How Long Should You Wait to Exercise After Eating?

Maybe you grew up hearing not to swim for 2 hours after eating and now you’re wondering when can I exercise after eating??

Is there a set time frame?

Was that 2 hour rule ever accurate? (hint, no)

Most importantly, I want to make sure you don’t use it as an excuse to continue doing Fasted Cardio. Ladies, we know that empty stomach long or intense exercise wrecks our hormones and is detrimental to performance.

So it’s time to start planning ahead and thinking through the timing of your meals and snacks to better enjoy your workouts.

How Long Should You Wait To Exercise After Eating?

It depends.

Which is basically the answer for most fitness related questions.

But let’s break that down a little bit more to help you decide when to go and when to slow your roll.

The biggest reason for WAITING to exercise is that once we start going the blood is diverted from our small intestine to our working muscles. Without thinking through the timing we could end up with runner’s diarrhea or nausea after running.

Neither of which are terribly pleasant.

There are four factors that determine how long you should wait after eating to exercise, let’s dive in to them.

1. Size of the Meal

Yup, the size and type of meal are going to be a major factor.

  • high fiber and/or high fat meals often need more time to digest and thus 1-2 hours from eating to exercise
  • a large meal of protein sitting in your belly as you start jumping around is absolutely going to lead to issues and again look for a 2 hour window
  • yogurt and other dairy products are often recommended, but big trigger foods for many people to have stomach upset
  • low fiber meals are perfect snacks when you need quick fuel to get started right away – think crackers, toast
  • 100-200 calorie snacks (a banana or bagel with 1 tbsp nut butter) are usually fine within 30 minutes of running

Checkout the best pre-workout snack ideas >>

What happens if you exercise immediately after eating?

Usually not much besides some uncomfortable sensations that could include hanging your head over a trash can if it was a big enough meal and the workout was hard.

In swimming, the hour window was thinking about this idea of muscle cramps.

If blood was still working on digestion, then your muscles would be  more likely to cramp and well…you drown in that scenario.

This doesn’t seem actually be an issue for anyone playing in the pool or ocean, as we noted the body wants to push the blood in to your muscles because they are asking for the  most attention.

There is very little to say that exercising right after eating is going to cause muscle cramps, though it could cause a side stitch while running.

2. Time of Day and Gut Health

The timing of your meals could play a big role in how much you can consume.

  • Breakfast you might sneak in a carbohydrate filled bowl of oatmeal easily because your stomach isn’t full or currently digesting previous foods.
  • Due to stress and maybe less than stellar food choices during the day, digestion may be more sluggish by evening. Thus more issues with eating certain foods prior to your sweat session.
  • Speed eating! How many rush through lunch or you rush through a meal trying to get in that workout…that too will lead to more stomach issues while working out.

One thing that helps many is to improve overall gut health by taking a high quality probiotic >>

A general guideline is to avoid an overly full stomach, but honor your hunger.

For morning workouts, it’s often easy to grab a bowl of cereal before the workout and then focus on a slightly larger balanced meal of protein, carbs and fat for recovery after the workout.

For lunch time workouts, think about simple carbs before the run and then again eating lunch with protein after.

For evening workouts, consider a small meal that’s going to cut the hunger and ensure you don’t end up dizzy on the run! This is a common issue for my husband. But even grabbing a granola bar before the run helped him tremendously.

how long to wait after eating to exercise

Is it Better to Exercise Before or After Eating?

A good rule of thumb is if it’s been 3-4 hours since you last ate and then workout will be intense or last more than 45 minutes, you should absolutely eat.

Even if it’s half a small sandwich or a smoothie, that nutrition is going to help ensure your muscles have enough energy to perform the workout and get the most benefit from the workout.

We also know that the lack of fuel can SLOW DOWN YOUR RECOVERY TIME. That’s right, it will breakdown more muscle and thus you may feel like your next workout is harder, you might have to cut the next one short or you may simply be starting to lose muscle because the body gets inflamed.

So at minimum, go in to your workouts with a snack.

3. Intensity of the Workout

Now we’re getting in to the real meat of the situation. (I cannot pass up a good pun.)

How hard is the workout you’re about to do? And how new or experienced are you with the workout?

  • Long time runners are often able to eat more or sooner before easy runs because they’ve adapted
  • Anyone doing HIIT or hard intervals is going to find their stomach working overtime with the wrong meal
  • Weight lifters might find they are less prone to stomach issues because of the lack of bouncing and jostling

If you’ve been in a consistent exercise routine for years, then your body may be more adapted. BUT these high intensity style moves simply cause the entire digestive system to move a lot more, which does lead to reflux or vomiting at the gym…which I prefer to avoid.

4. Previous Experiences

The final factor might simply be the most important which is your experience of what happens when you workout after eating.

Try keeping a food log or making notes around your workouts to see what has side effects.

  • How much did you eat?
  • How long before the workout?
  • What kinds of foods did you eat? Spicy? Fried? Fatty? Lots of veggies?

If you have kept a log and cannot find a culprit, it just feels like everything is making you feel unwell then it’s time to work with a Registered Dietitian. Especially sports dietitians, have helped so many people work through these same things and to come out the other side feeling stronger and happier with their workouts.

All right now you have some ideas on timing, next up some ideas on what to eat!

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How Long Should You Wait to Exercise After Eating? is written by amanda for

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