Nutrition Timing for Maximizing Performance and Recovery

Evidence-Based Nutrition to Maximize Your Performance

It has long been known that diet can have a major impact on exercise performance as well as training adaptation. However, it has become increasingly evident that when one eats can be just as important as what one eats.

While the type of exercise will dictate the training response of the body, the type of nutrients and when they are consumed will significantly affect the quality of an exercise session, rate of recovery, and magnitude of training adaptation. In essence, appropriate nutrition timing and supplementation can maximize your performance gains by improving the quality of your exercise sessions, rate of recovery, and training adaptation.

Nutrient timing can be divided into 3 phases: the energy phase, the anabolic phase, and the adaptation phase.

1. Energy Phase (Pre-, Peri-workout)

The energy phase is divided into two time periods: pre-exercise and during exercise.

The pre-exercisenutrition period is important for making sure that your body has enough fuel to perform throughout your entire training session. It takes place 4 hours or less before exercise, and is designed to maximize muscle glycogen stores. Multiple studies have demonstrated that ingesting a meal containing 150 to 200 g of carbohydrate 4 hours before exercise can increase muscle glycogen stores and improve exercise performance. 1-6

During exercise, it is believed that ingesting multiple carbohydrate forms (eg., dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin) optimizes how your body burns during a training session when compared to a single carbohydrate source.7 Furthermore, the efficacy of supplementation during exercise can be enhanced by adding a moderate amount of protein.

Researchers measured the time to exhaustion during cycling exercise in trained cyclists that consumed either a carbohydrate-only (6%) beverage, or a mixed carbohydrate-protein (3% carbohydrate/1.2% protein) beverage. Supplementation was provided every 20 minutes during the exercise. The authors found that the mixed carbohydrate-protein beverage resulted in a 28.7% greater time to exhaustion compared to the carbohydrate-only beverage.8

In addition to improved performance, carbohydrate/protein supplementation during exercise has been shown to attenuate muscle damage by lowering plasma levels of plasma creatine kinase, as well as muscle soreness ratings 24 hours post-exercise when compared to a carbohydrate-only supplement.9-14

2. Anabolic Phase (Post-workout)

Immediately after an intense training session the body is in a catabolic state – muscle and liver glycogen levels are reduced or depleted, substrate availability is low, muscle protein breakdown is elevated, blood insulin is low, and cortisol and other catabolic hormones are elevated. Muscle tissue is very responsive to nutrition and supplementation after a workout, and eating the right types and amounts of nutrients will shift your body towards an anabolic state and maximize recovery.

Timing is crucial for post-exercise supplementation, as post-exercise muscle glycogen synthesis occurs almost immediately after carbohydrate is consumed. Previous studies demonstrated that delaying supplementation for 2 hours reduces the rates of muscle glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis by 50% or more;15,16 and the longer post-exercise nutrient supplementation is delayed, the longer the catabolic state prevails, leading to increased inflammation, muscle damage, and soreness.17

Most research studies clearly support acute supplementation soon after exercise for optimal stimulation of protein synthesis, enhancing training adaptation, and reducing indicators of muscle damage and soreness.18-22, 17 A combination of carbohydrate and either protein or essential amino acids (EAA) have been shown to be particularly effective. In one particular study, cyclists were provided with a carbohydrate/protein supplement immediately or 3 hours after performing a 1-hour moderate intensity exercise bout. The group supplemented immediately after demonstrated 12% higher whole body protein synthesis and 300% higher leg muscle protein synthesis than when the supplement was delayed. Furthermore, a positive protein balance was only reached when supplementation occurred immediately after exercise, than when delayed.16

3. Recovery Phase (Adaptation)

This period occurs 4 to 6 hours after the initial post-exercise supplementation, and emphasizes on maintaining high levels of muscle glycogen storage and protein synthesis to keep up with your body’s recovery.15, 23, 24 During this period, the amount of carbohydrate and protein consumed do not need to be as high to aid the recovery process – regular daily meals and snacks are sufficient enough to optimize a positive protein balance. Even a low-calorie protein snack before bedtime can be an effective way to optimize recovery.

Here is an example of possible nutrient timing with workouts, supplements, and meals for 3 different daily training schedules:

  Daily Workout Schedules 
Source: Ivy, JL, Ferguson-Stegall LM (2013). Nutrient timing: the means to improved exercise performance, recovery, and training adaptation. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 8: 246-259.
Time of Day AM WorkoutPM Workout2x/day Workout
7:00 AMBreakfastBreakfastBreakfast
8:00 AM
9:00 AMWorkoutWorkout
10:00 AMPost-workout supp.Post-workout supp.
11:00 AM
12:00 PMLunchLunchLunch
1:00 PM
2:00 PM
3:00 PMCarb:Protein SnackCarb:Protein Snack
4:00 PMWorkout
5:00 PMWorkoutPost-workout supp.
6:00 PMDinnerPost-workout supp.
7:00 PM
8:00 PMBedtime SnackDinner
9:00 PM
10:00 PMBedtime SnackBedtime Snack

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