Do You Really Need to Eat That?

Allen Lim wrote very succinctly at the beginning of his cookbook for athletes:

“First Ask This> Do You Really Need To Eat That?

If  you’ve ever run out of fuel while exercising and ‘bonked’ or ‘hit the wall,’ then you know how important eating early or often is to performance. . . However, once we take a look at the numbers I think you’ll agree that in many situations we are better served not eating anything when we’re exercising.”  (Feed Zone Portables, p. 4)

Pre and Post workout nutrition is way overstated.

As an endurance athlete who does not eat animal foods I get asked a lot:

  1. What should I eat before I work out?
  2. What should I eat while I work out?
  3. What should I eat after I work out?

The answers I used years ago came from the sports nutrition and supplement industry:

  1. a gel or half a bottle of sports drink
  2. 1-2 gels plus sports drink per hour
  3. a post workout recovery drink

Then I wised up a little and decided that such engineered food wasn’t all that nutritious. So I changed my answer:

  1. same?
  2. same!
  3. a recovery smoothie in the blender with fruit, some spinach and protein powder

A slight improvement, but I still wasn’t at racing weight, and I was going through canisters of powders and potions like they were going out of style, all while searching for this elusive “recovery” that would allow me to train myself into the ground and bounce right back.

So I wised up a little more and realized real food worked better than the engineered stuff and my answer changed again:

  1. whatever the last meal was, breakfast or lunch, ideally 2-3 hours prior
  2. maybe a sport drink, maybe some dates, maybe a rice ball/cake
  3. maybe a recovery smoothie, or some fruit and a meal an hour later

Then I wised up even more and began to question the whole process, with a new answer:

  1. the previous meal
  2. nothing
  3. the next meal, whenever that was

Everything went just fine and I learned that:

The Problem of Pre/Post and During Workout Nutrition is an ILLUSION!

You don’t need to expend any special effort to fuel up before a workout. You do not need to guzzle down 250 calories an hour during exercise, nor do you need some magic concoction after a workout.

Folks, we are a nation that is 70% overweight or obese. We do not need to look for new places and times to take in calories. Yet all the magazines drill into our heads that as soon as we start exercising, suddenly fueling becomes a tricky problem that requires diligent effort to overcome.


Most people, most of the time, who are exercising for an hour or so, do not need to eat anything. That’s right: NOTHING! If you are eating a healthy diet of adequate calories, you do not need to suddenly increase that. Your regular meals can suffice. What I see is a weird practice of people trying to limit their portions and calories at meals, then add all those calories back in the form of workout fuel  and pre/post workout snacks. Madness!  Just eat your regular meals and exercise. Your appetite will balance out whatever additional energy expenditure you engage in. Your brain is pretty smart like that, just trust it.

So why don’t people just trust their brain and eat normally?

Because some people do have to make a special effort. These are special people. We want to be like them. They are professional athletes, and they are not like the rest of us.

Professional athletes train multiple times a day for hours at a time. Their energy demands are very high. And it is crucial that they recover from the first workout of the day in time to put in a quality effort for the second (or third) workout. But that does not reflect the reality of a normal person,  with a normal schedule, who exercises for an hour or so.

An average exerciser can store 1000 calories or so of carbohydrate in their muscles. And many thousands of calories of fat. An average exerciser burns no more than 500 calories an hour for aerobic exercise. See the numbers? Until your exercise session goes well over two hours, fueling is not necessary. Post workout fueling would be important if you trained right after waking, but that’s OK, it’s called “breakfast.”

Thanks to the sports nutrition industry and our own insecurity, we think we need far more fuel than we do. For special events, like really long weekend efforts, or races at high intensity, some more fuel is needed. But regular people, on regular days, doing regular exercise, only need regular meals.

Eat, Sleep, Train, Live

Don’t Overthink It



About vegpedlr

Plant powered off-road triathlete

Posted on September 9, 2013, in Nutrition, Reflection, Training and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the post! I totally agree. I’m good with just plain water and no extra fuel for a 2 hour bike ride – any longer, which is not very often, then I’ll bring along a banana or dates or other similar extra fuel for the ride. I’m doing a bike tour on Saturday which is 44 miles, which will probably take 2 1/2 hours, but I don’t need to worry because of the food at the rest stops. I find most of my friends over fuel on these tours.

