Everything You Should Know About Nutrient Timing

If you’re already tracking your calories and your macros and correlate these with your fitness goals, you’re on the right track. But if you’re a pro athlete or aim to become one you have to step up your game.

You have to start thinking about the ‘when’ aspect as well when it comes to nutrients. That’s right, from now on, you won’t only use your maths skills to calculate your macronutrient ratio, but also to set up the ideal nutrient timing your body needs.

Calculate Your Ideal Macro Ratio Now

What is Nutrient Timing?

The concept of nutrient timing is not a new hype. It has been around for decades and studied by many researchers mainly in relation to bodybuilding. But since the early 2000s, nutrient timing has caught fire with a wider health & fitness audience.

Nutrient timing quite literally means you need to eat specific nutrients at specific times of the day. The basic idea behind this is that your body’s nutrient needs differ across various times. More specifically, pre-, during, and post-exercising, your body’s performance and recovery will be enhanced by different nutrients.

The Science Behind Nutrient Timing

The whole concept of nutrient timing is driven by the way your body digests and absorbs foods. How fast your digestion and absorption rates are determine how your body makes use of nutrients. Foods that contain high amounts of fat, protein, and fiber are harder to digest and absorb. Carbs are easier and hence, your body releases them faster.

But when it comes to physical activity things get flipped around a bit. To understand this, we have to go back to the basics.

Enzyme activity & The Anabolic Window

Enzymes are usually referred to as ‘protein catalysts‘. They are biological molecules speeding up the rates of essentially all chemical reactions within your body cells. They have several fundamental duties that make your body function, some of which are connected to digestion and absorption.

However, enzyme activity is not constant and needs to be regulated for proper functioning [1]. And when I say that one of the methods of enzyme activity manipulation involves physical activity, you’ll probably start putting the picture together of why I’m giving you a middle school biology lecture.

So yes, besides several other factors, such as your body temperature, chemicals and your diet, exercising can also trigger enzyme activity. In particular, the enzyme activity elevated during exercising aids the conversion of glucose into glycogen. Meaning that it helps your body to turn blood sugar into carbs. Simplifying this even further, the food/drink you consume is more likely to be turned into carbs than fat.

However, as most good things in life, this elevated enzyme activity doesn’t last forever either. The limited period of your high enzyme activity is what we call ‘anabolic window‘. So to maximize the results of your sweaty gym sessions and help your muscle-recovery, you have to start paying attention to your anabolic window.

And now is the time when you should say ‘Oh, I get it now! This is why nutrient timing is important.’

The Golden Rules Of Nutrient Timing

Based on the previous you could easily assume that there’s an ideal nutrient timing that works for everyone. But this is not true.

As research suggests, your fitness level, and the type, length, and intensity of your workout play a role in the equation too. All these factors can affect your body’s nutrient needs, how important your anabolic window really is, and whether it even exists or not [2]. 

Pre-workout Nutrition

Pre-exercise nutrient will influence your performance and your metabolism during the actual workout in any case. However, if you are training for the a local running race, you won’t need the same nutrient as a cross-fit athlete. As you’re engaged in various movements at very different intensity levels during these trainings, your body’s nutrient needs won’t be the same either.

Read Our Guide To Boosting Your Metabolism

Pre-Workout Nutrition For Resistance Training

As you all know, the two main energy sources fueling your workouts are carbohydrates and fat. While at low intensity you mainly burn fat, as the intensity level of your exercise rises, your body will start using glucose [3]. Glucose is gained from your glycogen storage, which is simply your body’s stored version of carbs.

Your glycogen storage is limited, and as your body starts burning glucose during high-intensity training, it only lasts for couple of hours [4]. And this is where the idea of ‘eat carbs before your high intensity workout’ originates from.

Pre-Workout Carbs Intake For Resistance Training

As resistance training involves high-intensity exercises, your carbs storage becomes essential here. First of all, you’ll need carbs to actually perform well and don’t waste your gym membership on disappointing workouts. And secondly, you’ll need carbs to prevent potential injuries.

This latter “risk-prevention strategy” is based on research highlighting that low levels of glycogen prompts your body to use protein and amino acids for glucose production. As these components make up your muscles, this can result in muscle damaging rather than building.

Pre-Workout Protein Intake For Resistance Training

But carbs is not like love, so it is definitely not all you need pre-workout. To maximize your body’s ability of strength training adaption, you’ll also need your protein intake to be on-point.

Pre-exercise protein intake has been found to improve strength and body composition during resistance training [5]. Which basically means aiding your muscle mass gains and body fat losses.

All in all, Precision Nutrition suggests that the ideal nutrient timing for resistance athletes is 1-2 hours prior training. Additionally, they also suggest a drink containing both carbs and protein during your workout. But don’t forget that these are universal recommendations.

Exactly when and how much nutrition you really need pre-workout will always depend on your specific circumstances. For instance, for a 30-min workout, you might have enough glycogen storage and won’t need pre-workout carbs. Whereas for a 2-hour-long high-intensity session, you will certain need to refill your carbs storage.

Pre-Workout Nutrition For Endurance Training

In contrast to resistance exercise, endurance training is mainly performed at lower intensity for longer times. And as discussed previously, this lower intensity zone is where your body burns fat. However, this doesn’t mean that your body has no carbs needs.

