How long before your training should you eat your pre-workout meal? Do you need to eat immediately after your workout? Should you take supplements during your training? We get a lot of questions like these and there is a good reason for it. Find out what you need to know about nutrient timing.
What is Nutrient Timing?
The timing of nutrition is important to maximize your results, especially around your training. Nutrient timing is a popular nutritional planning strategy that targets how much food you eat and when to eat it in relation to your training. It is good to know when exactly you should get your nutrition in to maximize your recovery and gains.
A lot of experts are skeptical about the effect of nutrient timing on training results. But there is evidence that nutrient timing results in greater strength and body composition improvements: a gain in lean mass and a decrease in body fat percentage. It seems to have positive effects on muscle hypertrophy and muscle damage too. When it comes to nutrient timing, there are three phases to keep in mind:
- During your workout
- Post-workout and Recovery
Nutrient Timing: Pre-Workout
During the pre-workout period (up to 4 hours before your training) it is important to fuel your body with enough energy for your training. Your body uses mostly carbohydrates as its energy source. It breaks down the complex carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is absorbed into the blood stream and transported to the muscles. It will be stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen. During your training, your body uses this glycogen storage for energy.
What and When to Eat Before Training
The energy you get from stored glycogen during moderate to high-intensity training (65-85% VO2 max) may only last for 1.5 to 3 hours. Therefore, it is important to fuel your body with carbohydrates before you start your training. Studies show that it is most effective to have a high carb meal 3 to 4 hours before your training to ensure optimal glycogen storage in your muscles and liver. With this pre-workout meal, it is important to involve al the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) in a balanced meal.
On a side note: A lot of people think that they need to take in their protein right after their workout. However, studies show that having a source of protein before you start training will give better results in protein synthesis. Furthermore, there will be a bigger increase in strength, lean body mass and growth and testosterone hormones.
Is This an Evidence-based Strategy?
The most recent studies have established that taking a combination of carbohydrates, protein and the supplement creatine works best. It leads to the biggest improvement in strength, protein synthesis, body composition and the least muscle damage. Creatine is the body’s own intermediary for the energy supply of muscle and nerve cells but is also available as a supplement.
Fat intake is not really important for moderate to high-intensity training. Because your body uses carbohydrates as its main energy source in this type of training. However, during low-intensity training (55-70% VO2) your body uses fats as its energy source. Additionally, fats have a lot of vitamins and essential micronutrients. So it is important to make them a part of your diet. The downside of fats is that it takes a long time to digest them. So it will not benefit you to take in fats shortly before a training.
Recommendations for Your Pre-Workout Meal
- 3 to 4 hours before your workout: have a balanced meal based on carbohydrates (1-2 grams per kg of body weight) protein (0,15 – 0,30 grams per kg bodyweight) and some healthy fats.
- 60 to 30 min before training (if it is not possible to eat earlier that day): have an easy carbohydrate, protein and creatine meal (for example a protein (plus creatine) shake and a banana).
Nutrient Timing During Workout
When your training takes longer then 60 minutes, the energy level in your body will drop down and so will your performance. Nutrient timing is necessary to keep up your performance level. It is important to maintain the glucose level in your blood stream and glycogen in the muscles. Studies show that having a high carb supplement during exercise will maintain the glucose and glycogen storage in your body and maintain performance (strength and endurance).
What to Eat During Training
The body usually absorbs 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Mixing different sources of carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose, maltodextrin) can improve the absorption capacity by 40 %. And just like in the case of pre-workout nutrition, a combination of carbohydrates and protein provides even better results than using them separately. By using a combination of both carbs and protein, the level of insulin hormone will increase and the level of stress hormone cortisol will decrease, which improves recovery. Additionally, there will be less muscle damage and a better adaptation to the training over time.
Recommendations for During Your Workout
- Take in 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
- Drink 1 or 2 cups of 6-8% carbohydrate solution drinks every 10-15 minutes.
- Add protein to the carbohydrates in a 4:1 ratio (carbohydrates : protein).
- Combine different types of carbs to increase the amount that your body absorbs. But go easy on fructose because of the digestive problems it may provoke.
Nutrient Timing Post Workout
Consuming the right kind of nutrition after your training is important for strength improvement, muscle growth and recovery. The timing of your nutrition can improve all those even more. Consuming a dosage of carbohydrates (1.5 grams per kg of body weight) within 30 minutes after your training will significantly stimulate glycogen re-synthesis in the muscles then consuming it 2 hours later.
If you add some protein to the carbohydrates, it will improve glycogen re-synthesis even more. Consuming protein within 3 hours after your training will improve protein synthesis too. And combining carbohydrates and protein will provide even better results. As stated before, a combination of carbohydrates and protein before your training will give the best overall result. But a lot of studies show an improvement of strength, body composition, hypertrophy and adaption to the training by consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein after the training.
Recommendations for After Your Training
- Within 30 minutes after your training: take in a combination of carbohydrates (1,5 gram per kg of body weight) and protein (0,3 – 0,5 gram per kg of body weight) in a 3:1 ratio (carbohydrates : protein).
- Within 3 hours after your training: have a balanced nutritious meal containing all macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats).
Getting dehydrated during your training has a very big negative influence on your performance. So that makes it important to keep up the water balance in your body. Drink 400-600 ml 120 to 30 minutes before your training. If you work out less than an hour and the outside temperature is below 25 degrees Celsius, it is not necessary to drink additional water. If you work out longer than an hour, you need to drink 150-250 milliliters every 15 minutes. During a long training you need to add some nutrients to your water too, as mentioned earlier. Replenishing water and electrolytes after training will help your recovery.
Take Home Message
To maximize your training results, it is important to time your nutrient intake. Make sure to have a proper meal 3 to 4 hours before your training, based on carbohydrates and protein. Having a carbohydrate/ protein/ creatine supplement right before your training will provide the best adaptation of your body to the training. During your training, it is important to keep up your glycogen levels in the muscles by consuming some carbohydrates and proteins together with your water intake. After your training, it is important to refill glycogen levels within 30 minutes by consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein. Having a proper meal within 3 hours after your training, based on carbohydrates and protein, will give the best results on protein synthesis.
And last but not least, it is important to drink before, during and after your training to keep up your water balance.
If you want to know more about what to eat to maximize your training results, be sure to check out our guide to clean eating.
- Cribb PJ, Hayes A. Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. November 2006
- Chad M. Kerksick et al. International society of sports nutrition
- position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017
- Alan Albert Aragon & Brad Jon Schoenfeld. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 29 January 2013
- Chad Kerksick et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 03 October 2008
- Ivy et al. Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake. International journal sports medicine. 1998.
- Tipton KD et al. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J physiol endocrinol metab. 2001.
- Houtman, I.L.D. Fysiologie voor de sportpraktijk. Amsterdam: Reed business. 2008.
- Neeke Smit. Hoeveel water of vocht moet ik drinken per dag. FIT society. https://www.fit.nl/voeding/water-drinken
- Thomas, B. Manual of dietetic practice. Oxford: Blackwell Science. 2008.