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How Do You Time Your Meals Around Your Workouts? [Help a reader out week!]

Posted Feb 12 2012 11:55pm

Why did the Tupperware Fairy never become A Thing? Come on, she’s awesome! And – zing! – just found my next Halloween costume. They should have given her a Tupperware Tiara though.

I could pretend that I got really backed up on my e-mail because I’m just that popular or I could ‘fess up to getting addicted to my new trivia/crossword puzzle book (nerdgasm!). (I should also note it’s hard to reply to e-mails when I’ve got a Jelly Bean permanently attached to my hip. While adorable*, she does make typing difficult.) So I’m dedicating this week to answering all the awesome, interesting, hilarious and sometimes downright weird questions that have been piling up in my inbox. I’ll do my best to give my uneducated answer but what I’m really hoping is that all you smart people will help these readers out as well in the comments!

Reader Gina wants to know all about meal timing and workouts. Is it important? Do I do it? Should she do it? What do I eat before a workout ? (Forgive me for paraphrasing.)

True story: I used to be a Tupperware lady. No, not the kind that stand in the mall and sell brown and orange plastic pitchers that I swear are the exact same ones I grew up with as a tot in the 80′s. Rather I was the kind of Tupperware lady who toted little plastic tubs full of carefully portioned chicken breast, brown rice and spinach every where I went. Because I was that neurotic about my meal timing. One of the first fitness books I read had a lengthy explanation about how I should never go more than three hours without eating and gave special instructions for meals that were right before a workout or right after one. Protein, carbohydrates and fats had to be perfectly balanced or I’d enter a catabolic state where my muscles would eat themselves and I’d ruin all my hard work in the gym. (And also become a self-sustaining zombie which now that I think about it might be kind of genius.)

It made me nuts. And I’m nuts to begin with so that’s saying a lot.

So then I quit doing all of that. And I still have muscles. That’s my short answer.

Here’s my slightly longer opinion:

There are two groups of people who have a good reason to worry about meal timing and macronutrient ratios in relation to their workouts:

1. People who are training for a specific event like Michael Phelps for the Olympics (anyone else super excited for the summer Olympics in London this year?) or a bodybuilder during competition season.

2. People who are working out hard for longer than 60-90 minutes at a time.

These folks are pushing their bodies really hard and often at a very high level so small tweaks in their nutrition could make a big difference in their chosen sport. And especially for people like triathletes who are working out hard for hours at a time, meal timing is a critical health matter.

So where does that leave the rest of us non-Phelpsian folks? The scientific literature does show some advantage in certain aspects of meal timing . For example, Rachel Cosgrove recommends chugging a protein shake within 15 minutes of finishing a weight-lifting workout because studies have shown that it helps build muscle and increase recovery.  But for me it all comes down to how I feel. In my totally unscientific experiment of one – will the anecdote party please report to the front desk, your flight is about to take off!  - the differences in my muscles and how I look and perform are negligible.

But how I eat does make a difference in how I feel during my workout. When we were doing the Rachel Cosgrove Great Fitness Experiment I liked having the protein shakes because I felt like it stabilized my blood sugar and I didn’t get shaky after a workout. I kept up taking them until I got too lazy to wash out my blender every day.

On the other hand, there’s the breakfast debate. Many people will tell you to eat a hearty breakfast before you hit the gym. But there’s also a lot of research about fasted-state cardio (i.e. doing cardio on a stomach that’s been empty overnight) and while some studies do show a slight increase in fat burning, the most recent research seems to show that any effect on body composition is slight. Since I couldn’t find a clear conclusion in the research I just go with how I feel. And how I feel working out after a big breakfast is like puking. So since I do my workouts in the morning I eat something small like a piece of fruit or on some days, nothing at all. (Don’t fret – I still love my big breakfasts! I just either eat them very early if wake up on time or I eat it after I finish my workout.)

To make matters even more confusing, how I feel often changes from one day to the next (or, to be more precise, from one time of the month to the next, blargh) and so what I do is not always consistent. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat. If I’m not, I don’t. What I’m trying to do here is give you permission to just do what feels good to you. Unless you have a specific reason to worry about fine-tuning your body then in my experience this type of thing can take up too much mental space for the sake of very small outward gains.

Now, I turn it over to you guys! Help Gina out – Am I being too cavalier to not worry about meal timing? What strategy have you found works best for you? What’s your favorite summer Olympic event?

*Totally random aside: Jelly Bean has started talking in sentences and it never fails to crack me up. She calls her boots “boops” and  she says “bipped” for zipped when she wants her coat zipped up. So now before we can leave the house she demands – in her most serious face – “Mommy! I need booped and bipped!!” The first time she said it I laughed until I cried. Obviously my kid is the cutest kid ever. Or I’m easily entertained. Or both.

They forgot “Relocated by toddler to inside piano bench.”  

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