The Science Behind Nutrient Timing for Athletes

From a practical perspective, the goal of most athletes is to ensure they are adequately fueling and replenishing glycogen stores prior to competition. This is important to maximize performance and minimize the risk of low blood sugar, reduced stamina and poor muscle recovery.

Several studies indicate that carbohydrate ingestion prior to high-intensity, prolonged endurance exercise can favorably impact performance. Additionally, ingesting carbohydrate + protein or carbohydrate + EAAs during resistance training sessions may optimize muscle glycogen recovery and subsequent adaptations.

What is Nutrient Timing?

Nutrient timing refers to the manipulation of dietary intake in and around exercise sessions to improve performance and recovery. This typically involves the consumption of carbohydrate and protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS).

Most research on nutrient timing has focused on the impact of resistance training on outcomes such as body composition, substrate utilization and physical performance. Ingestion of a carbohydrate + EAA combination has been shown to enhance the anabolic response to a bout of resistance exercise by increasing phosphogen oxidation and protein synthesis (2,3).

The timing of post-exercise protein intake is also an area of interest. A study by Ivy and colleagues found that carbohydrate bolus ingestion after a bout of cycling significantly improved glycogen recovery compared to a placebo.

How Does Nutrient Timing Impact Performance?

Nutrient timing involves the methodical planning and eating of whole foods and nutrient extractions to augment performance, improve recovery and promote adaptations to training. The goal is to get the most out of each training session, reduce muscle fatigue and soreness, optimize glycogen stores and enhance fat burning and dietary fiber intake.

For instance, consuming carbohydrate-rich food or drinks within the hours preceding higher intensity (>70% VO2max) and longer duration exercise has been shown to enhance endurance performance. Similarly, adding protein to carbohydrate pre-exercise has been shown to accelerate glycogen resynthesis.

Carbohydrate loading (consuming a large amount of carbohydrates several hours before exercise) has also been found to enhance resistance exercise performance by amplifying the anabolic response to an acute bout of resistance training. The addition of high-quality protein immediately after exercise also enhances muscle protein synthesis and increases lean body mass and muscular strength.

How Does Nutrient Timing Impact Recovery?

Nutrient Timing capitalizes on the fact that consuming carbohydrate during and immediately after training enhances glycogen resynthesis, reduces muscle tissue breakdown, and initiates hormonal changes that promote muscle building. Furthermore, protein and amino acid ingestion has been shown to amplify the anabolic response resulting from acute bouts of resistance exercise.

Ultimately, the key to improving performance and maximizing muscle growth lies in your diet. The best Nutrient Timing strategies in the world can’t compensate for a poor diet.

In the past, translational research focused primarily on nutrient consumption during exercise with a minimal focus on pre-, intra-, and post-training periods. Additionally, there has been a significant emphasis on strength and hypertrophy-related outcomes to the exclusion of other potentially more important ones. This has made interpreting the implications and applications of nutrient timing challenging. However, there is a solution. It requires a shift in perspective and an understanding of the complexity of athletic performance.

What is Nutrient Timing for Athletes?

In a nutshell, nutrient timing is the practice of strategically planning when and what to eat to optimize training and performance outcomes. It is centered around the ingestion of carbohydrates, protein and fats before, during and after exercise.

Carbohydrate timing strategies are among the first nutrient timing recommendations to emerge, with early research showing that carb loading (a period of increased carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to a prolonged endurance competition) improves performance by maximizing muscle and liver glycogen stores. Similarly, a diet high in carbohydrates during and immediately after a training session can help improve performance by increasing the rate at which glycogen is replenished.

A registered dietitian or sports nutritionist can help you develop a nutrient timing plan that is right for your individual goals and training schedule. Be sure to talk with your practitioner about hydration and meal patterns as well, as these can impact nutrient timing. Then, you’ll be on your way to maximizing energy levels, enhancing performance and accelerating recovery!

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