Sometimes you feel like you need an energy boost to start your walk, while other times a long walk leaves you reaching for a snack. Should you eat before or after a walking workout? Do you need to eat at all when you walk?
For most people in most circumstances, you probably don’t need to eat a specific pre-workout or post-workout meal. It’s actually very easy to eat back more calories than you actually burn during your walk, which can undermine walkers with weight loss as a goal. Still, the right pre or post-walk meal or snack can give you energy and help tide you over to reduce the risk that you’ll overeat in the future.
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Do you need to eat before a walk?
Eating before your walk can sometimes give you the boost you need to get more steps, but what you eat and how much you eat is important.
Why you probably don’t need to eat before you walk
Walking is a low-impact, moderate to low intensity exercise. You’re generally not competing against anyone (except for yourself) when you walk for fitness. Even if you’re going for 10,000 steps per day, you don’t necessarily need to be at absolute peak efficiency during your fitness walks. In most cases, you can easily stop during your walk and get some kind of snack if you really need to.
Compare this with someone playing basketball or distance running. Basketball can be a very high-intensity exercise and you’ll want to compete at the highest efficiency possible. You’ll be burning a lot of calories, but you also can’t easily stop for a snack in the middle of a game. Eating mid-game is likely to be hard on your stomach as well.
Keep in mind that for most people, an hour of walking burns between 200-350 calories. An energy bar could be 200+ calories by itself, and a “healthy” smoothie could be double that many calories. That doesn’t mean that you can’t grab a bite before walking, but reflexively eating before every walk can undermine a weight loss goal. In many cases, drinking a glass of water and just getting out there is enough.
When might you want to eat first?
If you’re going on an especially long walk, doing a defined walking workout or some intense interval walking you may want to eat something beforehand for a bit of energy. When walking somewhere that you can’t get a bite to eat (like on a hike or a walk through a residential area), it often pays to eat beforehand.
Eating something dry can leave you thirsty, and you may not want to carry too much water with you (though staying hydrated is still important). Eating before your walk gives you time to hydrate, digest a bit and then get out there.
Keep it light
A heavy meal or large snack will be counterproductive and weigh you down during your walk. While your body is digesting your meal, you’ll have less energy for a walk or any other athletic activity.
Pre-workout snacks should be light and easily digestible. The larger the meal or snack, the longer before your walk you should eat it. If you’re about to head out the door, reaching for something like a banana would be a good choice. At that point, you’re basically eating a mid-walking snack and should choose something that you’d eat during your walk. If you’re eating your snack 30-60 minutes before the walk, you can eat a bit more. Keep in mind that walking is relatively low impact, so you don’t need a heavy meal to fuel your body.
Should you eat during a walk?
Most people don’t need to eat (or drink) extra calories during a walk. Usually plain water will be enough to keep you hydrated. Walking is also not so intense that you will need extra calories to replenish calories that you burn.
If you’re feeling low energy, or you’re going on a particularly long walk, it may be a good idea to take a snack with you just in case you need it. Taking a healthy, light snack along with you allows you to a break and energize yourself without having to resort to whatever unhealthy fast food happens to be around.
Choose something light, digestible and easy to carry
If you do decide to take a snack with you, make sure it’s light, easy to digest and small enough that it’s easy to carry. Mid-walk snacks are typically quickly digestible carbs (like a banana or some kind of energy drink). Eating something heavy (like a fruit and yogurt smoothie) will weight you down and interfere with your walk. Even common mid-workout snacks like energy drinks can be fairly high-calorie.
A 120-calorie energy drink might take a half-hour of walking for you to burn off when you’d be just as hydrated with water instead.
Should you eat after a workout?
You have a lot more options for what to eat after a walk since you don’t have to worry about your meal being light and easy to digest during exercise. That doesn’t mean that you should automatically reach for a slice of cheesecake though!
There’s an old myth that you need to eat within 30-60 minutes after exercise or you’ll miss the “recovery window.” It turns out that for almost everyone, this isn’t the case. It’s different if you’re doing extremely intense exercise, or if you’re a bodybuilder trying to maximize any potential gain. For a 30-minute leisurely walk, you’ll probably be fine with a glass of water!
Remember why you just walked
Almost all walkers walk partially because they want to get healthier or stay fit – even if it’s not their main goal. Eating more calories after your walk than you burned during your walk goes against both of those goals. When you consider post workout meals, remember that many “healthy” alternatives are either packed with calories or have misleading serving sizes.
It often pays to drink some water first after a walk because you may think you’re hungry when you’re actually just thirsty. The water can help you feel more full so that you eat less and have fewer cravings even If you do eat something.
If you’re planning on eating a meal after walking, you’re usually fine eating whatever you’d normally eat even without a walk (hopefully it’s healthy)! Exercise can make you feel hungrier, and you may feel that you’re earned the right to a treat because of a particularly long walk. This can sometimes lead to overeating at meals, which can defeat the purpose of a walking workout.
If you know you’re often hungry after a walk, try to plan out your meals before you leave so that you’re not relying on willpower when you’re tired and hungry.
Walking is a great form of cardio that almost anyone can do, but it’s not so intense that you need to eat before, during and after a walk. A quick snack can help give you energy before and during a walk, and a light meal or post-workout snack can help with recovery and stop you from reaching for a high-calorie option instead.
You’ll need to find what works best for you as everybody’s body is different. It’s also fine to reward yourself from time to time or eat something for energy before a walk. Do this every day, however, and you could be undermining your walking goals.
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