Eating on Exercise Days vs. Rest Days

While regular exercise is vital for overall good health especially as you age, rest days are equally important. These exercise-free or active rest days help your body recover from the hard work you have done the rest of the week and give your body a chance to repair muscle fibers and other minor injuries that you may have sustained.

However, because you are certainly not burning as many calories and expending as much physical energy on rest days as you are on exercise days, your diet will also likely change to reflect your exercise level. You will need to consider adjusting your calorie intake as well as the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats that you are taking in each day to maintain a good diet whether you are looking to lose fat, maintain a healthy weight or develop long, lean muscles. Planning your meals each day does not have to be a guessing game when you remember the following tips.

Eating Tips for Exercise Days

Your eating habits should reflect your dedication to good health just as much as your exercise habits do. In fact, they can actually boost your exercise routine and overall health and wellness. However, how you eat on your exercise days will most likely be much different from how you eat on rest days.

You will need a different combination of proteins, carbohydrates and fats depending on the type of activity you are enjoying. For example, light exercises, such as light cardio workouts, may not require specific rest days. However, running, intense aerobic exercises and lifting weights will certainly require rest days that incorporate a different nutritional focus.

Whatever you choose to eat prior to exercise, make sure that you are not filling up your stomach completely immediately before engaging in a vigorous activity. If you are eating a full breakfast, you will want to finish it at least one hour before your workout. If you only plan to eat lightly, you can consume some light proteins and carbohydrates first. Eventually, your body will start letting you know what works best for it.

Focus on Proteins Before and After Exercise

Protein is incredibly important after exercise because it rebuilds muscle cells. Current recommendations state that you should consume approximately 0.3 to 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 0.1 to 0.3 grams per pound) as soon as possible after a workout and certainly within the first two hours post-exercise.

However, protein can also be helpful prior to a workout as long as you do not consume it in high quantities. It takes your body longer to digest protein than it does carbohydrates, and you might find yourself with an upset stomach if you have too much protein in your digestive tract before a vigorous activity. The good news is that protein can give you a bit of long-term energy, which is particularly important if you are planning a longer workout. Once your body burns through the carbohydrates you have consumed, it can start in on the protein.

Consume Carbohydrates Before Endurance and Aerobic Exercise

Carbohydrates are the easiest energy sources for your body. Your digestive tract can burn through them quickly, getting energy in the form of glucose to your cells and helping them power up for what is ahead. Endurance sports, such as running and swimming, will require you to consume more carbohydrates on active days than you would need if you mainly performed anaerobic activities.

Before you exercise, consume some healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits or vegetables. This should be done no more than two hours before you plan to work out. If you want to exercise in the next few minutes, at least power up with some fruit, such as a banana, first.

After completing your workout, you will once again need to replenish your body with energy-rich, healthy carbohydrates. In general, you should try to eat or drink 1.1 to 1.5 grams/kilogram (about 0.5 to 0.7 grams per pound) of carbohydrates based on your body weight to help your body recreate new supplies of glycogen, which is needed for energy storage. Ideally, eat carbohydrates and proteins together for the best results. For most high-powered activities, you will need to consume carbohydrates and proteins in a 3:1 ratio.

Consider Carbohydrates After Anaerobic Exercise

Just because you do not need as much quick energy for anaerobic exercises as you do for aerobic and endurance exercises does not mean that a low-carb diet is the right choice for you on strengthening workout days. In fact, carbohydrates are the only form of energy that can be used during anaerobic exercises because this type of workout requires quick energy in high amounts. It is important to replenish these glycogen stores following the workout. Therefore, focus on muscle repair with protein and energy-boosting with carbohydrates.

Remember to Replenish Your Micronutrients

While your biggest focus is most likely on your macronutrients, do not forget about the tinier but no less important vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function well during exercise. B vitamins will give you more energy, vitamin D can improve your power and vitamin C may help by improving respiratory capacity and health. You will also want to consume potassium to decrease muscle cramps post-workout, zinc to improve your endurance and sodium to replace this important nutrient that is lost frequently in sweat.

Eating Tips for Rest Days

On a rest day, you will most likely naturally feel a little less hungry as your body is not burning through calories as quickly. In general, you can listen to your body as to how much you need to eat. However, you should still focus on getting in all of your macronutrients in proper proportions. This is what will continue giving you the energy you need while also giving your body the building blocks it requires to rebuild and replenish cells.

Consume Protein at Every Meal

Most importantly, you should consume protein at every meal. This will help reduce your appetite and overall food cravings, increase strength even when you are not working out and aid in healthy weight loss or maintenance. Try to focus on getting protein mainly from healthy, whole foods, such as lean meats, Greek yogurt, nuts, eggs and dairy. However, if you are having trouble getting sufficient protein in each day, a protein powder shake can round out your macronutrient amounts.

Decreasing Carbohydrate Amounts Can Be OK

You will probably find that you do not need as many carbohydrates on rest days because you are not expending as much energy. However, you should still consume some healthy low glycemic sources of carbohydrates. You may find that you only need to get fewer than 40% of your calories from carbohydrates rather than the more typical 45% to 65% that is needed on workout days.

Remember Your Healthy Fats

While fats are difficult to get energy from prior to exercise, they are still incredibly important to the body. Your body needs fats for long-term energy as well as to improve cellular growth and regulate hormone functions. They can also be protective to your organs and help in micronutrient absorption.

There are many types of fats and plenty of talk these days about which are best to eat. Saturated and trans fats can raise your unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. However, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can actually lower bad cholesterol numbers, improve heart health and decrease full-body inflammation if you consume them mindfully.

Although there are many sources of dietary fats, not all of them are healthy choices for your diet. Steer yourself away from the high levels of fats found in many restaurant meals and in processed foods, and instead focus on healthy fats from whole foods. Some of the best sources of healthy fats include olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, avocados and nut and seed butters.


Even if you are trying to lose weight, you should still eat enough on your exercise days to fuel your workout routines. However, you may want to consider lessening your calorie load on rest days to help you lose weight faster. Keep in mind that your body should still feel fed and satisfied (not stuffed) on rest days. If you are feeling incredibly hungry, your body is probably trying to send you a message. Try adding in more dietary fiber, protein and a bit of healthy fats to produce more satisfaction and decrease hunger throughout the day.

Overall, your nutrition should not be something that causes you to stress. Instead, it should be something that is easy to learn and that makes you feel balanced and satisfied. By concentrating on the right types and amounts of nutrients you have on both exercise and rest days, you can soon feel your best and improve your overall health and wellness.

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