Most of us know that when it comes to changing our body composition, we can’t out train a shitty diet. Although training and finding the right kind of stimulus to support muscular growth is important, nutrition is the foundation for achieving results and getting all the gains! Most of our clients know that hitting their macros in the right quantity and ratio is going to propel them towards their goals faster than anything else. But once you’ve become a macro master, it might be time for you to take things to the next level and consider nutrient timing.
One of the most common questions we get as fitness professionals is, “What should I eat before and after a workout?”, and “How far in advance or how long after should I wait to eat?”.
Well we all know that what we are fueling our bodies with can have an impact on how we feel. Remember how you felt the last time you ate several donuts for breakfast? I’m pretty sure you didn’t feel like working out immediately after, but you probably had an awesome nap at your desk! What you put in your body is especially important if you’re active and looking to make improvements in the gym or in your sport. In this article we’ll talk about the science and of course, the practical aspects of nutrition timing so you can feel confident that you’re maximizing all that effort you’re putting in the gym.
It’s important to keep in mind though that nutrient timing isn’t magic! It won’t suddenly transform your physique or performance overnight. So whatever you decide to start implementing, make sure you stick with it consistently for a sustained period of time (3-4 weeks), before giving up or trying something different.
What and when you eat prior to exercise can make a big difference to both your performance and recovery. Prior to working out, you’ll want to eat a meal that helps you:
- Sustain energy
- Boost performance
- Preserve muscle mass; and
- Speed up recovery
Let’s look at each macronutrient and the potential benefits they can provide if consumed in the few hours prior to exercise.
- Helps maintain or increase muscle size
This is important for anyone who wants to improve their health, body composition or performance.
- Reduces markers of muscle damage
The less damage you do to your muscles during training, the faster you recover and the better you adapt to your exercise over the long term. This is why people who are looking to build muscle do so gradually, often by following a cycle of hypertrophy programming prior to strength training.
- Floods your bloodstream with amino acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Amino acids boost your muscle-building capacity as well as preventing damage.
- Fuels your training and helps with recovery
It’s a common misconception that only endurance type athletes need carbs to fuel their exercise. This is not the case as carbs have been found to be beneficial for shorter, high intensity training like CrossFit. In fact, having carbs available for fuel will improve your high intensity performance.
- Preserves liver and muscle glycogen
Glycogen stores tells your body that you’re well fed and helps increase muscle retention and growth.
- Stimulates the release of insulin
When combined with the consumption of protein, insulin release improves protein synthesis and prevents protein breakdown.
- Slows digestion
This helps to keep insulin and blood glucose level so that your energy remains steady during your work out.
- Has no effect on fueling performance
Fats don’t appear to improve or diminish performance, nor do they provide fuel for short duration activity. Fat is a great fuel for endurance events when intensity is low, but they are not beneficial for short bursts of intense activity (like CrossFit).
To minimize discomfort whilst you work out, eating 1-3 hours prior to your workout is ideal. If you’re eating within this timeframe then you can eat a normal meal. Depending on your own individual needs, that might look like a ratio breakdown of about 40-50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% fat. For men that might be around 20-30g fat and for women around 10-15g fat.
If you’re an endurance athlete or training for longer than an hour, then you may want to consume more carbohydrates prior to training or during your workout.
Some people aren’t able to eat a large meal 2-3 hours before training – this is especially so if you’re working out early in the morning! If you need to eat in the hour prior to working out then consuming something that is easily digestible is best. Usually a protein smoothie or a protein shake with a piece of fruit & some nuts or almond butter would be adequate. Make sure you choose foods that usually sit well in your stomach.
Pre-workout Meal Idea
“Chocolate Almond Butter Protein Smoothie”
1 Scoop Chocolate Protein Powder
1 Handful of spinach
1 tbsp of Almond Butter
8 oz of chocolate, unsweetened almond milk
Carbohydrates are fuel for your engine. The harder you’re working the more carbs your body will need to keep going!
Remember, fat slows down the digestion process so you’ll want to avoid consuming too much fat immediately prior to working out so you don’t feel sick or full.
I’ll keep this section brief – especially since I wasn’t even going to touch on it! For the purposes of most people, your primary nutrition concern during your workout should be ensuring that you’re staying adequately hydrated. Unless you’re a serious athlete performing long hours of training or you’re taking part in a competition, intra workout nutrition does not need to be more complex than hydration.
If you’re training is longer than 2 hours, then you may want to consider consuming 15 grams of protein and 30-45 grams of carbs every hour.
If you’re training under conditions where you’re sweating a lot, water alone will not be sufficient to meet your hydration needs and can affect your performance and recovery. To ensure your sodium levels do not become too low (if dangerously low it can lead to hyponatremia), a sports drink or electrolytes with water should be taken.
After your work out making sure you’re getting in the right nutritional needs and replenishing the nutrients lost, is important for the following reasons:
- building muscle; and
- improving your future performance!
Eating protein after exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, leading to muscle tissue growth or maintenance. If you want to focus on one aspect of nutrient timing, then consuming protein post-workout is a great strategy for better recovery, adaptation and performance.
