How to Balance Intermittent Fasting When You Love Intense Exercise

When it comes to wellness, balance is key: a night out followed by a day spent at home, an intense weightlifting session followed by a restorative yoga class, and a healthy meal finished off with a little sweetness.

The same applies when following a specific diet plan or workout regimen — in this case, intermittent fasting (IF), which dictates when you should — and shouldn't — be eating throughout the day. You may already know all the different kinds of IF and perhaps even some of the rules that apply to the process. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of it all, how does it work?

I myself had a few questions regarding how to balance eating enough and exercising while doing IF. I've given the 16:8 method a try — that is, fasting for 16 hours of the day and giving yourself an eight-hour window to eat all your daily calories in — and found it difficult to find a happy medium of getting in my usual intense workout and managing to stay energized throughout the day.

Skipping breakfast left me sluggish and weak during morning workouts, and I would even find that I could just not eat enough food during my eight-hour eating window. I struggled to find the right eating and workout schedule for my life that also coexisted happily with IF. Luckily, quite a few experts exist — in the form of sports nutritionists, athletes, and the like — who had a few pieces of advice for this conundrum.

Consider Changing Your Eating or Exercise Schedule

From the outside, IF seems like a superstrict, regimented way to live — and to an extent, it is — but it also offers a lot of wiggle room to make your own rules. "The goal is to find the ideal time to exercise," Tiffany Houser, SoulCycle instructor and lifestyle coach, explains. Tiffany suggests scheduling your eating window around your ideal workout schedule so you can fuel up before and/or after an intense session.

Personally, it was hard for me to think outside the box when it came to IF. I felt I could only work out in the early morning because if I waited until the evening, I'd have to fast for much longer throughout the day. Author, MD, and sports nutritionist Marie Spano suggests trying to exercise during the feeding window "so you have immediate energy on board to get through your workout." This meant that some of my weekly workouts were a brisk 20-to 30-minute walk in the neighborhood of my job, which isn't as intense of a sweat session I'd like, but remedies the scheduling problem that often comes with IF. Others who love morning workouts may decide to shift their eating window to 8 a.m.-4 p.m., opting to fast from 4 p.m. until the morning. But if that isn't doable, try shifting your morning workouts to the afternoon or evenings.

Think Differently About Workouts

Intermittent fasting requires that you throw a lot of what you're accustomed to about eating and exercise out the window. That means adopting the idea that fasting equals fat loss. For those with a focus on weight loss, exercise may become an added bonus. "Remember that you fast for fat loss and you work out to preserve or build muscle," Brad Pilon, author of Eat Stop Eat, says. "Fasting is doing all the work for fat loss and your workouts and post-workout nutrition is doing everything to help you get stronger muscles."

For those looking to lose weight on IF, that means paying closer attention to your eating regimen more so than your exercise routine. This was, without a doubt, an adjustment for me, as I genuinely enjoy working out. I had to rewire my brain to learn to pull back on workouts, if necessary, or focus more on certain types of workouts over others, depending on what my body would allow that day.

Give It Time to Settle In

Just like everything else, your body needs time to accept and understand IF. Everyone's bodies are different, and there are some individuals who have no problem working out in a fasted state, for instance.

Just like everything else, I wanted results — fast. This caused me to feel extra frustrated and tired with the process, and thus prompted me to give up IF long before it even had a chance to work in my body. Many experts say that a new eating or workout plan typically takes about two weeks to adjust to. This, however, can take even longer, depending on other factors.

"Any type of client I work with, we always 'clear the clutter' within their lifestyle before we start learning about and creating new habits, behaviors, and ultimately a new sustainable lifestyle," Houser says. "Otherwise, it's like pushing a boulder up a hill. When there is clutter in our way, and in this case, a deficiency, other health challenges, your stress level, your busy schedule, or any of other lifestyle factors, you may be taking yourself on a discouraging and unproductive journey."

Meal Planning Is a Must

Timing is everything when it comes to IF, but the quality of the meals is just as crucial. Registered dietitian Emily Field suggests making your final meal of the feeding window one that will sustain you through your fasted state. She recommends a meal full of "protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables."

"Filling up on foods like this at the end of your feeding window sets you up for feeling full and satisfied as you enter into your fasting window," she says. "Alternatively, eating a heavy carbohydrate meal at the end of your feeding window could set you up for hunger and cravings. Imagine waking up to an early morning workout when you're already hungry and craving vs. waking up to that same workout feeling alert and stable."

From personal experience, I can say that Emily's point is right — when carb-loading at the end of the feeding window, I'm unhappily surprised to be hungry very shortly after. Protein and fiber-packed meals, however, usually help hold me over through the night and until the next feeding window begins.

Take Note of Your Motivation

You can't get where you're going unless you know where you came from. Such is the same with health and wellness. Think about (and even write down) why you started IF, what your goals are, and what you can reasonably do to get there. Field suggests that IF may not be for everyone, and that's certainly OK.

"Intermittent fasting might not be right for someone who does not have a ton of control over their day, as this could interfere with their athletic performance and overall energy," she explains. But that doesn't mean these people can't find the process that's right for them or even take some pointers for IF.

"The healthiest eating pattern is the one that works for you for the long-term because it makes sense and you enjoy it," Field says. "It's the one that meets your calorie and macronutrient needs so you can achieve and maintain a healthy weight for you, the one that enables you to do the types of physical activity you love, and the one that powers you through your busy day with consistent energy." This, above all else, is most important.