In the area of sports nutrition there is the term ‘nutrient timing’ – it’s a special way of nutrition in which it is important what kind of nutrients, in what quantities and at what time get into the body.
Athletes have special needs
Nutrient timing has sense if you’re:
- An endurance athlete. You train for high-level competition. You log a lot of high intensity miles each week. For you, carbohydrate and calorie needs are likely higher. You could add a protein + carbohydrate (P+C) drink during your training.
- Training as a bodybuilder. You lift weights with serious muscle growth in mind. You want to gain weight. Your protein and calorie needs are likely higher. You could also add a protein + carbohydrate (P+C) drink during your training.
- Getting ready for a fitness competition. You accumulate a lot of exercise hours. You’re trying to drop to a single-digit body fat percentage. For you, carb intake should be lower. You’d benefit from the performance-enhancing, muscle-preserving branched-chain-amino acids (BCAA) during your training.
- if you’re exercising for general health and fitness;
- if your goals are more modest; and/or
- you don’t have unique physiological needs…
…then you probably don’t need any particular workout nutrition strategies.
In the three hours before your workout, you’ll want to eat something that helps you:
- sustain energy;
- boost performance;
- preserve muscle mass; and
- speed recovery.
Here are a few ways to ensure you’re meeting your requirements.
Protein eaten in the few hours before exercise can help you maintain or even increase your muscle size. That’s important for anyone who wants to improve health, body composition, or performance. Can reduce markers of muscle damage (myoglobin, creatine kinase, and myofibrillar protein degradation). Or at least prevent them from getting worse. (Carbohydrates or a placebo eaten before exercise don’t seem to do the same thing.) The less damage to your muscles, the faster you recover, and the better you adapt to your exercise over the long term. Floods your bloodstream with amino acids just when your body needs them most. This boosts your muscle-building capabilities. So not only are you preventing damage, you’re increasing muscle size.
Eating carbs before exercise fuels your training and helps with recovery. It’s a popular misconception that you only need carbs if you’re engaging in a long (more than two hour) bout of endurance exercise. In reality, carbs can also enhance shorter term (one hour) high-intensity training. So unless you’re just going for a quiet stroll, ensuring that you have some carbs in your system will improve high intensity performance. Preserves muscle and liver glycogen. This tells your brain that you are well fed, and helps increase muscle retention and growth. Stimulates the release of insulin. When combined with protein, this improves protein synthesis and prevents protein breakdown. Another reason why a mixed meal is a great idea. No sugary carb drinks required.
Fats before exercise don’t appear to improve nor diminish sport performance. And they don’t seem to fuel performance — that’s what carbs are for. Do help to slow digestion, which maintains blood glucose and insulin levels and keeps you on an even keel. Provide some vitamins and minerals, and they’re important in everyone’s diet.
2-3 hours before exercise
This far in advance of your workout, have a mixed meal and a low-calorie beverage like water.
If you’re a man, here’s what your meal might look like:
For women it might look a bit different:
Your actual needs will vary depending on your size, goals, genetics, and the duration and intensity of your activity.
1Hour before training
Rather than eating a larger meal 2-3 hours before exercise, some people like to eat a smaller meal closer to the session.
The only issue with that: the closer you get to your workout, the less time there is to digest. That’s why we generally recommend something liquid at this time, like a shake or a smoothie.
Yours might look like this:
- 1 scoop protein powder
- 1 fist of veggies (spinach works great in smoothies)
- 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbs (berries or a banana work great)
- 1 thumb of fats (like mixed nuts or flax seeds)
- low-calorie beverage like water or unsweetened almond milk
Here’s a delicious example:
- 1 scoop chocolate protein powder
- 1 fist spinach
- 1 banana
- 1 thumb peanut butter
- 8 oz. chocolate, unsweetened almond milk
It probably goes without saying, but with pre-training nutrition, choose foods that don’t bother your stomach.
During-exercise nutrition needs
What you eat or drink during exercise is only important under specific circumstances. But if you are going to eat during exercise, your goals will be similar to those for pre-workout nutrition. Above all, you’ll want to maintain hydration.
Goals of nutrition during exercise:
- stay hydrated;
- provide immediate fuel;
- boost performance;
- preserve muscle; and
- improve recovery.
Protein during exercise
Eating protein during exercise:
- Helps prevent muscle breakdown. This can lead to improved recovery and greater adaptation to training over the longer term. And this is especially true if it has been more than three hours since your last meal. You only need a small amount of protein to control protein breakdown — around 15 grams per hour. If you’re the type of person who prefers to exercise on an empty stomach, then 10-15 grams of BCAAs during training can be helpful.
- Is really only necessary for some people: athletes doing long, intense training bouts, multiple daily training sessions, and/or people trying to gain significant amounts of mass.
Carbs during exercise
Eating carbs during exercise:
- Provides an immediate fuel source. This helps boost performance and facilitate faster recovery. It keeps our stress hormone cortisol down, and beneficial hormones up.
- Is only beneficial in certain circumstances: endurance athletes on long runs, for people who want to gain a lot of muscle, and for highly active people who need every calorie they can get to increase size, strength, and/or performance.
How many carbs should you eat?
That depends. The maximum amount of carbohydrates that can be digested/absorbed during exercise is 60-70 grams per hour.
However, if you include protein in the mix, you can achieve the same endurance benefits with only 30-45 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Note: the protein also protects against muscle breakdown so it’s typically a good idea to add some in.
Fats during exercise
Eating a bit of fat before and after exercise can be a great idea. (And tasty, too!)
But you should try to avoid eating fats during exercise. That’s because fats can be more difficult to digest. And during training, you don’t want to give your stomach more work than it can handle.
Post-exercise nutrition needs
Now let’s take a look at post-exercise nutrition.
Post-workout nutrition can help you:
- build muscle; and
- improve future performance.
There’s no perfect pre-and-post-training feeding regimen for everyone. What to eat is always context specific.
The protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fluid requirements for a 155 lb. endurance athlete in the midst of marathon training vs. a 225 lb. bodybuilder recovering from a heavy resistance-training session are quite different.
Times of your training year will also dictate different needs in the post-exercise recovery period. That same bodybuilder will need a different approach when he starts to diet in preparation for a contest.
For most of us, people without athletic competitions on the horizon, the best pre- and post-training meals will contain some combination of high quality protein, high quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, and some fruit and vegetables.
These whole foods provide an awesome blend of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that build muscle, supply energy, decrease inflammation, and boost recovery.
Of course, you can eat solid foods or drink smoothies. And the amount of each macronutrient can vary depending on your needs as well as personal preferences and tolerances.
In terms of timing, you have about one to two hours on both sides of your training to still get maximal benefit.
And, according to the most recent data, the total amount of protein and carbohydrate consumed over the course of the day is far more important to lean mass gain, fat loss, and performance improvements than any specific nutrient timing strategy.
So enjoy your workout and your meals.