It’s natural when you’re heading to the gym or going for a long run after work to be focused on preparing yourself during the day, both physically and mentally. Anyone with personal experience knows not to eat a large plate of lasagna or a big bowl of chili before going on a 5-mile run. We know not to drink a liter of Coke before we’re about to lift weights at the gym. Those are actions that automatically set us up for failure.
However, what about our actions the night before? How often do you really consider what you’re eating before bed and how it relates to your workout the following afternoon? We’re more likely to consider this if it’s Friday night and you’ve got a race scheduled for Saturday morning. We know our sleep and diet are crucial at that point, but remember that to get the most out of your workouts, the previous day can be just as important as the day of.
Are you getting enough quality sleep?
On average, most people need about seven or eight hours of quality sleep to be properly rested for the next day. Unfortunately, roughly 40 percent of Americans get less than the recommended amount of sleep every night. I’ve talked a lot about proper sleep in the past, so I’ll summarize what you might already know.
Quality sleep means the following: You sleep enough. You go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time (within half an hour or so) every day. It also means disengaging from your electronic devices (specifically your TV, phone and computer screens) 30 minutes to an hour before bed. If you can manage to do all that consistently, you will wake up with more energy and have more effective exercise sessions. As with anything health-related, meeting some of those expectations will always be better than meeting none of them.
What about late-night snacking?
A while ago, I realized one of the biggest causes of my loud and incessant snoring was having a snack or dessert too close to bedtime. If the last time I eat anything is a few hours before I go to sleep, I usually only snore a little or not at all. However, when I have had something to eat, my wife basically has to shove me out of the bed to make the snoring stop, since I’m essentially dead to the world.
Now, having a snack before bed may not guarantee weight gain like we once thought it did, but it’s still not good for you. It means our bodies are working to digest food when they’re supposed to be resting and recharging for the next day. It’s one of those issues that’s difficult to quantify into any specific percentage or number, but we do know our body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol during digestion. This can disrupt our circadian rhythms and further increase the production of cortisol the next day. Why? Because the lack of quality sleep we got the night before makes us less resilient in the face of new daily challenges. Unfortunately, this compounding issue reduces our energy levels and makes us less likely to work out later—and, when we do work out, those workouts are less effective than they could be.
Still feeling sluggish?
I was a swimmer as a kid, and before the big meets, we all went out and had a big pasta dinner the night before. Nowadays, there’s evidence that those meals actually slowed us down the next day, as we ended up simply consuming more carbohydrates than our bodies knew what to do with. That’s not to say all carbs should be avoided or that you shouldn’t eat any before bed. It is simply a word of caution. Americans on average consume way more carbohydrates than our bodies need. This disrupts our normal metabolic functions and increases our body’s natural insulin resistance. All of that leads to less energy and less effective workouts.
So it’s not that you can’t eat carbs the night before. It’s just that you shouldn’t eat only carbs the night before. Pay attention to your body the next day. Did you wake up feeling energized and ready to tackle the day, or are you sluggish all day long? If you’re struggling to get through the day, it’s probably a good idea to eat less carbs throughout the day but especially at dinner. Your body’s response won’t dramatically change overnight, but as proper metabolic function is restored, energy levels will almost certainly increase.
Not to be forgotten: Some healthy carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, nuts and brown rice 45 minutes to an hour before a workout can give you energy, which dramatically increases your workout performance.
What time are you eating dinner?
Since the ultimate goal is the most restful sleep possible, the less work our body has to do while we’re asleep, the better. So if you have the ability to eat an earlier dinner, try it and see how your body responds. It takes about two and a half or three hours for half our stomachs to be emptied after a meal and closer to four or five for our stomachs to be completely emptied. Of course, we’re not always going to wait five hours to go to bed, but not eating two hours before bed can make a significant difference.
For me, those are the nights where I’m not snoring up a storm and possibly being evicted from my own bed. In addition to increased cortisol levels, snoring often occurs because our airways are partially blocked, meaning less oxygen in our blood and brains. This can cause a whole host of health problems, but as far as workouts go, the key is this: Snoring during sleep will cause daytime fatigue. That’s the last thing anyone needs.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.