It’s All About The Timing

Image courtesy of Gualberto 107 /
Image courtesy of Gualberto 107 /

We all know this from sit coms and movies right? How many times did “timing” make life difficult for Ross and Rachel? But, it’s also really important in almost every sport.  Baseball players have to swing at the right time to connect with the ball and get a hit. Olympic lifters need to pull and drop under the weight at the right time to make a lift. And rowers focus on maintaining a steady pace and stroke rhythm while keeping in sync with the boat.  In much the same way that you would make and execute a race plan for a 2K test, it is important to plan when and what you eat surrounding workouts. In this post I’ll discuss the best foods to eat and when.  That way you can keep having awesome workouts.

Before a workout your body should have a topped off fuel tank. This means you should have enough glycogen (the body’s stored form of carbohydrate) stored as well as some more readily available from food. In general, pre workout meals or snacks should be:

  • Enough energy to prepare you for the workout without leaving you
    Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /
    Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

    hungry or with undigested food in your stomach

  • Low in fiber and fat
  • Higher in carbohydrates
  • Moderate in protein

Meals low in fat and fiber will allow your stomach to empty in time so you can avoid stomach discomfort. The carbohydrates will top off glycogen stores, maintain blood sugar levels, and provide energy.  Protein will help you avoid hunger. In addition, it is important to be hydrated before exercise. The recommendation is that athletes drink 2-3 milliliters of water per pound of body weight at least 4 hours before working out to hydrate and get rid of any excess fluid (Rodriguez et al 2009). This means a 140 pound athlete should be drinking 280 – 420 milliliters of water, or about 1-2 8 ounce glasses or one standard 16.9 ounce water bottle (the smaller one typically found in your average convenience store fridge). For more on finding your hydration needs see my post on Hydration.

How much you need to eat depends on what time of day you workout and the volume and intensity of that day’s training. Many athletes have early morning workouts, and while you don’t need a big breakfast beforehand it is important to eat something. A snack with at least 30-60 grams of carbohydrate and 10-15 grams of protein with little fat and fiber should be sufficient. Try packing something convenient the night before so you can avoid missing your snack if you wake up too late (trust me, this is bad news). Good ideas include fruit, like an apple, peach, or banana paired with lean protein such as deli meat or jerky. You can also pack a few ounces of meat leftover from dinner.  I have done dried fruit and nuts or sunflower seeds but this may be too much fat for some people.

On the other hand, if your workout is later in the day or higher in volume or intensity you will need to eat a little more. If you are exercising within 2-3 hours of a meal then that meal should be sufficient so long as it provides adequate carbohydrates and protein. If 4 hours or more pass between a meal and a workout, add in a snack 1-2 hours beforehand so you will have enough energy and avoid being hungry. In general, carbohydrate intake should be higher surrounding workouts and lower throughout the rest of the day.

The key to remember is that finding a pre workout meal/snack that works for you is trial and error: experiment with a few things and stick with the ones that work. A meal that “works” will be convenient, provide enough energy to keep you going, and leave you free of cramping or stomach pain.

During the Workout Whether or not you need to take in energy during a workout depends on how long that workout lasts. For workouts one hour or less, maintaining hydration with water alone should be sufficient. For longer workouts recommendations suggest taking about 30-60 grams per hour (Stellingwerff et al 2011). Carbohydrate during a workout should be taken in small amounts in 15-30 minute intervals to avoid any stomach issues. The best options during a workout are high carbohydrate, low-fat foods like fruit or sports drinks.

Post Workout/Recovery is the most important time, as it is the time when your body reaps the benefits of all the hard work you’ve done. During the workout your body burns through your stored glycogen, you lose fluid to sweating, and muscle tissue is broken down. Recovery is when you can replenish your stored glycogen, replace lost fluid, and rebuild damaged muscles.

Within one hour of a workout you should aim to have 30-60 grams of carbohydrate and15-20 grams of protein, and then repeat this every two hours for 4-6 hours (Rodriguez et al). So if you workout at 6 am, this could be met by eating 3 of the following times: post workout snack, breakfast, mid morning snack, or lunch.  Try to eat something that not only provides these nutrients but also provides vitamins and minerals. Research has shown that chocolate milk may be a good recovery option because the milk provides calcium and magnesium, two minerals important in muscle contractions, and potassium, which is an important electrolyte lost in sweat. So while a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel from Dunkin Donuts will provide the carbohydrates and protein you need, it provides little nutritional value in terms of vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. Better snack options are fruit smoothie with yogurt or protein powder or deli meat or jerky and fruit. If you plan on eating a meal within an hour of working out, this can serve as your recover snack. Try a veggie omelet after a morning (or evening  – who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner) workout… you won’t be disappointed!

To Wrap it up…  

Eating good foods in the right amounts at the right time is important because you can’t out train a bad diet. So, the key things to remember are:

  • Eat enough before workouts so you have energy to crush them
  • Recover smart after the workout, so you will be ready and healthy to crush the next one
  • Choose whole, non processed foods as much as possible to give your body the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it needs

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