Nutrition Timing Based on Your Workout Schedule

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What is nutrition timing and how can it help you achieve your performance or aesthetic goals?

I get this question a LOT and as a nutrition coach, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. Here’s why:

Nutrition timing can be the thing that takes an experienced tracker and athlete from really good to great.

On the flip side, it can be the thing that takes a newer tracker and athlete from consistent and excited about their journey to massively confused.

Speaking of “confused”, let’s back up.

What is Nutrition Timing?

Nutrition timing refers to eating an exact amount of macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) at a specific time based on your workout schedule. Nailing nutrition timing can help to ensure your body has the proper fuel for your workout and for recovery.

As you can probably guess, meal timing and makeup are nuanced and very individualized. 

It can also start to get a tad complicated. So, before we dig into tips and tricks for nutrition timing based on your workout schedule, take a second to read more about the WAG Nutrition Pyramid.

It is important to cover the “bottom levels” of your health like food quality, quantity and consistency with your macro targets before diving into the details of meal timing. Otherwise, you’ll be spending a LOT of time and effort on something that will only move the needle the last few percent. We wanna work smarter, not harder, right?

Okay, okay! 

Now that I’ve done my due diligence as a nutrition coach to make sure you know where and when to focus your efforts on this whole thing, let’s dive into meal timing based on your workout schedule because it does have a time and place to help you reach your goals. Plus, it can also be fun. ;) 

Protein, Carbs, and Fats for Performance

When reading through the specific tips for nutrition timing based on your workout schedule, you’ll notice that we speak in terms of protein, carbohydrate, and fat amounts.

So, you need a general understanding of the three macronutrients and the role they play in your body to get the most out of our recommendations. Here is a quick breakdown:

  1. Protein: This is the leading champ of the macros! It helps keep you full, stabilizes blood sugar and plays a MONUMENTAL role in muscle maintenance and recovery [1]. In general, eating lean protein around your workouts is key.
    Lean protein includes (but is definitely not limited to) chicken and turkey breasts, lean beef/red meat, low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese, egg whites, white fish, and protein powder.

  2. Carbs: Carbs are your body’s preferred source of quick energy. This does not mean that your body NEEDS carbohydrates to exercise effectively (ex: if you’re following a very low carb or ketogenic diet) but, when carbs are available, this is what your body prefers to use to fuel workouts [2].

    There are both quick digesting carbs and slower digesting carbs. Quick digesting carbs are higher on the Glycemic Index (GI) and include foods like fruit, white rice, cereal, potato, bread, pasta and condiments like honey and maple syrup. Slower digesting carbs are lower on the GI and are typically higher in fiber. These include most veggies, legumes, and whole grains.

  3. Fats: Dietary fat helps keep you full, assists with brain functionality, carries important vitamins and minerals around your body and is a great source of long-term energy. You can find dietary fats in nuts, seeds, avocado, egg yolks, olive oil and fatty fish and meats.

As we dive in, know that you may need to experiment a bit (and get it wrong a few times) before nailing down what works for you. Keep tabs on what you eat, when, and how you feel in your workout to start noticing patterns. Then, repeat what works and scrap what doesn’t.

Your type of training (CrossFit? Running? Powerlifting? Yoga?), intensity, and individual goals all need to be taken into account when digging to specifics. A WAG coach can help you personalize the general recommendations below.

Macro Ratios for Performance

Because overall calories needed to reach performance and body composition goals differ from person to person, thinking in ratios of proteins, carbs and fats can be really helpful. 

Here is a quick infographic that will help you visualize when and what to eat.

Here are a few important things to note:

  • The closer you are to a workout, the more high GI carbs and fewer low GI carbs you should eat. You want your body to utilize the carbs you give it quickly and high GI carbs hit your bloodstream faster than low GI carbs.

  • Protein around workouts is almost always a good idea.

  • Adding fats post-workout is ideal. Depending on the workout, you could also add some in your pre-workout meal 1-2 hours before training. This is individualized and a WAG coach will be able to help you figure out what your body needs.

  • An “Immediately Pre-Workout Meal” is not 100% necessary. It depends on time of day, hunger levels, energy levels, if you’re in a calorie deficit, workout intensity and your schedule. For example, if your pre-workout meal was 2 hours before your workout and you are in a calorie deficit, a snack immediately pre-workout could be a good idea! If you ate an hour ago, hunger is low and you feel ready to go, you can probably skip it.

  • These are not hard-and-fast rules. You need to experiment, find what works for you and remember that Nutrition Pyramid

Nutrition Timing in a Caloric Deficit

Nutrition timing can have a special place in your journey when you are in a caloric deficit, want to prioritize body composition, and still want to feel as strong as possible in the gym.

