Once you have discussed overall quantity in the form of calories and macronutrients with your client it is now time to move onto timing protocols.
Let’s be very clear on this subject and understand that timing protocols are completely secondary to quantity principles.
If a client comes to you and it looks like it may be a struggle to even get them to hit their macronutrients, save the discussion of timing for a later conversation.
The first aspect of meal timing that we will cover is meal frequency.
We have all heard the old recommendation about eating every 3-4 hours to keep the metabolism alive. We have also learned recently that this is absolutely not true in any way.
In fact, some research indicates the opposite – that less feedings could potentially increase the rate of fat loss.
However, we feel that the simplest recommendation for meal frequency is to base it on a client’s schedule.
When can a client commit to consistently eating meals each day? The answer to this question is exactly how their frequency of feeding should be structured. This is the quickest way to ensure compliance, and with compliance comes the ability to truly assess the efficacy of your protocol.
It is important to once again reiterate that until you feel that your client has a comfortable grasp on the principles of quantity and is successfully applying them, a conversation around nutrient timing may not be necessary yet.
With that said, there are absolutely some principles that can maximize performance and perhaps even body composition when executed properly.
The pre-training meal actually contributes far less to overall output than most people realize. When looking at rates of digestion and rates of glycogen synthesis we see two things:
- Most food takes about 4-5 hours to fully digest and become “usable fuel”
- Glycogen synthesis takes place on a 24 hour basis.
By understanding those two things, the pre-workout meal has very little effect on direct fuel and/or glycogen saturation.
(This point further illustrates that if overall quantity is not being met, timing principles can wait.)
While perhaps you can create a small amount of glycogen replenishment and can set into motion some fuel from carbohydrate ingestion, the pre-training meal is far more about blood sugar control and nervous system function.
If your pre-training meal is consumed too far from training your blood sugar will be on the decline when you walk into the gym. Then add intense training and you have a recipe for low blood sugar and the light-headedness and dizziness that comes with it (we have all witnessed this – the person that comes in on their first day of training having not eaten, then turns completely pale mid-workout until someone rushes to bring them a gatorade).
For this reason we recommend that your pre-training meal be about 90-120 minutes prior to training.
We also recommend keeping the composition of this meal to simply protein and carbs with no added fats.
Recall earlier that fats are very slow digesting. As such they also delay the digestion of the nutrients they are consumed with. In the pre-workout setting this will lead to less than optimal nervous system function as carbs are the preferred fuel source for the nervous system.
Additionally, because of the slow rate of digestion for fats they will likely still be present in the GI and this can become very uncomfortable during intense activity.
Finally, there are hormonal advantages that exist when the body returns closer to it’s fasted state. To better leverage these advantages, the absence of fats in a pre-workout meal is essential, allowing the proteins and carbs to digest at their normal rate in an effort to return to the close to fasted state quickly.
While we do recognize that dietary fat can contribute to fuel in aerobic activity, these are fats that have been consumed long before the pre-workout window.
At this point you know that we value recovery, both physical and nervous system, nearly above all else. If the body is not recovering from the stimulus you are providing, the client is not making adaptations and nearly every goal that a client has is an adaptation to a stimulus that you, the nutrition coach, and their trainer/ programmer is providing.
The post-workout window can go a long way in maximizing the response to the imposed demands of training and consequently moving a client closer to the desired adaptation.
As we have mentioned a few times in this text, glycogen synthesis takes place on a 24-hour window basis. With that in mind, the post-workout nutrition protocol is NOT simply about restoring lost carbohydrate (glycogen) but is far more about attenuating the nervous system response from training.
During intense exercise we see a rapid rise in cortisol (explained earlier in this text) which is our fight or flight hormone. This is beneficial to us as it allows for the mobilization of proteins, carbs, and fats to be used as fuel. Unfortunately, your body has a hard time diminishing this response and it does not stop when you simply finish your last rep.
By not addressing this cortisol response with appropriate post-workout nutrition you are negatively contributing to long term cortisol dysregulation and possible adrenal/HPA issues. Instead follow the post-workout nutrition protocol outlined below and keep the CNS fresh – allowing you to continue to adapt to stress from training and achieving the desired results.
A post workout nutrition protocol will range from consuming a solid meal within 45 minutes of finishing training to consuming a high ratio carbohydrate:protein drink. Where you will fall in this spectrum will depend on a few factors:
- Training age
- Training intensity
- Training modality
As discussed earlier in this text, training age can tell us how a client is currently adapting to the intentionally imposed demands of stress that is training. A neurological adaptation phase (characterized by a low training age) does not require a significant amount of physical or nervous system fuel and therefore does not require any significant dose of recovery.
For this population simply consuming a protein/carbohydrate meal that is low in fat within 45 minutes of finishing training is sufficient.
