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The Biggest Mistakes With Fueling for an Evening Workout

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
July 14, 2023
December 14, 2023

There’s a lot to be said for the consistency you build around working out in the morning. Aside from the initial discomfort of getting out of bed, it really doesn’t disrupt your daily flow much: You simply wake up, have a quick snack (or coffee), hit the training session and resume your normal daily activities. Of course, not everyone is a morning person and not all activities (like group classes) are available at sunrise. Evening workouts provide the same benefit as a morning workout routine, but evening workouts can throw off many daily patterns, especially for eating, and especially in the evening. Going straight from the office to the gym can push dinner time from 6pm to 8 or even 9 pm. Watch the video below, or keep reading.

Evening workouts presents four possible issues:

  • Going too long without food
  • Being so hungry by the time you eat that you overeat
  • Gastric distress
  • Eating a large meal too close to bedtime

If you don't eat the right things at the right times, it can affect energy levels during and after a workout, make blood sugars erratic, and also hinder your recovery time.

Going too long without Food

When you go typically beyond 4 hours without eating it causes blood glucose to drop. If it drops too low, you begin to feel side-effects of hunger: crankiness, nausea, headache, shakiness and others. If you add physical activity and glucose-lowering medications to that mix, the low blood sugars may be magnified.If your lunch break is at noon and you go to a workout session at 5pm without eating anything in between, you’ve gone too long. Having low blood glucose (Diabetic or otherwise)  in a workout can jeopardize the quality of your performance.  The problem will only worsen if you are on insulin or other glucose-lowering medications. Waiting until you get home to eat can the benefits you could get from the exercise, make recovery tougher, and can cause you to overeat after your workout. Prevent this by packing a small, nutritious snack to consume in the afternoon. This will help provide energy for your training session and reduce excess hunger prior to and during dinner.

Getting so hungry that you overeat

This is typical when you go too long without food (see the point above). When your body is too hungry from going too long without energy and nutrients, it makes up for that by sending signals to your brain to tell you to eat everything in sight when you get the chance. As a result, even after a hard workout, you are likely consuming much more than your body needs. Avoid this by having a pre-workout snack or being prepared with an immediate post-workout recovery snack, like a fruit, veggie and protein smoothie, a greek yogurt with fruit and nuts, granola bar with a glass of milk, or a rice cake with peanut butter and a fruit.

Gastric distress

A common issue among those who work out late in the day is digestive discomfort. Ranging from acid reflux to nausea and stomach cramping, gastric distress can make your workout goals much tougher to reach when you eat food at breakfast and lunch that do not support a good gastric environment. A veggie-loaded lunch is perfect on a normal basis, but if you plan to go running a few hours later, you'll need something more energy dense and less fibrous. This fiber load from a vegetable-rich meal slows nutrients (and energy) from being readily available for your workout which can limit how well you perform. Foods consumed leading up to the workout should be easy to digest and provide enough carbohydrates for good performance. After the workout, meals can return to a focus on fiber-rich complex carbs, vegetables and protein.

Eating too late at night

Congratulations, you fit in a great workout tonight! You're already doing better than most! However, now it’s 8 pm and you still need to prepare a meal and eat. Which brings us to the fourth common issue: eating too late at night. With bedtime only a couple hours away, now isn’t the time to eat a large meal. A large meal so close to bedtime can not only disrupt sleep, but give you extra energy when you are sleeping and your body can't use it. This doesn’t mean you should skip dinner, of course, but the meal should be a smaller portion — and preparing it in advance helps reduce additional delay.  Calories should be put into the earlier part of the day when the energy can be more efficiently used to fuel activity.

How to eat for success:

If the workout is earlier, say 5-5:30pm, aim for a lunch around 12 that is lighter, less fiber from whole grains and a little starchier instead. Have an afternoon snack around 3:30-4pm of a fruit and 4-6 crackers. This type of snack - with both simple and complex carbohydrate - will fill you up without dragging you down and give you a much needed energy boost for your workout. After the workout, aim for dinner around 7-8pm, mostly vegetable, around 1.5-2 cups, a little lean protein 3-5oz depending on your size and workout type, and some high fiber whole grains to refuel your energy.

For longer evening workouts, say a 2 hour bike ride:

  • Make sure to get a well-balanced lunch with a little more carbohydrate, a little less veggies than the basic portioned plate guide: a burrito bowl without the beans, poke bowl, Korean bibimbap with brown rice, or another grain bowl option
  • During the workout: You need a little extra energy to fuel your muscles: Take 2-3 carbohydrate-based sport gels to have during the activity
  • Make a dinner that you can pack and take with you, so you can eat some or all of it immediately post workout and on your drive home.
  • Have a higher vitamin, mineral and protein dinner: Smoothie with fruit, greens, and protein powder, and chicken and cheese sandwich on whole grain bread, veggie sticks and 1/2 cup hummus

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