Should strength athletes prioritize nutrient timing?

January 25th 2020

It’s long been proven that the specific foods we eat have a direct correlation to our overall wellness and disposition. Eating whole, unprocessed foods affect our bodies much differently than eating pre-packaged, highly processed ones. 

Everything from our quality of sleep, to the amount of energy we have, to our state of mind are inarguably affected by our food choices. One of the reasons for this effect is because of the presence and distribution of varying vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients in whole foods. 

Carbohydrates are great for energy, fat and fiber are great for fullness, and protein builds and repairs muscle, but can the timing of when we ingest these nutrients affect our workout performance and recovery speed?

What is nutrient timing?

Nutrient timing is knowing what foods to eat, and when to eat them in order to achieve optimal workout performance, accelerated recovery, and/or other specified outcomes. 

This is especially alluring for strength athletes, as training typically involves building your muscles by increasing resistance, working the muscles to the point of exhaustion, and then allowing the muscles to rest and repair. 

Nutrient timing aims to optimize workout recovery and to achieve your desired body composition, without altering your workouts or changing how much you are eating. 

Recent studies suggest that the timing of nutrition can have such an effect, that if two athletes consume exactly the same diet and perform exactly the same training, the athlete who times his or her eating correctly will make more performance gains than the one who doesn’t. 

Todd Wright, Director of Basketball Strength and Conditioning at the University of Texas, tested this theory and carefully timed his athletes’ nutrition intake during a recent season. Wright saw one player drop 73 pounds, and another player add lean mass and gain 22 pounds, along with his entire team performing better than anticipated. 

They made it to the Big 12 Championship Game and finished with a Number 16 national ranking. 

Similarities can also be drawn to strength sports; if you want to lift big weights and crush new personal records, you will need to be considerate about what you put into your body and WHEN you do it. This applies to athletes of all different levels, from the novice to the elite level lifters.

What are the recommendations for nutrient timing?

John Ivy, PhD, and co-author of the book, Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition, breaks an athlete’s day into three phases: the energy phase, the anabolic phase, and the growth phase. Each of these phases has its own individually recommended regiment of nutrients and specific timing of when it’s recommended to consume them.

The energy phase is the time of day when an athlete is exerting themselves by working out or competing. Maintaining hydration and replacing carbohydrates and electrolytes are recommended. 

Right before hitting the gym, Ivy proposes that athletes should consume a carbohydrate-containing sports drink that is two to three percent protein. He claims that this will reduce muscle damage and will facilitate post-exercise protein synthesis. 

One of the most regularly referenced parts of the theory of nutrient timing is the anabolic window, or the 15-60 minutes immediately after exercising. The body is preparing for a period of intense rebuilding right after exercise, but it won’t transition to repairing until the right nutrients are received. 

Ivy suggests rehydrating, carbohydrates, and an emphasis on protein for those who have just left the weight room. He always says that two hours later, it is important for the athlete to eat again.

The third phase is the growth phase. Four hours post-exercise, Ivy suggests that the athlete should eat a light meal that maintains a balanced combination of carbohydrates, protein, fruits, and vegetables.

However, it is important to note that research indicates the importance of nutrient timing for endurance athletes who spend four hours or more training in the gym, but has yet to prove conclusive for average individuals who may only hit gym for an hour per day. 

The role of macronutrients

Macronutrients are the three nutrients our body needs in the largest amounts for energy and maintaining bodily functions. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. 

Once eaten, carbohydrates are broken-down into smaller sugars to be used as an immediate source of energy that effectively fuels muscle contractions. 

Any unused glucose (one type of the smaller sugars) will be converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver for future use. 

Because glycogen is stored in your muscles, it is immediately accessible, and is the source of energy that is used most often for shorter, more intense bouts of exercise, such as weightlifting. 

The proteins we eat are broken down into amino acids that are used as the “building blocks” needed for the growth and repair of new muscles and tissues. For proper functioning, your body needs 20 different amino acids. 

While your body is able to synthesize many of the amino acids it needs on its own, there are 9 amino acids that are considered “essential” and are required to be obtained from the foods you eat. Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are commonly referred to as complete proteins. 

Sources of complete proteins include: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and dairy products. However, you can also ensure that your essential amino acid needs are being met by eating a diet consisting of a variety of “incomplete” protein sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetables.

While current diet trends may make it easy to assume that all fats are not good for us, the reality is that only specific fats (saturated and trans) can be damaging to the body. Fatty acids are essential and “good fats” contribute to healthy joints, assist in the absorption of certain vitamins, utilize glucose more effectively, and can decrease inflammation.

Should strength athletes prioritize nutrient timing?

While nutrient timing may give a competitive edge, it can be a bit overwhelming. For a beginner, prioritizing the proper balance of calories and macronutrients, and focusing on learning how to properly perform your lifts is far more important than nutrient timing. Your best bet when it comes to nutrition, is to keep it simple. 

As long as you are eating or snacking on healthy, whole foods about every four hours (while you’re awake), you’re already on the right track. Once you have mastered your gym and eating routine, then you can think about potentially focusing on tiny tweaks such as nutrient timing. 

And this is just a recommendation. You may find more success doing your own eating routine but the general principle is the same - you need to make sure you eat enough.

We have a tendency to try to take on many new things and to learn as much as possible, all at the same time. But, it turns out that we are better off focusing on mastering one new skill, or habit at a time. 

In fact, researchers have found that people who try to simultaneously accomplish more than one goal are not only less committed, but they are less likely to succeed than those who focused on the mastery of a single goal at one time. 

Automaticity, or the ability to perform a behavior without thinking about each step, is the result of vigorous repetition and practice and allows the new pattern to become automatic. The more times you repeat a behavior, the more automatic it becomes. 

Everything you do matters

I would be deceiving you if I let you leave this article without knowing the truth. Yes, nutrition timing matters….

But so does a lot of OTHER variables in your training, such as your volume, intensity, and frequency. Then, you also have variables outside of the gym, like your stress levels, hormones, sleep quality, etc.

You get the picture. Mix all of these together along with nutrition timing and you may get confused. The novice might not even be aware of these factors when training.

Final thoughts 

The research has shown that nutrient timing may provide a competitive advantage in endurance athletes, but it doesn't support the importance of nutrient timing for most everyday, average people who are simply trying to gain muscle or lose weight. 

The truth is, the research that supports nutrient timing may not apply to everyone, and nutrient timing is secondary to optimizing proper caloric intake and having the proper ratio of macronutrients. After all, without the proper combination of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and an athlete’s body is simply unable to reach its full potential.  

Your time is better spent focusing on mastering your form when working out and entertaining the idea of adjusting your routine once you have consistently shown progress and proficiency.

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