Conversely, if a client has been training for quite awhile, the demands of training are very physical and nervous system intensive. For this reason a post workout shake is highly recommended (and necessary in our opinion).
This shake will be composed of either whey protein alone or whey protein combined with a high molecular weight carbohydrate like a cyclic dextrin. The ratio of carbs to protein will depend on a client’s training intensity, overall volume, and current body fat levels.
A leaner client that trains frequently and with relatively high intensity will typically require a minimum of 2:1 carbs to protein (usually 50:25). On the extreme end, a very lean individual who is training for a very intense, high volume event like the CrossFit Games can require as high as 4:1 (usually 100:25).
A client that has more body fat to lose is likely less efficient in the gym and is not creating the same nervous system response that the previously mentioned leaner client is creating. For this reason this client will need either a whey protein only shake or a lower ratio like a 1:1 ratio (usually 25:25) of carbs to protein. As this client leans out they will fit the example above and you can transition them to a higher carb:protein ratio to offset their advancement in training ability.
While we just stated that the immediate window following a training session is not when glycogen replenishment takes place, there is research that suggests glycogen restoration is occurring at a faster rate for up to 90 minutes post-workout. Most importantly, this comes with an increased insulin sensitivity which can be beneficial for body composition goals.
At this point you have calmed the CNS and shifted back to your parasympathetic state so why not take slight advantage of this window?
The post-post workout meal is the meal consumed after your post-workout nutrition is complete. The only exception to this is in the above example of a low training age, where a meal has already been consumed within 45 minutes of finishing training. For the rest of the examples (whey shake to high ratio carb:protein shake) a post-post meal will be recommended.
This meal should be consumed about 60-90 minutes after the shake and should contain HIGH QUALITY proteins and carbs with optional fats if the macro prescription permits.
Quantity is not essential and can be based on individual hunger and/or what the macro prescription allows for.
Quality is an emphasis at this meal with the understanding that we have calmed the nervous system and created an optimal environment to maximize nutrient uptake – we want our clients consuming high quality, nutrient dense foods at this time. Creating an emphasis and understanding on micronutrient consumption here is a great idea.
The main difference you will encounter when creating a prescription for a morning trainee is their pre-workout meal.
Waking up early to eat is not just ridiculous to think about but will also negatively affect recovery. Remember, sleep is essential and very few people get enough of it. Even if a client were to wake up early enough to meet our pre-workout recommendations of 90-120 minutes, recall that this meal is more about blood sugar control than anything so they really won’t be receiving any added benefits here from a fuel perspective.
With that in mind, the pre-workout meal is actually going to be dinner the night before. For this reason we recommend that a client that trains first thing in the morning consumes a MINIMUM of 25-30% (can absolutely be higher) of their daily carbohydrate intake with their final meal or within 4 hours of bedtime.
Recently there has been research that suggests performance benefits when ingesting a high molecular weight carbohydrate pre-workout when training in the fasted state. While this research is promising, it is an advanced protocol that should be reserved for higher level athletes. Most individuals will be fine to train completely fasted assuming that their macro prescription is not excessively restrictive.
One final consideration is supplementation for morning trainees. While this will be covered later, it is HIGHLY recommended that anyone who is training fasted consumes a minimum of 5g BCAA prior to training. Remember that the training process in and of itself is catabolic (breaks down the tissue). We want to preserve as much lean tissue as possible and with no amino acid ingestion for as long as 8-10 hours we want to ensure our bodies are not forced to further breakdown tissue to produce these amino acids. Instead, consuming 5-10g BCAA about 20 min prior to training is recommended.
Post workout and post-post workout protocols will remain exactly the same.
Considerations for multiple training sessions
It is important to note that physiology around training won’t change because of multiple sessions. We fully believe that every training session requires a nutritional dose of recovery, so yes, each session should contain a pre and post workout nutrition protocol. RECOVERY RECOVERY RECOVERY
In a perfect world the sessions are spaced far enough that the protocols listed above would be implemented. Unfortunately this is the real world, not the perfect world, and we need to adjust accordingly.
If the sessions happen to be close together the main consideration becomes blood sugar control. Because of the high molecular weight nature of the recovery shake we can see some reactive-hypoglycemia if nothing is consumed within 60- 90 minutes. However consuming something too heavy will leave an athlete feeling full and not able to optimally breathe or perform during their second session if they don’t have the requisite 90-120 minutes to wait until training.
The solution here is individual. Each athlete will have “go to” foods that they know digest well for them. This will be discovered in your working relationship with the athlete and is why communication is so essential to success. Items that seem to work well are often squeeze packs or fruit. They provide just enough blood sugar control to help push through the second session until the second recovery shake.