What to eat, and when to eat it is a vital part of achieving your fitness goals. Whilst there are varying theories on what is optimal and what is not so optimal, there are some solid, hard-and-fast rules that should be observed in order to maximise your potential and to reach your goals in the most efficient way possible.
Why Nutrient Timing Is Important
The body is like a machine: if you don’t provide it with the right kind of fuel when it needs it, it will not run properly and is more likely to breakdown. If you want to maximise your output in the gym, it is crucial that you give your body the necessary nutrients at the right time.
You’ve probably read that your pre- and post- workout meals are the most important part of your nutrition plan. What you eat before you train can be the difference between a killer workout and a dud; a killer workout leads to killer gains, dud workouts lead to…well, duds. Your post workout meal is equally as important, helping to regulate your blood sugar and refuel your muscles with much-needed nutrients to aid their recovery.
It is essential that you maximise your time in the gym in order to hit your goals. When your body is properly fuelled, it can be pushed further, lift heavier and go for longer. Better workouts = better gains.
Optimise Your Pre & Post Workout Nutrition
Regardless of whether you are cutting or bulking, pre-workout carbs are a must. But don’t go reaching for that energy drink just yet!
It’s vital that you give your body the right kind of carbohydrate before training. Carbohydrates are broadly split into 2 categories: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Ultimately, the body breaks down all carbohydrates into their simplest form: glucose. Simple carbs are broken down and absorbed by the body rapidly and produce a sharp spike in blood sugar and energy. Examples include sugar, white bread and fruit.
At the other end, you have complex carbs, which are digested much more slowly and therefore release their energy gradually over time. Good sources include oats, brown grains and brown rice. Neither is better outright than the other – they both have their place and function.
The best time to consume complex carbohydrates is 1.5-2 hours before training. This way, they are given plenty of time to be digested and provide a gradual increase in energy, rather than a sharp surge in energy followed by an equally sharp crash. By consuming complex carbs pre-workout, you also load up your muscles with glycogen (stored glucose that the muscles use for energy). The more muscle glycogen you have, the more weight you can lift and for longer periods of time.
When you lift weights or perform any kind of strenuous activity, your muscles’ glycogen stores get depleted. Because of this, post-workout is the best time to consume simple carbohydrates. After a hard workout, your muscles are craving carbohydrates – they need them in order to replenish their glycogen stores, and they will be unable to recover as efficiently without them. The faster they can be delivered, the better!
The Often Neglected Post-Post-Workout Meal
What you consume a few hours after you have finished training is also important. By consuming simple carbohydrates immediately post-workout, you also cause your blood sugar to spike due to the influx of glucose. Whilst this is desirable post-workout – it means there is plenty of glucose readily available for the muscles – the downside is as your muscles take up the glucose, your blood sugar will start to drop.
If your blood sugar drops too low, you will begin to feel weak, irritable and hungry. To prevent this from happening, consume another meal around 2 hours after your post workout meal of protein, complex carbohydrate and veggies in order to regulate your blood sugar and prevent you from crashing. This will also suppress your appetite and help you to feel fuller for longer, as well as providing your body with further much-needed nutrients.
What About Protein?
You will see many different recommendations for daily protein intake depending where you look. As a general rule of thumb, 1.2-1.4g per kilo of bodyweight is more than enough for a casual fitness enthusiast looking to build muscle or burn fat. Sure, you could have more, but it won’t make an awful lot of difference in the long run – other than increasing the cost of your weekly shop.
Furthermore, there’s no real ‘magic number’ of protein to take at each meal. As a rule of thumb, ensure you get at least 20-30g of protein at every meal, including in your pre and post workout meals.
So How Much Carbohydrate Should I Consume?
This is where you need to do some maths. Ideally, around 1.5-2 hours before training, you should consume 30-35% of your daily carbohydrate allowance in one meal. Of course, your daily allowance depends entirely on your goals, activity levels, gender and current body composition, so I highly recommend using an online calorie/macronutrient calculator to work out your requirements.
Remember – complex carbohydrates (brown rice, brown bread, oats etc.) are the best source of energy pre-workout, so avoid any sugary foods in the hours before training.
Post-workout, you should strive to achieve a ratio of 1:3 of protein to carbohydrates. This is the time for simple, quick-digesting carbs. A great way to refuel the body fast after training is to consume a shake of 1 part protein and 3 parts dextrose (a sugar). For example, if you have a shake of 20g protein, you should add 60g dextrose into the mix. Ideally, you would consume this meal 30-45 minutes after training in order to take advantage of the muscles heightened receptive state towards carbohydrates.
Don’t forget to consume a solid meal of protein and complex carbs around 2 hours after your post-workout meal to regulate your blood sugar and prevent you from crashing!
Follow these basic pre and post nutrition guidelines, and you will be well on your way to better workouts, better recovery and better gains.