With limited overall calories, nutrition timing allows you to be more precise with when you’re eating those calories. You can use meal timing to your advantage and make sure to stack your highest-carb meals around your workouts to maximize your performance and recovery efforts. 

Dialing in nutrient timing doesn’t guarantee that you’ll feel GREAT in the gym all the time, but it does give you the best chance of mitigating negative impacts on training (ex: fatigue, loss of strength) while in a deficit.

What to Eat When You Workout In The Morning

Are you an early riser? If you workout in the morning, you likely fall into one of two camps:

  1. You can’t even THINK about eating something before you train or, 
  2. You’re down to nibble on something small

No matter which you are, you’re not alone. The trick is deciding what works best for you (this may take some experimentation!) and going from there.

Best Pre-Workout Meals for Morning Workouts

If you’re down to put a little somethin’ somethin’ in your stomach before an early morning session, it likely means that you don’t have a lot of time to digest. So, you need to stick to quick-digesting carbs and lean protein. 

If you’re hitting a CrossFit or other high-intensity workout, skip the fat which will slow down the digestion of the foods you eat it with. If you have to prioritize carbs OR protein (you’re not hungry enough for both), carbs will be the way to go. In this case, make sure you have quick digesting protein (leftover lean meat or a quick protein shake) ready to eat ASAP when training finishes.

If you’re running or lifting and need more sustained energy, a BIT of healthy fat (if you know you digest it well) is fair game.

Here are a few yummy pre-workout meal/snack suggestions:

  • Rice cakes with peanut butter powder and honey (add a bit of regular PB if you need some healthy fat)
  • A banana and whey protein shake (add a handful of almonds if you need healthy fats)
  • A smoothie with fruit and yogurt (add avocado or nut butter if you need healthy fats)
  • Egg white muffins and a slice of toast (add some butter if you need healthy fats)
  • Overnight oats. Strawberry? Carrot cake? Pumpkin spice? Everything Bagel? We’ve got you covered (these recipes have some healthy fats already)
  • Protein muffins or pre-made protein pancakes (just pop ‘em in the toaster) with a quick shake

If you really can’t stomach anything, that is okay! That just means your post-workout meal is THAT much more important and you should aim to get this in ASAP [3].

Remember that these recipes are jumping off places. Feel free to adjust based on your macros, your preferences and what you find works best for your body.

Best Post-Workout Meals for Morning Workouts

No matter what time you workout, your post-workout meal is the most important meal of the day. If you workout in the morning, this is likely going to be your breakfast or your lunch. 

If you workout at that awkward I’m-done-with-my-workout-and-already-ate-breakfast-but-it’s-too-early-to-eat-lunch time, just make sure you have a post-workout snack ready to go. 

Immediately post-workout, you need to give your body quick energy to kick-start the recovery process. This means more quick-digesting carbs and lean protein options. This also means that many of the options above can double as a post-workout snack (win!).

If you did eat breakfast, you can add a bit of healthy fat to your post-workout meal or snack. Your body already has some fuel in the tank to draw from. But, if you didn’t eat anything beforehand, it is probably smart to get something quick-digesting in your system ASAP and then eat a more balanced meal with healthy fats again soon after.

Throughout the rest of the day, focus on balanced meals with plenty of veggies, protein, and healthy fats.

What to Eat When You Train In the Afternoon

If you train in the afternoon, lunch is usually going to be the meal you have to think about. When you train close to lunch, your meal needs to be lighter. If you have a few hours to digest, you may be able to get away with something more substantial.

We recommend experimenting. If you have something on the lighter side but find that you’re hungry halfway through your workout a few hours later, next time try eating a bit more. Or, try eating a bit closer to your workout. Make sure you’re noting the different foods and timing you’re using so you can recognize patterns and make any needed adjustments.

If you’re feeling like this is a LOT to keep tabs on, you’d be right. WAG coaches are great at helping you notice patterns and will give you tailored suggestions based on what is working and what isn’t. Our tracking platform, Seismic, also makes it easy for them to see what you’re eating and read any notes you leave so they can pick up on things you may not have thought of!

Here are some general places to start:

Best Pre-Workout Meals for Afternoon Workouts

If you train after lunch, make sure to give yourself enough time to digest! No one likes lots of veggies sitting in their stomach when they’re trying to do pull-ups. If you have a few hours you could enjoy a pre-workout lunch like:

  • A lean beef burger, quinoa, arugula, and roasted veggies
  • Tuna mixed with carrots, celery, cucumber, pepper, pickles, and tomatoes in a wrap and/or apple on the side
  • A whole-wheat wrap or sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and turkey

If you’re in a pinch and have to work the gym into your lunch break, keep lunch a bit lighter and focus on quick-digesting carbs and lean proteins. Make breakfast and dinner higher volume meals where you get the bulk of your veggies and healthy fats.

