So you have been nailing your diet and training consistently but want to level up your performance? This is where when you eat can make a tangible difference.
As usual, some science is included, but feel free to skip to the sections that you want.
Table of contents:
Debunking the myths
Popular claims made around nutrient timing include:
Debunking the myths:
Whilst some research indicates that there is a post-exercise window (1), this ‘window’ of opportunity, appears to be greater than 1 hour.
Additionally, hitting your daily protein intake comes before any timing!
Protein timing may still be relevant for protein distribution due to the muscle full concept – the idea that there is a ceiling on how much protein can be used for MPS at one time. This is suggested to be about 20-40g of protein, over an approximate 3 hour period. (8,9).
Research indicates that consuming a high-quality protein such as 20-25g whey or 6g essential amino acids (EAAs) pre-workout can elevate muscular uptake of AA for up to 4.4 times and that levels do not return to baseline until 3 hours following workout (11).
If you eat a protein rich meal 3-4 hours pre workout, you ideally need to consume protein as soon as possible post training – if we are have the goal to optimise recovery and body composition.
2. Nutrient timing can prevent fat gain
This claim is based on the idea that nutrients, specifically carbs, are less likely to be stored as fat immediately post workout due to glycogen depletion and glucose use during a workout (resistance, high-intensity or > 90 mins endurance).
On a short-term basis, it maybe that available nutrients will initially be less likely to be stored as fat as they will be utilised to restore glycogen.
However, on a long-term (24 hour) basis, providing overall energy balance remains similar and only nutrient timing differs, the net difference will be zero –
Fat gain can only be prevented by consistently being at energy balance.
3. Nutrient timing can have a much greater impact on body composition than total daily nutrient intake
Body composition is influenced by energy balance, training stimulus and protein intake. To reduce fat stores, requires creating an energy deficit – most readily achieved through creating a calorie deficit!
Physical activity can also increase that energy deficit. Likewise, to increase fat stores, requires an energy surplus.
To increase muscle mass and strength requires following a progressive resistance training programme, hitting your daily protein intake and having enough calories (12). The amount of muscle mass and rate you wish to build it at, along with your current levels of bodyfat and training experience, will determine how much of an energy surplus you need to be in.
Therefore resistance exercise, followed by energy and protein intake, are the most important factors for influencing body composition.
So does nutrient timing matter?
Whilst a meta-analysis of nutrient timing concluded that the 1-hour post-anabolic window may not stand, nutrient timing still matters – especially if you are training regularly.
In general, space calories and protein by no more than 3-4 hours around training, so you have sufficient calories and protein availability.
Reminder of how nutrition influences performance and recovery
Exercise requires sugar (glucose) to generate energy (ATP) – this can deplete muscle glycogen levels and trigger muscle protein breakdown (13). Calorie and nutrient availability around training can therefore influence our capacity for output, as well as replenishing stores/
Times when you may deplete glycogen stores:
Consuming carbs pre and intra workout can provide an immediate source of sugar to fuel the workout, benefit performance and reduce fatigue.
Thus the immediate post workout shake is less relevant for glycogen repletion. Since glucose is the preferred fuel for the body, to restore glycogen rapidly, a carbohydrate based meal would be optimal.
Glycogen depletion is associated with fatigue and reduced levels of performance. Rates of glycogen repletion are faster immediately (2-4 hours) post workout (18) due to increased insulin sensitivity and exercise-induced muscle responsiveness.
But stores can be normalised within 24 hours (unless you have severe muscle damage) and it will not make a difference whether you replenish levels immediately or within your window (18) – unless, you are training again that day or you trained in the evening and are training first thing in the morning.
Whilst research indicates that the addition of carbs to protein post workout may not increase MPS, it may reduce muscle protein breakdown (MPB). Since muscle protein synthesis is a balance between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown, levels of glycogen may therefore influence the repair of muscle fibre and recovery levels.
Additionally since consuming 20-40g dose of protein every 3-4 hours is optimal for MPS, having one of your protein doses will likely be necessary at this time.
Additionally, the stimulus for recovery may be stronger in the hours immediately following training and avoiding entering a catabolic state is a priority.
- Consume a protein rich meal/snack within 3-4 hours of your last meal/snack pre workout. Protein shakes/milk are a useful way to ensure you are meeting your protein intake post workout, whilst hydrating.
- Consume enough carbs within a 24 hours period to replenish glycogen levels or sooner for your next workout. Post workout is an ideal opportunity to have your second fruit.
So does it matter when I eat around my training?
Whilst that immediate 1-hour post-anabolic period may not be as crucial as once believed, eating within a certain window around training is still relevant to optimise recovery and future performance.
Since a protein-rich meal has a limited anabolic impact of approx. 3-4 hours, overall daily meal patterns will influence nutrient timing. Additionally, the extent to which it matters will depend upon you as an individual!
The most important factor alongside your training is meeting your daily energy needs, as well as macro and micronutrient intake. Ensure that you are doing this consistently before considering nutrient timing!
Who nutrient timing matters more for:
Elite athletes: to optimise performance and recovery. The appropriate intake of carbs and protein, along with electrolytes can make a tangible difference when you are consistently eating and training well
For muscle building: to optimise MPS and create an anabolic environment to translate this to muscle mass gains.
For fat loss: to help muscle retention and fat loss.
When training multiple times a day: to replenish glycogen levels, prevent lean muscle breakdown and aid recovery.
When endurance training >90 mins: to replenish glycogen levels, prevent lean muscle breakdown and and aid recovery.
If you have low body fat: adequate fuel around training may prevent going into breakdown state.
If you are training in a calorie deficit: as above – this means levels of hormones are altered e.g. sex and stress hormones.
If you are training in a fasted state: as above!
If your pre-workout meal was 4-6 hours pre workout: as above! You may have entered a fasted like state.
Nutrient timing matters less:
If you’ve consumed a pre-workout meal right before your workout: even if this is a simple protein shake or some EAAs then you will have the supply of amino acids to fuel the training session and support MPS.
If you’ve consumed a mixed pre-workout meal 1-3 hours pre-workout: then you should be within the window necessary for circulating levels of nutrients from a meal to reach its peak and be in an anabolic state.
For short / low intensity sessions: glycogen levels will likely not be depleted and the breakdown of muscle may have only occurred at a low level.
Pre, post, intra workout nutrition?
The purpose of pre workout nutrition is to fuel the workout so that performance can be optimised. It also creates an anabolic environment to maximise MPS.
Post workout nutrition may aid recovery – rates of glycogen resynthesis are higher in the immediate hours post workout, it can provide available amino acids for MPS and create an overall anabolic environment conducive for recovery.
Choice of post workout nutrition will depend on pre workout nutrition, as well as you as an individual, your goals and overall meal schedule!
Intra workout nutrition may also be beneficial for some of the individuals specified above – such as those who are engaging in longer durations of training and / or multiple training sessions.
Claims that nutrient timing can prevent fat gain and influence body composition are false: overall energy balance and resistance exercise will influence whether an individual gains fat or not and what their body composition is.
Muscular adaptations take place over a longer period than <1 hour post training: and may not be so relevant when you are having regular nutrient intake every 3-4 hours, meeting total energy and protein requirements, and distributing protein appropriately between meals.
Timing nutrient intake around training can optimise performance and recovery: and may be more relevant for certain individuals – elite athletes, individuals who train multiple times a day, those who are lean or in a calorie deficit or train fasted.
What are your experiences with nutrient timing? Have you noticed how timing your nutrition impacts your training, performance, recovery? Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!