cereals, are superior, because they burn more slowly, like seasoned logs, supplying energy that’s more modulated and sustaining.
What about a tasty Snickers bar or a Reese’s peanut butter cup just before communing with the weight bench or putting in some roadwork?
Bad move, Rick said. “That’s counterproductive for two reasons. It has high levels of fat, so it takes longer to get through your system and harness the energy than carbohydrates. Also, it gives you a big initial sugar boost. This triggers a flood of insulin, which can drive your blood sugar lower than where it was to begin with.” Net effect: Sooner than you want, you feel listless and lethargic.
Protein is essential, too, but it’s not an energy food. It’s a rebuilding food. Therefore, you should slice into that thick, juicy sirloin after you exercise, not before. That way the protein can zip to all your body’s construction sites, repairing the microscopic damage done to your muscles as you stressed them by manhandling barbells or running windsprints up the slopes.
This sidebar ran with story: DON KARDONG’S TIPS When to eat: If your system can handle it, it’s best to eat a few hours before you exercise. A light meal 3-4 hours before running will give you the energy you need without upsetting your stomach. Food effects: Different foods have different effects on different people, so if you find yourself suffering from heartburn during a run, think back to what you ate and when, and adjust your eating next time around. Diet and exercise: Don’t diet when you’re beginning an exercise program. Eat regular, balanced meals with a minimum of fat. Add fruits, vegetables, pasta and other carbohydrates to your diet. Give your body the nutrients it needs to enjoy exercise. Fluids: Make sure you take plenty of fluids every day during warm weather. Drink before, after and during your run if you can. Never wait until you’re thirsty to begin drinking. Quench your thirst before it gets started.