Meal timing is a very small aspect of nutrition when it comes to getting results, for the most part, it comes down to personal preference how many meals you eat and when you eat them, but there are some things we can do to maximise our adherence and our results in training, which I’m going to go through in today’s blog.
This blog follows on really well from the ultimate nutrition set-up, if you haven’t read that yet, I’d start there by clicking this link.
So, with regard to maximising our training, we need to pay attention to pre and post-workout feeding windows, so it’s going to depend on when you train. If you like, you can then spread the rest of the meals you eat out once you’ve decided what these two look like. Let’s explore what is most important for these meals, starting with the pre-workout meal.
The Pre-Workout Meal
Before a workout, the most important macronutrients to ingest would be protein and carbohydrates (depending on when you last worked out and when you last ate carbs – I’ll get to that in a moment). Fats are less important pre-workout because they don’t provide readily available energy or raise blood sugar, which can help with subsequent workout performance. There is also some evidence to suggest that eating fats can slow down digestion, though experts have mixed opinion on whether this is from fat or just the total calories of a meal. Even so, it makes sense to limit fats in the pre-workout window.
In terms of carbohydrates, I mentioned above that it matters when you last worked out and when you last ingested carbohydrates. If you have just worked out and this one meal is before another workout, then carbohydrates are essential to refuel. Not only that, but ideally you’d be consuming higher GI carbohydrates (dried fruit, carb powder, white bread, jam, sweets, etc) to ensure digestion and storage so that you can utilise these carbs in the next session.
This is perfect if you’re competing or doing 2-3x a day training. If you’re not, and you’ve had plenty of carbs through the day or between sessions, then it’s not as essential you have carbohydrates before training, however, they can help with feelings of energy which can then result in a better session. There’s not an optimum amount of carbs to have necessarily pre-workout, but a good rule of thumb would be 10-20% of your daily carb allotment. So if you were eating 250g of carbs each day, you’d have 25-50g in that pre-workout meal (but you could have more or less if you wanted to).
The reason protein is so important is to make sure we prevent any muscle breakdown mid-workout. We want to ensure that stored carbohydrates and fats (as well as any we take in prior) are used to fuel the workout efforts, rather than our precious muscle mass. How much protein you ask? Somewhere around 0.3-0.5g per kg of body-weight is presented in research to show optimal muscle protein synthesis. So, for example, if you weighed 80kg, you would be taking in 24-40g of protein before your workout.
Timing The Pre-Workout Meal
So, we have the building blocks of the pre-workout meal, in terms of timing, I recommend eating 1-3 hours before your workout. The only exception to this rule will be early morning training, if you wish, you can perform this workout fasted. In this instance, the evening meal the night before counts as your pre-workout meal.
I recommend eating 1-3 hours before your workout.
The closer to your workout you are eating, the more you want your foods to be faster digesting (think whey protein with water and fruit (dried/fresh). The further away from your workout, you are, the more solid foods you can eat as you have more time to digest them. This is important to note for competitions, but that’s for a separate article, you can listen to my podcast on that subject here.
Now that we have nailed the building blocks of the pre-workout meal, let’s talk about the post-workout meal
The Post-Workout Meal
The most important macronutrient in the post-workout meal is…you guessed it: protein! Why? Because protein is what our muscles need in order to recover and grow stronger. However, you don’t necessarily need to have an IV drip infusing protein straight into your muscles post-workout. You can simply wait until your next meal to get your protein hit.
In terms of timing, within 1-2 hours is probably best and we can use the same guidelines for the amount of protein as we did for the pre-workout meal. In fact, I would recommend protein being fairly evenly spread throughout the day with servings of 0.3-0.5g per kg of body-weight which I’ll go into detail on in an upcoming blog about building muscle.
In terms of the other 2 macronutrients, fat and carbs, you can have these in whatever quantities you like! You don’t necessarily need carbs in order to recover optimally from workouts, however, their ingestion can help with refilling our carbohydrate stores and you are in a great place to do this post-exercise. This is why so many talk about post-workout carbs being essential, especially because they’ll stimulate the production of insulin which will help the storage process of the protein and carbs you eat.
Regarding fats, again a lot of the literature argues that they should be kept minimal post-workout, so a good rule of thumb is to have lower fat, higher carbohydrate meals around the workout window, and have higher fat, lower carb meals further away from the workout window. I personally think this comes down to personal preference and adherence though. You could still have a moderate-high carb dinner even if you work out in the morning, especially as this could be considered your pre-workout meal.
Fitting In Your Other Meals
Once you’ve decided on when you’re training, you can then position your pre and post-workout meals in the necessary time slots before and after the workout. What you do with other meals is completely up to you. Do you prefer smaller, more frequent meals? Then maybe it’s best to eat that way. If you prefer bigger meals less often, then set up your approach that way.
There doesn’t seem to be a benefit from either/or scenario, as long as you’re eating an appropriate amount of protein and total calories for your goals. What I would say on this matter that regular eating patterns do well for improving our health markers in research studies. This also helps build eating habits that help with long-term adherence, long-term health and therefore long-term results. So it’s a good idea to build yourself a schedule and then stick to it, rather than being erratic with your eating pattern. For those of you who are shift-workers this is hard to do, but you can use the above guidelines to set out a best-case scenario.
In summary, as long as you get the pre and post-workout meals correct, you can then adjust your schedule around training for performance.