Nutrient Timing

by Chris Mohr

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While this is difficult to refute, pre- and post-workout nutrition are tied for a close second, with peri- nutrition just a nose behind. Refueling immediately post-workout is probably not a new concept. Working out depletes glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) and promotes protein breakdown (catabolism). Eating the proper nutrients soon after a workout will help replenish this glycogen and enhance protein building (anabolism). Always remember that working out is merely a stimulus needed to enhance muscle growth and recovery. However, it’s the actual time between workouts when your muscles grow.

The late Mike Mentzer always used a great analogy when discussing training. Lifting weights is like digging a hole in your muscles: if you continue to train and train without allowing for adequate recovery, the hole, per se, will only get bigger. Although he was speaking more in terms of overtraining, this same philosophy can be adopted to nutrition.

If you continue to train and don’t feed your body the nutrients it needs (adequate energy via high nutrient macronutrients), the hole will continue to grow deeper. Refueling the body allows for growth (i.e., you fill the hole from training with new lean body mass). Ultimately, over time this hole will not only “fill in” but will begin to overcompensate by overflowing or growing larger by building more lean body mass. Make sense? Extrapolating this example to nutrition and what you now know happens during rest, you should be well-aware that refueling your body around your workouts is crucial for recovery and optimal performance. Since this is not a new discovery, this article will concentrate more on pre- and post-workout nutrition. Several recent studies have demonstrated the importance of this concept, so let’s take a look.

As I mentioned, training results in muscle protein breakdown. Therefore, it makes sense that the higher the baseline protein status, the less negative impact training would have. To look at this simplistically, if you start at 100 percent protein status and go down to 50 percent from training, it would be better than starting at 50 percent and going down to 0 percent from training. In the second example you would always be trying to get up to 100 percent, whereas if you consistently fed your body the nutrients it needs, you would be better off.

A recent study investigated whether ingestion of a supplement (six grams of essential amino acids and 35 grams of sucrose) taken immediately before or after a training bout would alter the net protein balance in muscle. Interestingly, the authors noticed a significantly greater increase in those taking the pre-workout supplement compared to those taking a post-workout supplement. It appears that the mechanism here is there were more amino acids (remember, these are the building blocks of protein) available for the working muscle. Moreover, this effect carried over so that there was enhanced availability of amino acids for at least the first hour of the workout. So, you ask, “What if my workouts last more than an hour?”

Well, maybe it’s time to refeed your body some more nutrients during your workout. Why should you hinder your workout because your muscles are tired, hungry and just plain beat up? Race car drivers have the fastest, top notch cars available. However, during the Indy 500, they need to stop to refuel. Think of your muscles as race cars. If you don’t give them the fuels they need, they won’t perform.
So now the question is not only if you should feed your body before and/or during a workout, but what should you feed your body at these times. As I discussed in the previous study, participants received six grams of essential amino acids (equivalent to approximately 12 to 15 grams of whole proteins) and 35 grams of sucrose (carbohydrate). In terms of protein, there are obviously a million choices. But I don’t think gnawing on a filet mignon on your way to the gym is intelligent. As you are all aware, there are also a number of protein powders available (i.e., whey, casein, soy, etc). Furthermore, the processing of these proteins differs too (hydrolysates, isolates and concentrates). Wow, this is starting to get a bit technical. Let’s cut to the chase.

Studies have shown that whey protein, when consumed independent of any other foods, is absorbed more rapidly than casein protein. Although most of the time foods are often combined with one another, it’s safe to say whey is generally absorbed more rapidly. In terms of the various processing methods, taking one over the other will not make or break your muscle gains. Therefore, if taking a protein supplement prior to a workout, it would be best to take a quality whey protein supplement. Similarly, if taking a product during or after a workout, whey would take the cake. This is because you want a protein that’s rapidly available to your muscles. You don’t want to be sitting at the gym with a stomach full of protein powder sloshing around. Try a set of squats like that! With that said, mixing whey protein with some carbohydrates (either via powder or your favorite carbohydrate product) would be wise.

There are a number of pre-designed formulas on the market. In general, it would be best to stick with a carbohydrate:protein ratio of approximately 3 or 4:1 (e.g., for every 30 or 40 grams of carbohydrate, you should have 10 grams of protein). This could be a great thing to drink slowly on the way to the gym and continue to sip throughout your workout. Then, be sure to consume sufficient energy immediately after your workout and continue to refeed your body throughout the day. Of course, whole foods provide more nutrients than any supplement can provide, but carbohydrate:protein supplements are much more applicable and easily digested, so they are useful immediately before, during and after workouts.

So now let’s get back to the frequency of eating statement from the beginning. Utilizing the recommendations from my last piece on meal frequency, plus those in this column, one would be eating about eight times per day. Without getting into meal specifics, here’s an example of a day:

  • Meal 1 - Breakfast
  • Meal 2 - Pre-workout drink
  • Workout
  • Meal 3 - During workout drink
  • Meal 4 - Post-workout drink
  • Meal 5 - Lunch
  • Meal 6 - Afternoon snack
  • Meal 7 - Dinner
  • Meal 8 - Evening snack

Of course, when I use the word “snack,” I am referring to a nutrient dense food, such as low-fat yogurt, fruit, etc. rather than what most Americans consider a snack. As long as your energy intake is sufficient for muscle growth and enhanced recovery, but not so high it’s resulting in fat storage, you’re on the way to a new you. The best judge of that is the mirror, not the scale or anyone else. Only you can set goals for yourself and shoot to achieve those. Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way.