When the timing of nutrition really matters

When you are training and aiming for a particular purpose, it’s smart to pull the big levers first. Getting enough food, enough sleep, and enough training time will take the greatest impact on your results. But once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to learn how to properly time your nutrition throughout the day.

What you need to find out before you start playing with time

As a refresher, one of the most important things in nutrition is eating the right amount of food, which we normally measure in terms of calories. Eat less than what you burn to lose weightmore than you burn to gain weight (useful if you’re trying to gain muscle), or if you don’t want to do either, just keep your calories at any level keeps your weight stable. If changing your body size isn’t a priority, you don’t need to keep track of this exactly; just make sure you’re not accidentally starving when you don’t mean to.

the next is protein. If you’re gaining muscle, it’s an important building block. If you’re losing weight, eating protein (and strength training!) helps your body retain as much muscle as possible so that most of the weight lost is fat. And if you’re doing any amount of strength or resistance training (like running), protein helps you maintain the muscle that helps you do all of that.

Once you’re getting enough calories and protein on a consistent basis, you have much more leeway to adjust your diet to your liking. Everyone should consume a certain amount of fat: 0.5 grams per pound of body weight or more. And carbs may not be essential for life (as low-carb dieters like to point out), but people who eat a lot of carbs have a a lot better time in the gym than those who don’t. Carbohydrates provide energy for activity and prevent your body from turning to muscle tissue for additional energy.

Finally, the rest of the nutrient content of the food is also important. Fiber is important. Vitamins are important. Fruits and vegetables should be a big part of everyone’s diet. These things support health even if they are not the macros you could be tracking

I mention all this because that eating is more important than when you ate it. If you’re not eating enough protein or enough vegetables, fixing that situation is more important than scheduling everything right. But if you have the basics, let’s talk about time.

Carbs before workouts

When we are resting, our body fat provides most of the fuel our bodies need. The body is constantly using fat for energy, so “fat burning” workouts or supplements are just plain silly. Fat is like a bank account: the amount is determined by how deposits balance withdrawals, not just withdrawals.

When we exercise, it’s hard for the slow and steady rate of our fat burning to keep up with what we’re asking our body to do. If we have carbohydrates available, in the form of blood sugar or muscle glycogen, we use them as a fuel source. If we don’t have enough carbohydrates available, we can feel tired or sluggish. We may still be able to get through the workout, but workouts will often feel better if we manage to get some carbs in before or even during the workout.

So if you’re feeling sluggish during your workouts, consider taking in some carbs beforehand. Also consider this time if your workouts start off well but you feel unusually fatigued at the end, or if you are in the habit of training before breakfast and want to test whether timing nutrition might give you a extra boost you didn’t even know you were missing.

“Carbs” refers to anything with sugar in it, or anything that breaks down quickly into sugar, which means mostly starches. If you can eat something shortly before your workout, try classics like:

  • A banana
  • Toast or bread with jam, or just a thin layer of something else like peanut butter
  • Oatmeal
  • Skim milk, maybe with some cereal or granola
  • Skim yogurt, maybe with some berries
  • A smoothie made from carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruit.

Protein and fat can slow digestion, so you don’t want too much in a meal you have right before your workout. This is why you might want to go with the low-fat dairy options, or keep the peanut butter on your toast in a thin layer. But if you’re eating breakfast a few hours before your workout, feel free to opt for the slower-digesting versions with full-fat dairy, or even add some protein powder to your shake.

sugar during a workout

When workouts last longer than an hour, you may need more than just a pre-workout snack. This is why marathon runners suck on gel packs while they run, and why weightlifters pass around bags of candy between sets.

If you’re consuming carbs during a workout, you’ll want something that digests quickly. This means that you want something that is more or less pure sugar. Yes, arguably you should avoid sugar. in general in a healthy diet, but in the middle of a workout sugar has a very specific purpose. It becomes available to your body very quickly, best to feed it on the spot. If you are in the middle of an endurance event, such as a long run or bike ride, you may want to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Examples would be:

  • Energy gels like GU
  • Drinks like Tailwind or Gatorade
  • Sweets, such as gummy bears (a favorite with runners) or sour patch kids (a favorite with weight and power lifters)

Many of us don’t exercise enough to have to worry about this. But if you’re training for a marathon or half marathon and find yourself dragging towards the end of your long runs, or if your lifting sessions can stretch much longer than an hour and you find yourself resting more and more between sets towards the end, try a gel or a mid-workout snack and see if you feel the difference.

Carbs after workouts, if you have another workout coming up

Let’s take another look at muscle glycogen, one of those carbohydrate sources we use during exercise. After a workout, glycogen will be depleted. Over the course of the next 24 hours, we will be eating carbohydrates as part of our meals and those glycogen stores will be replenished.

Eating a high carbohydrate diet helps fill those glycogen stores throughout the day and keep them full. (You may not replenish as much if you’re on a low-carb or keto diet.) If you finish a workout and aren’t likely to train again until tomorrow or the day after, you really don’t need to worry about this one; just eat normally.

But if you do two hard workouts a day, or if you only did one workout at night but also want to be in top shape to run the next morning, you can you want to replenish your glycogen more quickly. After an intense workout, your muscles are ready to store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen if they can get it, so consider a carbohydrate-rich meal after your workout.

Protein in small amounts throughout the day.

The most important factor when eating protein is the amount, as we discussed earlier. To meet the recommended daily allowance (the bare minimum that everyone should get, athlete or not), you need 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That would be 54 grams for a 150-pound person.

But if you’re trying to build muscle, or if you’re trying to maintain muscle while training for an endurance sport or losing weight, you want more, between 0.63 and 0.82 grams per pound of body weight depending on how intense your needs are. That would be 95 to 123 grams for that same 150-pound person. Exceeding that amount is generally good for your health (Talk to your doctor if you have kidney problems) but it is not necessary.

So what about time? Well, it turns out that your body makes the best use of protein if you can get it in multiple doses throughout the day. There is a myth that your body can only use a small amount of protein in a single sitting, leading some people to believe that the extra protein is “wasted.” That is not exactly truebut you probably will Give your body stronger signals to build muscle. if you can spread your protein over four or five meals instead of eating low-protein foods all day and then having a giant steak for dinner.

A good way to follow this rule of thumb is to track your total protein and make sure you have multiple times throughout the day that you’re eating at least 20 grams of protein or more. That could be breakfast, lunch, a protein bar for a snack, dinner, and then a simple smoothie with protein powder at night.

Protein, fat and fiber when you want to feel full or slow digestion

We have talked about fast-digesting carbohydrates (sugar, simple starches), but the other side of the coin is that other nutrients are digested more slowly. You don’t want that when you’re in the middle of a workout, but may be useful at other times.

For example, oatmeal tends to keep you feeling full longer than something like white bread. because it has a lot of soluble fiber. Protein makes you feel full because your stomach holds protein-containing foods longer than other foods. (The stomach is just one of many parts of your digestive system, but it’s where proteins take time to break down before being sent on to the next stage.) Fats also tend to make people feel full, although this can vary from person to person.

So if you are having breakfast before a long morning at work and you know it’ll be a while before you hit lunch, oatmeal (fiber) with almond butter (fat) and a side of scrambled egg whites (protein) will keep you full much longer than some toast with jam. Save the toast for later when you want a pre-workout snack.

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