    • Thanks for stopping by!
      So many people exercise trying to lose weight and then sabotage the effort with all this “fueling” nonsense! Just eat whole natural foods and let your appetite be your guide. Have fun on your ride!

  2. BRAVO!!!!! At first your post seems scary and I wanted to jump out of my seat and object yelling, “VegPedlr You’ve Gone DAFT!!!” but then I started thinking about my best and worst experiences with food and working out and after a few laughs, reflections, and deep thought, I came to agree. Every morning lately I have been doing a 2 hour run/walk and I do this on no breakfast and I don’t hydrate along the way. I have a big ice water when I’m done and my normal breakfast. I have yet to pass out or shrivel up like a raisin. Then I recalled that bike ride you and I did many years ago where we were served lunch in the middle of it and after I scarfed down a sandwich I tried to ride one of the climbs and I found myself feeling the sandwich like a rock in my stomach and burping onions too! YUCK!!! It was at least 15 miles before I felt somewhat OK again. However, there was one century ride where I had no breakfast and launched into it figuring a rest stop would have some fruit or something, only it was the worst ride ever and the rest stops had barely any food and only water. By the last 7 miles I found myself sideways on the side of the road with no energy to even figure out how I would make it to the end. I just sat there….and sat there…..and sat there. Finally, I got the finish. When I thought back on it I had only a small bean burrito 12 hours before the ride and nearly nothing during the event. I have to say that I think a gel or something would have helped that time. So there must be a formula we all have that works. Perhaps a late dinner the night before would have been fine to sustain me as it does now. Who knows….I can say that having a feast or carbo-load rumbling around during a run or ride is no fun!

    • There are times when fueling is needed. But for most people, most of the time, exercise “fueling” is counter productive. But as you noted, it’s always good to be prepared!

  3. The Feed Zone Book Rocks and is one of my favorites!

  4. fedbyfields, I bonked as well during the last few miles of a 60 mile ride early this summer due to not fueling. I had a light dinner the night before the ride, plus a small bowl of oatmeal, berries, flax seed and oats for breakfast. I brought along just regular water and some dates. I was used to doing 1 1/2-2 hour rides (27-36 miles) with no fuel and just water. Around the 35 mile mark I ate a few dates, but I really wasn’t hungry. Well, a few miles before the end of the ride, I really lost my energy! I had been pulling for most of the ride, but then drafted toward the end, and then in the last couple of miles when we came to another hill, I fell behind the gang. It was a fun ride though, but I should have either had a larger dinner the night before, larger breakfast, or started eating the dates a bit sooner. I listen to the advice of Jeff Novick and am trying to limit the longer rides, although I honestly prefer the shorter 1 1/2-2 hour rides anyway. I get a good work out, fresh air, lots of endorphins flowing through the blood stream and there’s still time to do other things instead of spending all day riding!

    • For people who exercise regularly, the two hour mark seems to be where the tank becomes empty. Problem is, if you wait that long to start fueling, you’ll fall in a hole. So there is a time to plan ahead.

  5. I just wanted to clarify what I wrote above about Jeff Novick’s advice. I didn’t mean to imply that he frowns upon endurance activities, but he does point out that in terms of longevity/calorie restriction, the studies show that moderate exercise, along with a healthy, nutritionally adequate calorie restricted diet, trumps endurance exercise coupled with additional calories (albeit from healthy sources) to sustain a healthy/low BMI as pertains to a longer, healthier life. Even my 1 1/2-2 hour rides are probably more than is necessary for health and longevity, but I really enjoy these rides and the riding season isn’t that long where I live, so I do them anyway! Ha ha ha!

    • I love long rides too and have no intention of slowing down to Jeff’s recommendations either. I believe that intensity is just as important, one of the reasons I use the Maffetone method and my heart rate monitor.

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