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: