We’ve all heard that diet is important for good health; a strong immune system; and energy for and recovery from exercise. What about when you’re eating? Does the timing of your meals affect your performance and recovery?
Long-held wisdom in the world of sports nutrition is that what you eat and when you eat have an effect on your training goals. Proper nutrition can help with:
Muscle power should be increased.
Enhance your reaction time, strength, and endurance.
The exact composition of your meals in terms of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) varies from person to person because you must consider body type (ectomorph, endomorph, or mesomorph), type of exercise (aerobic vs. strength), the intensity of exercise, duration of exercise, and time between exercise sessions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when all of these factors are taken into account.
Furthermore, most nutrient-timing recommendations are based on research done on various types of athletes (professional-level) in a variety of sports, including, but not limited to, cycling, swimming, running, and weight training. As a result, for most clients, these recommendations should be more of a guideline than a strict dogma.
What To Eat Before Working Out
The primary goal of eating before exercise is to provide your body with enough fuel to sustain your energy level throughout your workout, allowing you to meet your workout objectives. Carbohydrate-rich foods and fluids help to replenish glycogen stores, while protein can help to maintain muscle mass. A meal that contains a combination of these macronutrients is ideal. Most people shouldn’t eat a high-fat meal before a workout because fat slows digestion and makes most people feel tired.
Hydration is one of the most important tools in your pre-workout arsenal. When you do not drink enough water (or decaf or herbal tea, coffee, milk, juice—yes, these all count) or eat enough fruits and vegetables to stay hydrated, your muscles fatigue much faster, your coordination suffers, and you are more likely to develop muscle cramps. Also, your body won’t be able to control its core temperature, which can cause you to get too hot and tired.
Keeping hydrated takes all day. Begin your day with 8–16 ounces of water and sip it frequently throughout the day. You should stay hydrated by drinking at least 32 ounces of water during your workout. When you work out for more than an hour or in high heat and humidity, you need to drink more fluids and maybe even take electrolytes to make up for what you lose through sweat.
When Do You Work Out?
Next, think about when you exercise during the day. Your meal-timing strategy will be influenced by whether you exercise first thing in the morning, the middle of the day, or in the evening.
If you exercise first thing in the morning, you won’t have much time to eat and digest your food. Because liquids digest faster, a small smoothie could be a good pre-workout meal. If you find that any type of food bothers you, it may be best to avoid it entirely. Some people believe that exercising while fasting helps them burn more body fat. It comes down to personal preference.
Take into account the type and duration of exercise that will be performed. You are more likely to experience glycogen depletion, hypoglycemia, and fatigue during an endurance (> 60-minute) or high-intensity interval-training workout. Pre-workout meals are essential, and you should consider drinking a drink containing 30–60 grams of carbohydrates every hour during prolonged exercise.
If you exercise later in the day, you can time your meals to ensure that you have enough fuel to perform well. The longer the time between your meal and exercise, the larger your meal can be. If you have an hour before your workout, a meal or snack containing 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight is appropriate. If you have two hours until your workout, consume 2 g/kg of carbohydrates. Consider a meal with 3-4 g/kg of carbohydrates three to four hours before your workout. Having 15–20 grams of protein in your meal before you work out can help you control your blood sugar, keep or gain muscle mass, and prevent muscle damage while you work out.
What To Eat After Working Out
The goal of the post-workout meal is to aid in recovery, rehydration, refueling, muscle building, and future performance. When discussing your fuel requirements, many sports nutrition experts refer to the post-workout “anabolic window of opportunity.” Following a workout, blood flow and insulin sensitivity increase, facilitating glucose uptake and glycogen resynthesis. In other words, the hour following exercise is when your body is most in need of nutrients, so eating the right meal during this time can kickstart refueling and tissue repair faster than waiting. Recent research shows that this window of opportunity is much bigger than was thought before, so you don’t need to gulp down a protein shake.
Aim for 15–25 grams of protein (for tissue repair) and 1-2 grams/kg (of body weight) of carbohydrates per hour of glycogen-depleting exercise for a post-workout meal. To increase satiation, add 5–10 grams of fat. You don’t have to worry about protein powder versus whole foods or carbohydrate type (low-glycemic vs. high-glycemic). The best post-workout meal is one that is well-balanced and contains a variety of real, whole foods as well as plenty of fluid.
Should You Eat Before Going to Bed?
This is yet another issue that has polarized the nutrition world. Some people believe that eating before bed causes your body to digest and store the food as body fat, resulting in weight gain. However, if you exercise in the evening, the nutrients in your post-workout meal will be directed toward glycogen synthesis and muscle repair. Regardless of the time of day or night, you must nourish the body after exercise to transition from a catabolic to an anabolic state.
What and when you eat can have a significant impact on your performance and recovery. Balanced meals and fluids are essential for energy production, recovery, injury prevention, and proper growth. Meal composition and timing must be tailored to each individual based on gender, age, body type, and the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of activity. Making sure to consume macronutrient balanced meals made up of real, whole foods is a great place to start.