We all know that what you eat is important for good health, a strong immune system, and energy for and recovery from exercise. But what about when you eat? Does the timing of your meals impact performance and recovery?
The long-standing advice in the world of sports nutrition is that what you eat and when you eat do, in fact, impact your training goals. Proper nutrition can:
Improve performance Decrease injuries Enhance muscle power Increase reaction time Boost strength and endurance Improve recovery
The exact composition of your meals with regards to your macros (protein, carbohydrates and fat) varies from person to person, as you must take into consideration body type (ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph), type of exercise (aerobic vs. strength), intensity of exercise, duration of exercise and how much time between exercise sessions. With all of these factors to consider, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Additionally, most nutrient-timing recommendations are based on studies that have been conducted on various types of athletes (professional-level) across multiple types of sports including, but not limited to, cycling, swimming, running and weight training. Therefore, for most clients, these recommendations should serve as more of a guideline rather than strict dogma.
What to Eat Before Exercising
The main purpose of eating before exercise is to provide your body with enough fuel to sustain your energy level throughout your workout so that you can achieve your workout goals. Carbohydrate-rich foods and fluid help “top off’ glycogen stores, while protein can help to preserve muscle mass. A meal that has a combination of these macros is ideal. High-fat meals are generally not recommended before a workout because fat slows digestion and leaves most people feeling sluggish.
One of the most important tools in your pre-workout arsenal is hydration. When you do not consume enough liquid from water (or decaf/herbal tea, coffee, milk, juice—yes, these all count) or eat enough fruits and vegetables to stay hydrated, your muscles will fatigue much quicker, your coordination will decrease, and you will be more likely to develop muscle cramps. Plus, your body will not be able to regulate its core temperature, and an increase in core body temperature can lead to overheating and exhaustion.
Staying hydrated is an all-day affair. Start your day with at least 8-16 ounces of water and sip it frequently throughout the day. Consuming at least 32 ounces of water during your workout should keep you adequately hydrated. Exercise that lasts longer than an hour and/or takes place in high heat and humidity requires additional fluid intake and the possible addition of electrolytes to replace what is lost in sweat.
What Time Do You Exercise?
Next, consider at what point during the day do you exercise? Whether you work out first thing in the morning, mid-day or in the evening will factor into your meal-timing strategy.
If you work out first thing in the morning, you don’t have much time to eat and allow your food to digest. Because liquid digests faster, a small smoothie might work well as a pre-workout meal. If your experience is that any type of food doesn’t sit well with you, it may be better to eat nothing. In fact, some people believe that exercising in a fasted state will help burn more body fat. Really, it’s a matter of personal preference.
Also, take into consideration the type and duration of exercise that will be performed. If you’re going to do an endurance workout (>60 minutes) or high-intensity interval-training workout, you are at greater risk of glycogen depletion, hypoglycemia and fatigue during exercise. Pre-workout meals are vital, and you might also consider consuming a drink with 30-60 grams of carbohydrates each hour during prolonged exercise.
If you work out later in the day, you can time your meals to help provide you with enough fuel to perform your best. The greater the amount of time between your meal and exercise, the bigger the meal can be. If you have one hour until your workout, a meal or snack containing 1 gram/kg (of body weight) of carbohydrate is appropriate. If you have two hours until your gym session, take in 2 grams/kg of carbohydrate. With three to four hours until your workout, consider a meal with 3-4 grams/kg of carbohydrate. Including 15-20 grams of protein in your pre-workout meal can help with blood-sugar control, maintain or increase muscle mass, and decrease muscle damage during the workout.
What to Eat After You Exercise
The goal of the post-workout meal is to help you recover, rehydrate,