Time Meals and Workouts for Best Results

Why time meals and snacks around a workout?  Optimal nutrition boosts energy levels leading up to and during the workout, while also speeding up subsequent recovery.  Here is a quick guide on what to eat and when.

Timing is key

Whenever the body does physical work, it requires a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats).  Carbohydrates keep energy levels high leading up to the workout, replenish energy post workout (glycogen stores) and sustain high performance during the workout.  Protein supports recovery by building and repairing tissues, but can also enhance a workout when eaten in specific amounts beforehand.  Fat and fiber are excellent for recovery, but can lead to gastrointestinal distress prior to exercise.

2-4 Hours before exercise

By the time exercise begins, most food should be out of the belly.  Digestion takes between 2-4 hours depending upon the composition and size of a meal.  A moderately sized meal with good complex carbohydrates (slow digesting) and a small amount of protein facilitates good energy for a workout, without relegating your body to feelings of fullness or sugar-spikes.

Focus on

  • Primarily complex carbohydrates (slower digesting to top off glycogen, your energy storage).  Try one of the following:
    • 1 yam or potato
    • 2 pieces of whole wheat bread for the sandwich ends
    • Half or whole cup brown rice or whole wheat pasta
    • 1 serving granola or cereal
    • 1 serving fruit or veggies
  • Small amounts of protein (amino acids facilitate carbohydrate usage and muscle protein synthesis). Try one of the following:
    • 1 serving meat or fish
    • 1 serving low-fat yogurt
    • Eggs
    • 1 serving legumes and beans
  • Meal examples
    • Yogurt with fruit and granola
    • Eggs with a cup of oatmeal
    • Turkey sandwich and an apple
    • Yam with fish

1 Hour before exercise

A small snack of complex carbohydrates (slow digesting) and a minimal amount of protein facilitates good energy.  For an extra edge, 1-3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight one hour pre-exercise has been the dosing and timing used in studies.

Focus on

  • Primarily complex carbohydrates.  Try one of the following:
    • 1 serving or less oats
    • 1 serving bread
    • 1 serving fruit
    • 1 serving jam
  • Small amounts of protein. Try one of the following:
    • Egg whites
    • Protein powder
    • 1 tbsp cream cheese or cheese
  • Snack examples
    • 1 Nature’s Valley granola bar
    • Banana with 1 scoop or less protein powder
    • Bagel and jam with 1 tbsp cream cheese
    • Apple and 1 piece cheese
    • 1 cup tea or coffee with one of the snack examples above

30 minutes before exercise

If you find yourself wanting to take a workout and haven’t eaten during the above-mentioned times, the body can tolerate a small amount of complex or simple carbohydrate 30 minutes prior to exercise.

Focus on…

  • Snack or beverage examples
    • Half Nature’s Valley or Kashi bar
    • Diluted sports beverage

During exercise

As mentioned in the Corporate Athlete 101 about Breakfast, simple sugars are readily absorbed by the blood stream and raise glucose levels rapidly.  Simple sugars are great to consume closer to the workout, during and directly after the workout, since they are rapidly absorbed for instant use.  During a workout, simple sugars can come in the form of diluted Gatorade and should be consumed only for the following reasons:

  • You are one hour into the workout
  • You are feeling light-headed
  • You are looking for an extra boost for a tough resistance or endurance session

Directly after exercise

Immediately post workout, the body begins to need calories to build back muscle tissue and restore glycogen to the muscles.  But not just any calories.  Calories coming from both carbohydrate and protein right away are most important.  Research suggests the most ideal composition is a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.  Research also suggests that beyond 30 grams does not further enhance the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis(1).

Focus on…

  • Snack or beverage examples.  Try one of the following:
    • 1 Horizon chocolate milk
    • 1 scoop protein powder with 1 cup milk and 1 tbsp honey
    • 1 cup flavored yogurt

45 min-2 hours post exercise

Recovery does not stop right after the workout. Even an hour or so post exercise, the body still works hard to rehydrate and recover from exercise-induced damaged muscle tissues.  This is the time to add in healthy fats.  Omega-3s are known to reduce inflammation and help cushion muscles and joints.

Another type of fat, medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s), are becoming popular to consume since they are not like other fats– while other fats are transported in the blood and shuttled to the liver, MCT’s get absorbed and used directly for energy.  Since abdominal bloating from MCT’s has been known to occur, post-exercise is most ideal time to consume.

Focus on…

  • High healthy fats to speed up recovery.  Try one of the following:
    • 1 serving salmon or fatty fish
    • 1 serving walnuts
    • 1 serving flaxseed meal
    • MCT’s coming from coconut milk
  • Healthy protein to preserve muscle and tone. Try one of the following:
    • 1 serving meat or fish
    • 1 serving low-fat yogurt
    • Eggs
    • 1 serving legumes and beans
  • Carbohydrates raise insulin to help shuttle protein for muscle use.  Fiber from carbs will supply antioxidants needed to help repair tissue damage.
    • Pasta
    • Rice
    • Bread products
    • Fruits and veggies (for fiber)
  • Meal examples
    • Salmon with stir fry veggies and noodles
    • Sushi
    • Salad with grilled chicken and a roll
    • Coconut milk with any dinner or right before bedtime

Pre-exercise: when sports nutrition does not matter

Not all exercise requires pre-workout nutrition care.  Here are some scenarios:

  • You cannot tolerate any food before exercise
    • In this case, testing out meals 2-4 hours in advance or fluids with calories can help overcome the problem.
    • Prefer running on an empty stomach?  The lack of calories won’t kill you but be sure to practice good recovery nutrition to prevent injuries
  • You are not hungry and already consumed a meal or snack
  • You are not working out vigorously and/or for a long period of time (less than 30 minutes)

(1) A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009

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