Is Meal Timing Important?

Before you start asking questions about meal timing, you should have a good hand on hitting your macro prescription pretty spot on everyday. If you struggle to hit your numbers everyday, that's more of an issue to deal with than meal timing.

Meal frequency is another part of meal timing and I always tell people/clients that it really is just up to your schedule. You don't HAVE to eat every 2-3 hours. It's just not necessary - studies actually show that less total feedings could increase the rate of fat loss, but that's a discussion for another time.

The timing of your actual meals throughout the day doesn't matter UNLESS it's your pre and post workout meal.

Pre-workout Meal

"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 more about blood sugar control and nervous system function." (Phillips)

The pre-workout meal should be consumed around 90-120 minutes prior to your session. This meal should be composed of carbohydrates and protein with no added fats. This is because fats are very slowly digested and they delay the digestion of the nutrients they are consumed with aka carbs and protein. The carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for the nervous system and you want those to be digested quickly so that you are fueled for the workout. 

Post-workout Meal

"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." (Phillips)

When you exercise, there is rapid rise in cortisol (stress hormone), which is our fight or flight hormone. When cortisol rises, it allows the mobilization of proteins, carbs, and fats to be used as fuel. After you finish exercising, your body does not know that you've finished your last rep, and this cortisol will still be elevated. 

Unless this cortisol response is addressed with adequate post-workout nutrition, you could be negatively contributing to long term cortisol dysregulation and possible adrenal/HPA issues. Having a proper post-workout protocol will shut off this cortisol response from training and keep your CNS fresh, allowing you to continue to adapt to the training stress and achieve the results you want.

The post-workout protocol that I recommend is a shake that has quick digesting carbohydrate (cyclic dextrin) and protein, usually in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio. This can be taken 15-20 minutes post workout. About 45-60min after the shake, I recommend having a meal just like the pre-workout meal. High in carbohydrate and protein with no added fats OR optional fats if your macro prescription allows. After consuming the post-workout shake, your body is in a better place to actually digest real food because the cortisol response from training was shut off.

Morning Trainees

If you followed the pre-workout meal guideline above, you would be waking up 90-120min earlier to eat a meal before your morning workout. This just sounds asinine to me as I am someone that values sleep a LOT, and you should too. ;) 

Remember, the pre-workout meal is more about blood sugar control than anything, so you wouldn't be receiving any added benefits from a fuel perspective. "Recently there has been research that suggests performance benefits when ingesting a high molecular weight carbohydrate (cyclic dextrin) pre-workout when training in the fasted state. While the research is proposing, 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 restricted." (Phillips)

Since you would be training fasted in this scenario, your actual pre-workout meal would be the meal you ate the night before. If you are someone that trains fasted or wants to start training fasted in the mornings, make sure you consume 25-30% of your daily carbohydrates with your final meal or within a few hours of bedtime. 

If you are training fasted, I would also recommend consuming 5-10g BCAA prior to training. This is because training/exercising is catabolic (breaking down tissue), and we want to preserve as much lean tissue as possible. Since you have not eaten in 8-10 hours, there has been no amino acid ingestion, and taking the BCAAs will help ensure that your body is not forced to break down more lean tissue to produce the amino acids. In this scenario, the post-workout nutrition protocol is still the same.

Afternoon Trainees

7am - fat/carb/pro

10am - carb/pro (pre-workout meal)

12pm - WOD

1pm - carb/pro shake

2pm - carb/pro meal (no added/minimal fats)

Evening Trainees

7am - fat/carb/pro

12pm - fat/carb/pro

4pm - carb/pro (pre-workout meal)

6pm - WOD

7pm - carb/pro shake

8pm - carb/pro meal (no added/minimal fats)

Multiple-session Trainees

**eat things that you know digest well in between sessions

7am - fat/carb/pro

10am - carb/pro (pre-workout meal)

12-1:30pm - session #1

1:45 - carb/pro shake

2:45 - carb/pro (no added fats)

4:45-6pm - session #2

6:15 - carb/pro shake

7:15 - carb/pro meal (minimal fats)

*last meal(s) before bed will contain fat/carb/pro

Competition Day Nutrition 

**no added fats or fiber

7/7:30 - carb/pro meal

9 - WOD 1

9:20 - carb/pro shake

10:20 - carb/pro meal

12 - WOD 2

12:20 - carb/pro shake

1:20 - carb/pro meal

3 - WOD 3

3:20 - carb/pro shake

**free meal following the competition (carb/pro/fat)

**one last meal before bed (carb/fat)

In conclusion, the pre/post workout meals are really the only meals that should be considered in a timing fashion. Hope you found this beneficial!


Ashleigh Hubbard