In this complex world of macros and micros, high-carb vs. low-carb, fat loading diets, Paleo plans and gluten-, grain- and dairy-free, it can be easy to overlook certain fundamental factors in your nutrition.
One such prime example is nutrient timing
Also known as peri-workout nutrition, this refers to what you eat in the times immediately around your training.
Peri-workout nutrition has long been considered highly important in the world of elite sport and professional athletics, and it’s made its way into the bodybuilding realms too, as demonstrated by the cornucopia of supplement adverts in magazines, and the vast sums spent on advertising the latest pre-workout drinks, vaso dilators, energy boosters and recovery shakes.
But can it help you?
Is it worth you looking at tweaking your meal timings based on when you train (or even how you train) to maximize your performance in the gym, your fat loss and your body composition?
And, if so, what’s the right way to go about it?
What is Peri-Workout Nutrition?
Quite simply, peri-workout nutrition is what you eat (and digest) before, after – and even during – a workout.
While you can’t put an exact timescale on it, seeing as the digestion process of a fast-acting meal won’t really get going for 45 minutes after eating, while a slower digesting meal will hang around in your system for up to 6 hours delivering nutrients effectively, I guess we can say that the peri-workout window lasts 6 hours.
Take the time you work out, and move back 3 hours – that’s when your peri-workout window starts.
Now look at when you begin training, wind your watch forward 3 hours, and we’ll say that’s the window shuts. Now you know the timescales you’re working with when it comes to your peri-workout protocol.
Purpose of Peri-Workout
The purpose of focusing on peri-workout nutrition is twofold –
- To maximize performance in your session
- To improve recovery afterwards
It’s that simple, hence why athletes have been stressing over this stuff for decades, while the general public is still relatively new to it.
Picking Your Pre-Workout
Before looking at any supplements, think about your pre-workout meal.
The main rule here (and with any aspect of nutrient timing) is to pick what works best for you.
Theoretically, carbs are your body’s main fuel source, which would indicate that a high-carb meal would be best. Think your typical marathon runner’s carb loading protocol of cereals, pasta, energy bars and dried fruit.
However, some folk function best off a higher fat, lower carb meal pre-workout.
If you’re going with carbs, then faster digesting, lower fiber ones may be better, as these won’t sit too heavy, or make you feel weighed down and sluggish.
Try a high-carb pre-workout meal for one week, then a high-fat pre-workout meal the next, and see what you fare best with.
Sample Pre-Workout Meal
Week one could be, for instance, a couple of rice cakes with a banana and a scoop of protein powder, while your higher fat meal in week two could be ½ an avocado wrapped in smoked salmon, accompanied by a handful of walnuts.
When it comes to pre-workout formulas, you could try out a pre-made supplement, but your best bets are caffeine and beta alanine. Caffeine can come in coffee or supplemental form, while 2-3 grams of beta alanine will suffice.
The most critical factor to consider in the post-workout window is protein.
Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to burning fat and building muscle, post-workout protein matters more than post-workout carbs, according to a meta analysis study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. (1)
You need around 0.4 to 0.5 grams per kilogram (0.18-0.22 grams per pound) within 3 to 4 hours of your pre-workout protein dose.
This could come in any form. You don’t HAVE to have a shake, as many people think. Sure, the protein may be delivered slightly quicker than from whole food, but bear in mind that whatever you ate pre-workout will still be digesting, and your muscles will be uptaking protein from that meal, so there’s no need to slam your ultra fast-digesting whey isolate shake as soon as you finish your final set of curls!
Take your time, and sit down to a protein-based meal of steak, chicken, fish or dairy 60-90 minutes after you’re done if you’d prefer.
The same case can be made for carbohydrate.
Carb dosage is dependant on your goals
For endurance athletes, those training twice a day, or anyone particularly concerned with performance, carbs post-workout are pretty vital, so you will want some rice, sweet potatoes or fruit with that post-workout protein.
For fat loss, however, as your glycogen stores will be depleted post-workout and your body utilizing more fat as a fuel source, you may decide to fill up mainly on protein, healthy fats on veggies after training, and leave the carbs until a little later.
The only people who should bother with fast-acting carb powders and sports drinks are those training later in the day, or competing in multiple events. (Think extended races like the Tour de France.)
Intra workout nutrition is anything you eat while you train
You don’t want to be taking a three-course lunch into the weight room, or even sitting down with a ham sandwich between your sets of squats, but if you’re training purely for performance, strength or hypertrophy, and your sessions run longer than 90 minutes, then some fast-digesting carbs (a sports drink, an energy bar, or even some candy) along with a BCAA drink might be useful.
Aside from the pre-workout caffeine and beta alanine, and the carb powders we touched on, there’s no need to take any workout-related supplements.
Things like creatine have plenty of research backing them, but this can be taken any time. Additionally, while glutamine, fish oils and vitamin D all have their uses, they won’t directly be of benefit in the peri-workout window.
Your general nutrition will have a bigger impacton body composition
Focusing in on peri-workout nutrition can certainly make your sessions more productive, improve your recovery and have a positive impact on your physique goals.
But what you eat over the course of a day, a week, a month and a year will have far more of an effect on how you look, so make sure you nail your nutrition as a whole before looking for any magic tips and tricks on nutrient timing.