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How Athletes Should Time Food Intake

May 2, 2019

Eating for optimal performance can be a challenging task between meal planning, preparation, and making sure your macros are in balance. However, this task becomes even harder when you have to time meals. The benefits of timing meals for athletes can provide many benefits to health and performance that will be worth the extra work.

Each athlete will have different nutrient needs to help them best prepare for their respective sport. For example, endurance athletes will need more carbohydrates before a workout, while those who are recreational athletes will need much less carbohydrates before a workout. Read below to learn more about nutrient timing and how it can help every kind of athlete perform at their best and be their healthiest.

What is nutrient timing?

Nutrient timing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s basically timing out when you eat your meals and snacks to optimize health benefits. When it comes to sports nutrition, this timing, if done properly, could help improve performance during workouts and athletic events. The basics of nutrient timing include planning out what to eat before, during, and after workouts and athletic events.

Basics of nutrient timing

A basic nutrient timing plan of fluid and fuel before a workout or athletic event is as follows:

  • Before: You should eat a 200-300 calorie snack about an hour before a workout or event. You should also drink plenty of fluids about 2 hours or so before.
  • During: While you’re working out, you should be sure to stay hydrated by drinking about 4 to 8 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes or so. This fluid should be water with shorter workouts. However, this fluid should be some kind of sports drink with electrolytes if you are exercising more than an hour. This is because you’ll need the electrolytes and some carbs to replace lost sweat.
  • After: Once your workout is done, you should drink plenty of fluids right away and try to eat no later than about 1-2 hours after your workout to help replenish nutrient stores. For shorter workouts, this can be a snack, but with longer workouts (over an hour), you should consume a meal. Whether it’s a meal or snack, it should be balanced with protein and carbohydrates.

The fuels for athletes may differ according to the sport they are involved in. For example, research states that protein is best for strength training athletes, dietary fat is best for those involved in lower-intensity activities, and carbohydrate is optimal for high-intensity performance.

Nutrient timing and athletes research

The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that those who would like to use nutrient timing to optimize their exercise performance should use the following guidelines for reference.

  • When planning meals and snacks, use only whole foods, fortified foods, and nutritional supplements.
  • Glycogen, which are the carbohydrate stores in the body, are maximized by following a high- carbohydrate diet consisting of 8 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. These stores are needed for high-volume exercise.
  • If you’re in need of quick glycogen restoration, then you can refeed with carbohydrate-rich foods of a glycemic index of 70 or higher and consume 1.2 grams of kilograms per hour. Other strategies recommended for fast glycogen storage include consuming 3 to 8 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight as well as balance this restoration meal with 0.8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram per hour with 0.2 to 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram per hour.
  • Consuming carbohydrate throughout resistance exercise has been shown to help increase glycogen stores and help normalize blood glucose levels.
  • Ingesting a 20 to 40-gram high-quality protein dose every three to four hours while awake to favorably affect muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Such high-quality protein should be consumed within 2 hours after exercise to stimulate increases in MPS.
  • Consume 30 to 40 grams of casein protein prior to sleep to increase MPS without affecting fat breakdown. You can find casein in foods like milk, kefir, yogurt, and cheese.
  • In those people who don’t exercise, nutrient timing of meals has shown limited effect on weight loss or body composition.

The American Council on Exercise provides similar guidelines in simpler terms that include:

  • Start the day with 8 to 16 ounces of water and continue to drink fluid throughout the day for proper hydration.
  • Consume at least 32 ounces during your workout for workouts less than an hour. Longer workouts will require more fluid replenishment as well as electrolyte replenishment.
  • Consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour during prolonged exercise.
  • Your pre-workout meal or snack should contain about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour before your workout. For example, if you decide to eat a meal 3 hours before your workout, then consume 3 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. About 15 to 20 grams of protein should be included with this meal or snack.
  • Post-workout, you should consume 15 to 25 grams of protein along with 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight with 5 to 10 grams of fat to keep you satiated. If you exercise at night, don’t skip your post-workout meal since it will be used to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle.

Using these guidelines, you can make sure your body has the nutrition it needs to perform at your best. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends though that you should never try any new foods on game day or race day since this could lead to indigestion and in turn could negatively impact your performance, not to mention your well-being. Use these meal and snack ideas from the United States Anti-Doping Agency to plan well-balanced meals and snacks for optimal performance and nutrition.

Take home message

Although it’s important to eat the right foods to stay healthy such as whole, minimally processed, and fortified food items, it’s also important to time out your meals properly. This means making sure you have enough nutrients and fluid before, during, and after exercise events and workouts to ensure your body has the energy it needs to perform.

Nutrient timing may take some planning, but it will be worth it when you start seeing progress in your exercise performance goals. And if you’re on the go while trying to stay on top of your game, use the HowUdish app to find nutritious meals within your dietary needs near you so you can stay on track with your goals.