Pre-Workout Carbs Intake For Endurance Training

Since your glycogen storage is still limited, it won’t last longer than 3 hours at moderate intensity either. Additionally, if you’re an endurance athlete training for a race, your intensity level is likely to be higher. In this case, your glucose burning rate will actually increase to 1-2g/min, which will raise your carbs needs again [3].

While it’s a controversial topic, research has shown that endurance athletes’ performance will drop with decreasing levels of glycogen. Additionally, insufficient levels of glycogen can also increase their risk of injury and have negative effects on their immune system [2]. Hence, if you’re participating in serious endurance training, your properly timed carbs intake is indeed key for good quality and healthy performance.

The generally recommended carbs intake for endurance athletes ranges between 0.45-0.9 grams/lbs 3-4 hours prior to exercise [4]. And if your workout exceeds 60 mins at higher intensity, research suggests to have carbs supplies during the actual workout as well. The recommended range here is 30-60 grams of carbs each hour preferably in a liquid form.

But as usual, your ideal carbs intake and timing will also depend on personal factors. So to find your exact numbers, take into account your fitness level, the duration and intensity of your workout, and so on.

Post-Workout Nutrition

In contrast to the fueling role of pre-exercise nutrition, post-exercise your main concern in recovery. As you can imagine, after an intense training session there’s a lot going on inside your body. Therefore, your body and muscles need specific nutrients.

According to Precision Nutrition there are three main goals of post-exercise nutrition:

  • Refilling your glycogen stocks
  • Lowering your body’s protein breakdown
  • Increasing your body’s protein synthesis

Translating this into benefits, your muscles will recover faster and your body composition will improve. You’ll be able to lower your body fat and increase your muscle mass more effectively. A process that is connected to the previously discussed anabolic window theory.

But again, let’s break down your specific nutrient needs based on your training type and intensity.

Post-Workout Nutrition For Resistance Training

Post-Workout Carbs Intake For Resistance Training

During high intensity resistance training, your body burns glucose and heavily uses your muscles. This is one of the reasons why you need nutritional supplementation post-exercise. But besides rebuilding your glycogen stocks and aiding your muscle recovery, post-workout carbs will also help you adjust to resistance training. This means that consuming carbs after your workout will enhance your performance during future trainings.

Based on previous studies, your muscle glycogen levels can decrease by 10-40% depending on the duration and intensity of the exercise. For effective recovery and glycogen resynthesis, resistance athletes are suggested to consume carbs immediately after, as well as one hour post-exercise. Researchers say that the ideal amount here is 0.68 gram/lb.

Post-Workout Protein & Creatine Intake For Resistance Training

Besides carbs, during your recovery period you can also benefit from additional protein and amino acid intakes. Post-workout protein can help to decrease body fat, increase muscle mass, and besides strength, it can also aid improvements in your endurance [6].

And to spin things a little bit further, a study conducted in 2007 found that supplementing post-exercise carbs & protein with creatine might have even better results. This nutrition mix was found to promote muscle mass gains as well as training adaption. Therefore, if you’re participating in intense and prolonged resistance training, your ideal post-exercise nutrition might be a combination of carbs, protein, and creatine.

Post-Workout Nutrition For Endurance Training

Post-Workout Carbs Intake For Endurance Training

Based on the length and intensity of your training you’ll need to refuel your body differently. But one thing you can be sure of is that endurance exercise lasting longer than 3 hours at moderate to high intensity levels or over an hour at high intensity will completely empty your glycogen storage. Therefore, endurance athletes are suggested to start restoring carbs immediately after workout.

This recommendation is again underpinned by the anabolic window opportunity. As during these couple of magical post-exercise hours when your body is craving glucose more than ever, it will turn nutrients into glycogen rather than fat. Therefore, research suggests elite endurance athletes to have 0.68 grams/lb carbs straight after exercise and repeat it every 2 hours up to 6 hours post-workout.

Post-Workout Protein Intake For Endurance Training

Additionally, a mixture of carbohydrates and protein intake can further enhance your recovery. According to a previous study an interaction effect between carbs and protein increases the restoring of glycogen. They have found that the ideal combination is approximately 0.14 grams/lb of whey protein and approximately 0.36 grams/lb of carbs. And the suggested timing of such nutrient combination is immediately after and 2 hours post-exercise.

However, to finish it off with number one rule I’ve repeated a million times: everyone has unique needs. The previously discussed recommendations should therefore act as merely starting points. The goal really is to set up an ideal nutrient timing that is specifically based on your personal characteristics and training routine!

Do I Really Need Nutrient Timing In My Life?

The answer to this question is a no. Not everyone needs to take nutrient timing that seriously. Let’s say you’re only training for a bikini body or a local running contest. Then you definitely won’t need to over-obsess about downing your post-workout protein shake 2 seconds after your workout.

In case you are not an athlete, you have much greater priorities. As suggested by the Precision Nutrition Team, your main focus should be on how much and what you eat. First you need to nail your ideal calorie intake, your macros ratio and feel comfortable with your diet and training. Once this checklist is complete, you’re ready to jump to the next stage and dive deep into nutrient timing!😉

Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
Use our free guide to design your very own personalized nutrition plan.
Download e-Book
Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
... start working on your unique diet plan.
Download E-Book

Lilla Laczo

Lilla is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
Use our free guide to design your very own personalized nutrition plan.
Download e-Book
Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
... start working on your unique diet plan.
Download E-Book