If you want something fast and convenient and you tolerate protein supplements then awesome! Make a post-workout protein smoothie or enjoy a scoop of protein powder with water or chocolate milk. If you prefer to eat real food, then do that, just make sure your meal is high in protein. For men that means around 40-60 grams and for women that typically means about 20-30 grams of protein.
If you can’t eat immediately after a workout or hate the idea of chugging protein supplements, that’s okay! Ideally, just try to get in a meal within one to two hours of finishing a workout.
For your post-workout meal, a combination of carbohydrates and protein is recommended, with an emphasis on getting more carbohydrates than protein. Depending on your individual daily macro goals and needs, a good balance is about three grams of carbohydrate for every gram of protein to maximize recovery. But you don’t need to obsess about getting that exact ratio and you certainly don’t need to stress about immediately replenishing your glycogen stores with quick releasing carbs unless you plan on working out again within the next 8 hours. Whole food, slow releasing carbohydrates (like starches and even fruit) are better quality sources of carbs that will steadily replenish your glycogen stores over a 24-hour period. Whole food sources are best for leading to better performance as they provide your body with important vitamins and minerals. That being said, if you want to enjoy some “fun foods”, then that 8-hour post-workout window is a good opportunity to do so as your body will be primed for glycogen uptake.
Again, there’s no need to stress out about it too much, just try to eat some carbohydrates and a little protein. If you find having a specific goal to shoot for helpful, then for men try 80-100g carbohydrates and for women somewhere between 40 – 60 grams of carbohydrate post-workout with your protein and see if you notice a difference with your recovery or body composition.
Whilst keeping your fat intake moderate prior to training is important not just for your own comfort, but also for speed of nutrient availability for fuel, research is showing that speed of digestion post-workout, is not nearly as important as we once thought. Some research has shown that eating as much as 55 grams fat post-workout and another 55 grams in the two subsequent meals did not interrupt glycogen replenishment compared to lower fat meals with the same amount of carbohydrates. So enjoy a couple slices of pizza if you like!
As I just mentioned, speed of delivery of nutrients post-workout is not nearly as important as previously thought. So necking your protein shake the second you finish “Fran” is probably overkill, but dawdling to get home or working your way through a list of chores before you sit down to eat is perhaps a little too casual. How quickly you need to eat post-workout, will largely be dictated by when and what you ate prior to working out.
If your pre-workout meal was small or several hours before your workout, then getting your post-workout meal in quickly would be best practice – ideally within an hour. If you’re into intermittent fasting and trained in a fasted state, then chow down as soon as you can after your work out.
Recovery Meal Ideas
A recovery meal could be something as simple as a peanut butter banana bagel, a turkey sub, or chicken with sweet potatoes. If you have a hard time eating after a workout, then you could try having a smoothie with added protein. There are plenty of commercially available recovery drinks out there on the market, which are great if you’re rushing to get to places between training, work & other life commitments. Our preference is always to try to eat real-food but when that’s not an option, then that’s when supplements can step in.
Something we haven’t really touched on and that you ought to consider as part of your nutrient timing routine, is taking BCAAs – Branched Chain Amino Acids. BCAAs are especially beneficial if you’re in a caloric deficit or trying to build muscle. Dieting is catabolic which can lead to muscle breakdown especially the leaner you get, as your body tries to hold on to body fat stores and utilizes muscle to satisfy its energy needs. We all know that building muscle mass will ultimately lead to improved body composition and a speedier metabolism, but muscle mass will only increase if the rate of protein synthesis is greater than the rate of protein breakdown.
BCAAs are the building blocks of our muscles as they make up 35% of our muscle mass and contain the 3 essential amino acids, valine, leucine & isoleucine. Here’s why BCAAs can help you stay #swole and preserve your lean muscle mass when you’re training hard.
- Increase protein synthesis– these essential amino acids are responsible for stimulating protein synthesis or growth. They are called “essential” because they cannot be synthesized by the body and must be consumed either in the foods you eat (typically animal sources of protein but also found in beans, lentils, nuts & soy beans).
- Reduce rate of protein breakdown – They do this by decreasing the activity of the protein breakdown pathway.
- Improve your workouts – Taking BCAAs during your workout may help you push to a new level of intensity as it can help prevent the production of serotonin and decrease your sense of fatigue.
We don’t typically prescribe supplements to our clients, but we do recommend taking a protein supplement as needed to ensure you meet your macro goals and BCAAs to help preserve and promote lean muscle mass.
In the end there is no perfect pre and post workout nutrition regimen for everyone. For most people who just want to look and feel their best, nutrient timing doesn’t need to be complex. Simply focusing on consistently getting the right amount of food for your body and managing any nutrient deficiencies is far more important and will be far more effective in generating results. In fact, data supports that the total amount of protein and carbohydrate consumed over the course of the day is far more important to lean muscle mass gain, body fat loss and performance improvements than any nutrient timing strategy. But test it out for yourself! If you’re feeling sore a lot and struggling to recover then why not try tightening in that window of eating post-workout and see if it makes a noticeable difference.
Nutrient timing in a simple nutshell – Remember that carbs help to fuel your muscles and protein helps to build and repair them. Get a balanced meal in 1-3 hours prior to your exercise and within 1-2 hours post workout. There’s no need to make things any more complicated than that.