Performance Nutrition – When Should You Eat for Best Performance?
by Clark Hibbs
First of all, let’s preface this by saying the following.
At the end of the day, what is most important is that you are being consistent with your nutrition each and every day of the week (depending on whatever your goals are… weight gain or weight loss). The more consistent we are each and every day, the better results we are going to see.
That, AND hydration. You HAVE to prioritize your hydration if you want your body operating at tip-top levels. Remember how good you feel when you are hydrated? Yes, stay feeling good all the time. You’ll have to pee a little more, but there’s nothing wrong with getting more steps in everyday making multiple bathroom trips!
Now, let’s get into the fun stuff.
For many of us, we are bombarded with so much information regarding performance nutrition that it can be very, VERY overwhelming.
“Don’t eat 30 minutes before you workout.”
“DO eat 30 minutes before you workout.”
“Be sure you get that anabolic protein synthesis window in, bro.”
“Don’t worry about the window. You just need an intra-workout glycogen spike fuel razzle-dazzle fizz popper drank, yo.”
It can be paralyzing.
So we’re going to keep it very simple for you, with a very small amount of science.
When you’re in the throws of a strength workout or metcon, your body is operating off of the glycogen stores from food you have previously eaten. These glycogen stores are primarily made up of carbohydrates. Throughout your 1-hour fitness class, you will most likely NOT burn through your entire glycogen stores, which means that on any given training day you have plenty of “fuel” to get through your class.
But how long does it take to fuel up?
On average, it takes the human body 4-6 hours to properly digest and store food into glycogen to be used for workouts. Your glycogen stores will remain full for another 12-16 hours without seeing much decrease (unless strenuous activity, like exercise, is performed). It takes a full 1-2 days to completely deplete your glycogen stores if you consume no other carbohydrates. Different types of exercise will drain your storages faster than others.
So what does that mean for YOU?
Well, it really depends on the time of day you workout. If you workout at the 4:30PM class, then your “pre-workout” meal would be anywhere between 10:30AM and 12:30PM. If you’re working out at the 6:30PM class, we’re looking at 12:30PM – 2:30PM.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MORNING CREW?!?!
Well, remember what we said about glycogen stores remaining full? 12-16 hours, in fact. Your pre-workout meal for a 5AM class is dinner the night before, actually! In the morning, your body still has plenty of glycogen stored up to fuel you throughout the workout. What’s most important in the morning time for performance? Water and hydration. Your food from the night before will fuel your workout, but if you’re dehydrated, you’re going to feel slow and sluggish. Make sure you’re staying hydrated so you can smash your morning workout.
I know what you’re going to say… “But I HAVE to eat my apple 1-hour before I workout. It makes me feel so good!” That might be the case (psychologically), but that apple that you just ate is not going to help fuel your performance. By the end of your class, your apple still hasn’t even left your stomach. It’s still digesting and sitting in your gut while you’re exercising. If having that *insert pre-workout food here* makes you psychologically stronger, well have at it, but don’t expect it to be an instant energy boost. Me for example… I can NOT workout on an empty stomach. I could literally eat a full lunch and workout right after and be totally fine. But empty stomach? That’s a one way ticket to misery for me.
There is an exception to this 4-6 hour digestion rule, and that is carbohydrates that are primarily in the liquid form. If you are consuming something in a liquid (or mostly liquid) form, the digestion rate for this can be decreased to 1-2 hours. This is why we see endurance athletes slamming gel packs during their long races. They need their body to digest and re-fuel their glycogen stores while they are still racing! And for context — we’re talking races that last well over 2-4+ hours.
What’s most important is keeping your nutrition consistent day after day, week after week, in accordance with your goals. After that, it’s hydration. If you are already missing these two ingredients, worrying about meal timing isn’t going to have that big of an effect on your training. However, if your food is consistent and you are staying properly hydrated, timing your meals to be 4-6 hours before your next class could be beneficial in the performance department!