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Nutrient Timing-what to eat before, during, and after exercise.

We all know that what you eat is important. But what about when you eat? Especially if you’re active?

Most recreational exercisers looking to get healthy and fit will get the nutrients and energy they need by eating a well balanced meal 1-2 hours before exercise, and another within 1-2 hours after exercise.

Athletes have special needs

Of course, 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.

Workout nutrition guidelines by goal and body type

Workout nutrition for your body type

This blog will address nutrient timing (before, during and after workouts) in respect to individuals exercising for general health and fitness.

If this is you, focus on:

  • eliminating nutrient deficiencies

  • ensuring your portions are the right size

  • eating right for your body type.

For more on these, check out this infographic from Precision Nutrition

However, a lot of people, stress about:

  • when to eat their carbs;

  • when to eat their fats; and

  • what to eat in and around their workouts

For some, this can be distracting and self-sabotaging. But for others, nutrient timing gives them structure and guidelines for making good food decisions and controlling total intake. It's important to determine which of these individuals you are to positively impact your results and peace of mind.

Nutrient timing is just one tool in health and fitness. It needs to be recognized for what it is and understood in the context of your needs, activity levels, and goals. If you're just starting out, dial-down the basics then incorporate some of the recommendations listed below...if you're interested. If not, that's ok too!

Nutrient timing isn’t magic

Nutrient timing won’t suddenly transform your physique or performance. This is especially true if you aren’t yet consistent with basic, good eating habits. So if you’re a recreational exerciser who just wants to look and feel better, start by consistently eating the right portions of quality food to 80% full for best results.

Below are Precision Nutrition recommendations I use with my Body Transformation clients to maximize their results and get the most out of workouts.

Pre-exercise nutrition needs

What and when you eat before exercise can make a big difference to your performance and recovery.

In the three hours before your workout, you’ll want to eat something that helps you:

  • sustain energy

  • boost performance

  • hydrate

  • preserve muscle mass

  • speed recovery

Here are a few ways to make this happen:

Eating some protein in the few hours before exercise

  • Helps 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.

While protein before a workout is a great idea, speed of digestion doesn’t seem to matter much. So any protein source, eaten within a few hours of the workout session, will do the trick.

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.

Eating 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.

Pre-exercise nutrition in practice

With these things in mind, here are some practical recommendations for the pre-exercise period. Depending on what suits your individual needs, you can simply have normal meal in the few hours before exercise. Or you can have a smaller meal just before your exercise session. (If you’re trying to put on mass, you may even want to do both.)

Option 1: 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:

If you’re a woman, here’s what your meal might look like:

Note: Your actual needs will vary depending on your size, goals, genetics, and the duration and intensity of your activity.

For example, an endurance athlete will need more carbs than a short 30-45 minute gym session.

Option 2: 0-60 minutes 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

For 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.

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.

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.

During-exercise nutrition in practice

Do you need to eat during your workout?

That depends on how long it’s been since your last meal and the length/type of exercise you’re planning on.

Exercise lasting less than two hours

For training that’s less than two hours long, the main focus should be hydration. This is especially true if you’re using good pre- and post-training nutrition. So make sure you bring plenty of water.

But what about sports drinks? They don’t offer much benefit for events less than two hours long. Especially if you ate a good pre-exercise meal.

There are some exceptions, though.

  1. If you’re exercising in the heat and sweating a lot, sports drinks may be useful since they have electrolytes that help speed hydration and recovery.

  2. Also, if you’re going to be competing or training again in less than eight hours, sports drinks may jumpstart recovery before the next session.

  3. If you’re trying to gain maximum muscle, then including a protein and carbohydrate drink or some BCAAs during training could provide a small advantage.

  4. Finally, at the highest end of sport or competition, while it may not help, it certainly won’t hurt to sip on a sports drink during competition to ensure maximal hydration and energy supply.

Exercise lasting more than two hours

For training that is longer than two hours, sports drinks can be a huge help. Every hour you’ll want to consume:

  • 15 grams protein

  • 30-45 grams carbs

This can come in the form of liquids, gels, or even some solid food.

Many endurance athletes prefer to drink water and eat fruit and other foods to supply their energy even on really long runs. Either approach is fine, as long as you ensure you’re getting enough protein, carbohydrates and electrolytes, especially sodium.

