Supplements that work: Revisiting nutrient timing – Updated

UPDATE: Here is a NEW 2014 paper on NT and weight loss: Nutrient Timing and Obesity 2014

Nutrient timing (NT), one of the golden rules of nutrition and performance. Many athletes have heard of it, but few really understand how it works, or even if it works. In my final article of my supplements that work series, I am going to delve into this topic with the help of a recent article by Brian St. Pierre at Precision Nutrition.

If you’re unfamiliar with NT, it is the concept of timing what you eat (or perhaps don’t eat) to yield a specific outcome. The most notable is the glycogen window, but others include drinking your beet juice or ingesting your caffeine before an activity to yield the greatest benefit; you are timing the use to get the best outcome. Other examples including ingesting carbs during exercise, fasting (as in being “empty) before training to help prevent bonking or achieving greater training outcomes. The list really is endless, and like so many things, includes strategies that may not work, do not work, or actually make things worse. St. Pierre explores many of these examples and provides compelling evidence for why much of the nutrient timing advice is either ineffective long-term, or simply lacks strong evidence. This is not to say that it is a waste of time, rather you should consider how a specific timing strategy fits in with what is known and what your specific needs are. Based on my own experience and the evidence, here are my recommendations for applying nutrient timing:

  • Are you expecting a long-term gain (e.g., increased muscle growth or weight loss) or a short-term fix (e.g., multiple races in one day with increased fueling needs)? Most research has been fairly short-term, so here the glycogen window is most important for the latter, whereas increased protein synthesis may not actually lead to bigger muscles long-term. The take home message: Hedge your bets, using quick shakes when time is short, but aim for real meals when possible.
  • Is the timing essential to the nutritional benefits? In many cases it is not. Case in point, eating carbs and protein are critically important to replacing glycogen and recovery if your next session is say 12 hrs or less away (e.g., multiple races in one day, or a late night race and then early morning race), then timing matters, but that window is less meaningful if sessions are more than 24 hrs apart.
  • Are you expecting miraculous performance gains, or a slight edge? The former is highly unlikely no matter what you try, but if its a slight edge, consider how much that edge will cost in other essentials, like diminished training or lost sleep. This one is big when it comes to sports where early morning workouts and races reign supreme. Is a big breakfast worth losing 2 hrs of sleep? Is that fasted workout costing your quality training? The take home message here: Cover all the key bases first, including recovery, before looking for small advantages. This includes training too! I see too many triathletes losing sleep (literally) to squeeze in that extra training. Quality first!
  • Are you your supplements predominant in your nutrition, or are they a supporting cast? You already know the correct answer here, so if you answered wrong fix that first!
  • Consistency trumps timing. Its better to get a good, QUIET meal 60 or 90 min after every workout, than some half-asses supplement timing/meal approach. Why? Simply put, mindful recovery is critically important. Too many athletes are type A, rush to the next destination people. Slamming a recovery shake while running to class or a meeting may seem like you’re meeting your recovery needs, but I guarantee that eating half the calories and taking a 20 min nap would yield better results. In lieu of a nap, sitting and eating a relaxing meal gets your focused on normalcy, and perhaps your body into a true recovery zone. Take home message: Consider shortening training by at least 30 min to allow for more down-time after training.

To learn more about how nutrient timing can work best for you, checkout this article at Precision Nutrition. Thanks for reading!

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