Fitness and Food Timing

Structuring Meal Timing Around your Workouts

The importance of meal timing

When it comes to eating habits and fitness, one factor seems to be given more weight than all others:  when and what to eat in order to maximize muscle gains. Do you eat right after working out? Right before? During?  Many people will tell you there is a small “anabolic window” that is rapidly closing post-exercise, and you, as Indiana Jones runs and dives under the quickly closing door, must put food in your mouth before missing your opportunity for gains.

Like many things when it comes to fitness, it is never as straightforward as an Indiana Jones reference.  Let’s break things down. As we work out, energy is needed to continuously fuel muscle contractions. This is true whether you are lifting weights or endurance training.  This generally occurs through the breakdown of carbohydrates and fat.  In conditions where energy from these sources is not sufficient protein may be broken down as well.

The idea behind the post-workout meal is essentially to prevent the breakdown of protein for energy and restore muscle glycogen levels to expedite muscle recovery and repair. (Semeco, 2016)  To do this, our bodies need adequate carbohydrates and protein, but just how much, and when?  

The main problem with focusing too much on the post-workout meal is neglecting the importance of eating PRE-workout.  In fact, what you eat before you head to the gym could have a greater effect on overall muscle protein synthesis than what you eat after.  As stated in a 2001 study, “the response of net muscle protein synthesis to consumption of an EAC [i.e., a protein/carbohydrate shake] solution immediately before resistance exercise is greater than that when the solution is consumed after exercise.” (Tipton, et al.)

The timing of the pre-workout meal can be up to 2 hours before hitting the gym. (Schoenfeld, et al, 2013)  Within this time frame, rushing home for a post-workout meal is not as critical, as the energy needed is still provided by what you ate before.  However, the longer you go beyond the 2-hour mark, the more important the post-workout meal will become. Because resistance training elicits greater muscle protein synthesis, having these nutrients in the body, ready to go before training will maximize their ability to fuel that process.  

As Jeff Nippard suggests, this points to the idea of a larger window that surrounds the entire workout.  Rather than focusing on just your pre- and post-workout nutrition, think of having a 4-6 hour window with your workout in the middle.  This will ensure that you always have the energy you need to get through your workout, and what is necessary to aid in muscle protein synthesis and recovery after your workout.

Because resistance training elicits greater muscle protein synthesis, having these nutrients in the body, ready to go before training will maximize their ability to fuel that process.  Eating before a workout can be tough though.  Being overly full or bloated while lifting weights, running or cycling can be uncomfortable.  This affects consistency and the amount of effort you are able to put commit.

The key here is balance.  You know you need protein and carbohydrates to fuel your workout, the trick is finding the right combination to give you energy and not slow you down.  I would suggest lighter carbs such as rice cakes, a banana or oatmeal that are quick and easy to digest. They are also easy to pack ahead of time so they are ready to eat when you are.  Since I tend to get my workouts in early in the morning, I try to have a jar of overnight oats with protein powder ready for me.

Fats are not essential for pre-workout meals, and since extra fat can lead to feeling more full and sluggish, I would suggest avoiding it if possible.

In terms of what to eat post-workout, many suggest a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.  The carbohydrates will help to restore muscle glycogen and the protein will help with the muscle protein synthesis that is already underway. (Zawadzki, 1992)  This could be something like chicken and rice, sweet potatoes and eggs, or beans and rice.  

My go-to post-workout breakfast is three eggs, 1 cup each of black beans and rice and 150g of sweet potatoes.  This tallies up to 115g carbohydrates, 40g protein and 16g fat.  This hits the 3:1 carb to protein ratio, with some fat to help me feel more full throughout the morning and to work towards my daily macro goals.

Remember, just because you worked out and need a post-workout meal does not mean you should rush to the nearest drive through.  The quality of food you put in your body now is more important than ever. If you’re trying to build lean body mass, your muscles need quality fuel.  You wouldn’t put the lowest octane gas in a performance car, would you?

It should be noted too that this is only a small portion of your day, and you still want to focus on achieving your overall daily intake goals for protein, carbohydrates and fat.  

To sum things up, the key here is to look at the big picture.  There is a larger window surrounding your workouts in which your body needs quality fuel in the form of carbohydrates and protein.  If you happen to be training fasted, then the post-workout meal becomes more important. If you’re not going to be able to eat right after your workout, then pad that with a little bit more food before you hit the gym.  

If you’re serious about your training and getting your body to where you want it to be, knowing exactly how to fuel it is key!

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