If you are serious about getting the most from your workouts, maximizing your fitness, or losing weight as efficiently as possible, you will undoubtedly have more than a passing interest in nutrition and need to be aware of nutrient timing. What you eat literally forms the base on which your success is built. Just as ignoring a building’s foundation could lead to poor structural integrity, ignoring your nutritional foundation will undermine your workout results.

Protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals all play essential roles in the production of energy and your recovery from exercise so it is essential that your diet matches your fitness and health goals.

Eat For Your Goals

Ignoring your body’s need for the right nutrients could mean your workouts fail to deliver any meaningful results. You’ll spend a lot of time and a lot of energy without anything to show for it. Remember, you are what you eat! To get the results you truly deserve, you need to align your food intake to your workouts.

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For example, if you want to lose weight, a low-calorie, low-carb, high protein, and moderate fat approach is best, while if you want to gain muscle, you generally need plenty of calories plus and an abundance of protein.

However, once you have aligned your diet to your goals, there is one more thing you should consider if you want to optimize your progress – nutrient timing.

What Is Nutrient Timing?

Nutrient timing is the practice of eating certain foods at specific times of the day to make the most of your hormonal state and need for energy. This approach reflects how your body’s nutrient requirement changes according to whether you are about to exercise, have just exercised, or are recovering from exercise.

While it is possible to make progress by simply eating three square meals a day and a few healthy snacks in between, such an approach does not take into account how your body’s need for nutrients changes throughout the day. Nutrient timing, therefore, ensures your body gets exactly what it needs, when it needs it.

While this might sound complicated, it’s simply a matter of adjusting your food intake around exercise. There are four main “windows of opportunity” for nutrient timing:

  • Before exercise
  • During exercise
  • Immediately after exercise
  • Recovering between workouts

Nutrient Timing – Before Exercise

Your workouts use energy. The more intense the workout, the more energy you need. While it is possible to exercise on an empty stomach, if increased performance or muscle gain is your goal, fasted exercise may hinder your progress. If, however, you are exercising for fat loss, working out on an empty stomach can be beneficial.

Assuming you’re exercising to build more lean muscle mass, it is important to start your workout with full muscle glycogen (glucose) stores so you have plenty of fuel for your workout. You also need an abundance of protein-derived amino acids to minimize muscle breakdown.

To achieve this, you should try to eat a balanced meal containing protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats two to three hours before exercise.

Personally, I choose a full meal replacement shake with a balanced blend of macronutrients including an ample amount of protein. This is a great choice if you exercise early in the morning or right after work because you can consume it 30 – 60 minutes before exercising.

Even if your main goal is fat loss, and you choose to perform your workouts in a fasted state, consuming branched-chain amino acids before exercise can help prevent unwanted muscle breakdown but will not interfere with fat loss. A high-quality whey protein shake will delivery on the branched-chain amino acids your body needs.

As to exactly how much you should eat and when, the answer is dependent on how quickly you digest your food, your size, and your training goals. If you are trying to gain muscle or are training very intensely, a bigger pre-training meal is more appropriate. In contrast, if you want leaner gains or your workout is less intense, a lighter meal is more appropriate. Adjust the size of your pre-workout meal to match your nutritional and energy needs.

Nutrient Timing – During Exercise

Long, intense workouts can deplete your glycogen stores – glycogen being the glucose locked inside your muscles. When glycogen levels are depleted, you will start to feel fatigued and your workout intensity will decline. This tends to happen if:

  1. You didn’t have a pre-exercise meal
  2. Your workout is especially long and/or intense

In these instances, it may be appropriate to consume fast-acting carbohydrates and protein during your workout to prevent fatigue and minimize muscle breakdown.

As, during exercise, blood is diverted away from the digestive system and toward the working muscles, nutrients consumed during a workout are best in liquid form (a sports drink or protein shake). Consuming solids during a workout can make you feel heavy in the gut.

If, however, your goal is fat loss, make sure you’re not over-consuming any sports drinks. They are loaded with sugar and will ultimately work against your goal of reducing unwanted fat.

Nutrient Timing – Immediately After Exercise

After exercise, your muscles are like dried-out sponges. Some, most, or almost all muscle glycogen will have been depleted. The exercising will have also caused your muscles to break down. In other words, your muscles are desperately in need of repair.

To facilitate the speedy recovery from exercise, your sensitivity to the hormone insulin is elevated – insulin being responsible for ferrying nutrients into your cells. This means that almost all food eaten immediately post-exercise will be directed into your muscles where it will be used to hasten the repair and recovery processes.

Increased insulin sensitivity lasts for several hours after exercise, and to make the most of this phenomenon, your post-exercise meals should be the largest of the day and the most nutritionally-dense.

Ideally, you should start the refueling process as soon after exercise as possible. A protein and carb smoothie is the ideal choice, but solids can work equally well if convenient. A second post-training meal is also advisable to make the most of your increased insulin sensitivity.

Post-training meals should consist of good quality protein such as fish, chicken, eggs, or lean beef plus fast-acting carbohydrates (white rice, pasta, or potatoes). These foods are quickly and easily broken down so they can be rapidly utilized by your muscles and liver. Avoid large amounts of fats during this meal as fat can blunt insulin sensitivity.

Delaying your post-exercise meal can delay your recovery, so it is important to make the most of your increased sensitivity to insulin, which is arguably the most powerful anabolic hormone.

Nutrient Timing – Between Workouts

Insulin sensitivity declines after a few hours, as does your ability to effectively process large amounts of carbohydrates. In fact, once your carbohydrate needs are met, carbs are very easily converted to body fat.

For this reason, it makes sense to reduce your carb intake until your next pre-exercise meal. This doesn’t mean that zero carbs should be consumed, but you should avoid fast-acting carbs and over-consuming carbs. This rule applies whether you’re training for fat loss, for muscle gain, or for improved performance.

Protein and healthy fats should be your nutritional priority between workouts with carbs only serving as an accompaniment. The carbs consumed should be slow-acting and fibrous (vegetables, wild rice, legumes, and brown pasta).

Nutrient Timing – A Summary

We’ve gone over a lot of information, so here’s a summary to help you decide what you should eat and when to eat it to get the most out of nutrient timing:

Pre-Workout: Either eat a healthy meal of carbs and protein 2-3 hours before exercise; or, consume a nutritionally-balanced meal replacement shake with an ample amount of protein 30-60 minutes before exercising.

During Workout: If your workout is intense or longer than an hour, consume protein and carbs in liquid form to prevent fatigue.

Post-Workout: Consume fast-acting carbohydrates plus protein immediately after exercise to facilitate recovery.

Between Workouts: Continue to consume protein and healthy fats, plus some fibrous carbs to promote the recovery process. Dial back on the fast-acting carbs to avoid gaining fat.

Timing your nutrient intake around your workouts will maximize your results. It may seem like a lot of extra work, but it’s really nothing more than adjusting your food intake for what you are about to do and for what you have done. It won’t take you long to catch on and develop a healthy routine.

If you’re going to take the time and energy to exercise, you probably want to get the best results from your investment. Timing your nutrient intake around exercise means that that’s exactly what you’ll get.

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