If this is the case, check back to the “Best Pre-Workout Meals for Morning Workouts” section for some lighter meals.

Best Post Workout Meals for Afternoon Workouts

Usually, when you train in the afternoon you’ve already eaten lunch and have a bit of time until dinner. This means that your post-workout food will be a snack.

We recommend making this a larger snack so you can kill the recovery game. But, because you already have a meal or two in your system going into your workout, you can get after

Here are a few ideas:

  • Rice cakes with peanut butter powder and jelly (add a bit of regular PB if you need some healthy fat)
  • A banana and whey protein shake (add a handful of almonds if you need healthy fats)
  • A smoothie with fruit and yogurt (add avocado or nut butter if you need healthy fats)
  • Overnight oats
  • Leftover dinner! Maybe you ate a turkey burger, rice, and roasted veggies?
  • A whole wheat wrap with tuna, turkey, and veggies

Throughout these recommendations, keep in mind that your macro prescription will play a role in how big these meals can be.

What to Eat When You Train In the Evening

Training in the evening poses its own pros and cons when it comes to nutrition timing.

Cons? When you train later at night, you need to be extra intentional with making sure you can cook and eat a meal on the quicker side so you can wind down into your nighttime routine and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Pros? You have at least two meals and probably a snack or two in the tank. This means that you have time to head home and make dinner without worrying about your muscles shriveling up. ;) 

Best Pre-Workout Meals for Evening Workouts

Most people who train in the evening eat lunch and then have one more snack before hitting the gym. This means that depending on what time you eat lunch, that meal can be full of veggies, protein, and healthy fats. 

Remember that we want your post-workout meal (likely dinner) to be the most nutritious of the day so this may mean eating a bit lighter through the morning so you have more macros to play with later on - especially if you’re in a deficit.

A pre-workout meal 1-2 hours before training could look like:

  • Half a bagel or a slice of toast with peanut butter powder and jelly (add a bit of regular PB if you need some healthy fat)
  • A banana and whey protein shake (add a handful of almonds if you need healthy fats)
  • A bit of minimally processed cereal mixed into some cottage cheese (if your body can digest it before a workout) or with a shake on the side.

Best Post Workout Meals for Evening Workouts

This meal is most likely dinner! If that is the case, we suggest a big, balanced meal. Because you went into your workout with a few meals in your system, you don’t have to worry too much about focusing on quick digesting carbs and protein ONLY. You have the ability to eat a more balanced meal. You also don’t have to worry about volume since you’ve already trained. So, you can load your plate with veggies here too.

This could look like:

  • A burger with a lettuce bun, sauteed kale and roasted potatoes (Want the bun but in a cut? Replace the potatoes with roasted veggies!)
  • Salmon with your favorite veggie over rice or quinoa
  • Stir fry veggies with chicken or beef with rice or cauli rice

Do you train after dinner? If so (and you can’t imagine eating a meal that late at night), try to at least grab a shake and take a few bites of a carb source before hitting the pillow.

You probably noticed that a LOT of my meal suggestions looked the same no matter the time of day or what side of a workout it is on. That is because the same rules ring true for any meal, around any workout. Quicker digesting carbs and protein are your best friend and fat can be added depending on your digestion and training style.

Wrapping Up Nutrition Timing

Did you count how many times I said “general” in this piece? At LEAST five times because that is exactly what this is - a GENERAL idea of nutrition timing suggestions and tips based on your workout schedule.

It is incredibly nuanced and takes a decent amount of trial and error to nail down. A WAG Coach can help you find what works best for your body given your workout style and goals.

Sometimes, it is also helpful to have someone in your corner to remind you that nutrition timing isn’t the end-all-be-all and at the end of the day, consistency with targets, an effective training program and learning to notice what your body is asking you for can be MORE than enough to get you where you want to go.

Are you making these nutrition mistakes?

Join WAG Founder, Adee Cazayoux, in our next webinar and learn the 4 Nutrition Mistakes we see most often and actionable steps to solve them! You’ll leave this webinar knowing how to dispel your dysfunctional beliefs about nutrition, wield the tools you need for better results and transform your life. Plus, if you hang till the end, we have a surprise for you!

  1. Schoenfeld, B., Aragon, A., Wilborn, C., Urbina, S., Hayward, S., & Krieger, J. (2017). Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations. PeerJ., (5), e2825. doi: 10.7717/peerj.2825
  2. Kanter, M. (2017). High-quality carbohydrates and physical performance. (2018). Nutr Today, 53(1), 35-39. doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000238
  3. Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld B. J. (2013) Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, (10), https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5
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Posted by Ali Macy
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Ali is a born and bred Vermonter who fell in love with nutrition and fitness in her early 20’s and never looked back. She is a coach, blog editor and Program Lead for WAG with a BA in English Literature and a Master's in Nutrition and Human Performance.

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