If you are exercising intensely for longer than two hours, especially in the heat, do not rely on water alone. This will decrease your performance and your recovery. Under these conditions, when you’re sweating a lot, go with sports drinks.

Post-exercise nutrition needs

Post-workout nutrition can help you:

  • recover

  • rehydrate

  • refuel

  • build muscle

  • improve future performance

Protein after exercise

Eating protein after exercise prevents protein breakdown and stimulates synthesis, leading to increased or maintained muscle tissue. So it’s a great strategy for better recovery, adaptation, and performance.

New research shows that there’s no real evidence that protein powders, especially the fast-digesting kind, are any better for us than whole food protein after training.

They’re probably not worse either. Which means you can choose whichever type of protein you want for your post-workout meal.

Want fast and convenient? Make an awesome post-workout protein shake.Want real food? Then make an awesome high-protein meal.

Any high quality complete protein should be fine, as long as you eat enough. That means about 40-60 grams for men (or 2 palms) and 20-30 grams for women (1 palm).

Carbs after exercise

Contrary to popular belief, it’s unnecessary to stuff yourself with refined carbohydrates and sugars to “spike” insulin and theoretically restore muscle and liver glycogen as rapidly as possible after your workout.

In fact, a blend of minimally processed whole food carbohydrates, along with some fruit (to better restore or maintain liver glycogen) is actually a better choice, because:

  • it’s better tolerated

  • it restores glycogen equally over a 24-hour time period

  • it might lead to better next-day performance

Endurance athletes who perform two glycogen-depleting sessions within eight hours of one another might be an exception to this guideline, as speed of glycogen replenishment is critical in that situation. But for most healthy exercisers, whole food with some fruit is a better way to go.

Fats after exercise

While it is true that fats slow the digestion and absorption of nutrients, some research implies that it may be unnecessary to omit all fat after exercise.

One study compared what happens when people drink skim milk rather than whole milk after training. Participants drank either 14 oz. of skim milk or 8 oz. of whole milk (that equalized the calories, for those of you who love calorie math).

The skim milk drinkers got the same number of calories — along with six extra grams of protein. So you’d think they’d have the advantage.

Yet the whole milk drinkers actually ended up with a higher net protein balance! And the researchers had no explanation other than the fat content of the whole milk.

Adding a serving of healthy fats may in fact benefit you.

Post-exercise nutrition in practice

While you don’t have to stuff your face the minute you finish your workout, you shouldn’t wait too long before eating. Failing to eat within a two-hour window following training can slow recovery.

But this is context dependent; what you ate before your workout influences things.

If your pre-training meal was a small one or you ate it several hours before training, then it’s probably more important for you to get that post-workout meal into your system pretty quickly. Probably within an hour.

If you trained in a fasted state (say, first thing in the morning before breakfast) then it’s also a good idea to chow down as soon after your workout as you can.

But if you ate a normal sized mixed meal a couple of hours before training (or a small shake closer to training), then you have a full one to two hours after training to eat your post-workout meal and still maximize the benefits of workout nutrition.

The approach to recover from training is the same as your preparation for a workout: have a mixed meal of real food, 0-2 hours afterward.

Again, here’s the portion suggestions for men:

  • 2 palms of protein

  • 2 fists of vegetables

  • 2 cupped handfuls of carbs

  • 2 thumbs of fats

  • low-calorie beverage like water

And here are portions for women:

  • 1 palm of protein

  • 1 fist of vegetables

  • 1 cupped handful of carbs

  • 1 thumb of fats

  • low-calorie beverage like water

Sometimes after training you might not feel hungry. That’s okay. If you don’t feel like eating, whip together a shake using the same hand-sized portion guidelines as discussed above.

In the end, there’s no perfect nutrient timing for everyone.

For most of us, the best pre- and post-training meals will contain a combination of high quality protein, high quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, and some fruit and vegetables.

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 don't sweat the small stuff and just start by eating slowly, to 80% full with high quality-whole foods. When you hit a plateau or feel like taking your results to the next level, consider incorporating a few of these nutrient timing suggestions into your daily routine.

For more help with your health, weight loss or fitness goals, email me to learn what small action steps can yield big results.

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