When to Eat? Optimizing the Timing of Intake for Optimal Performance

When to Eat? Optimizing the Timing of Intake for Optimal Performance

By Joe Eisenmann, PhD


Plain and simple – athletic performance and recovery are enhanced by optimal nutrition. Too often, hard work and training are not optimized because of inadequate nutrition!

Sports nutrition is all about putting the right types of foods in your body, in the right amounts, and at the right time.

It is important that the athlete plan ahead and avoid long periods without eating so they can push the limits during practice and training sessions and recover quickly. Just like a training program – if you fail to plan, plan to fail!

Many sport dietitians suggest to follow a “grazing pattern” that includes several quality nutrient dense meals and snacks as well as hydrating throughout the day.   Eating every few hours and definitely before and after workouts will help maintain energy balance [the proper amount of calories (energy in) compared to what you burn through exercise and training (energy out)].

Here is a sample day showing eating frequency and the timing of each snack or meal:

  • 7:30 am           Wake-up
  • 8:00 am           Breakfast
  • 9:30 am           Snack
  • 11:30 am         Lunch
  • 2:30 pm           Pre Workout Snack
  • 3-5:30 pm       Practice and Training
  • 5:45 pm           Post Workout Snack
  • 6:30 pm           Dinner
  • 9:00 pm           Snack
  • 10:30 pm         Lights out

5 Key Sports Nutrition Practices Related to Timing of Intake and Energy Balance

  1. Eat a healthy breakfast every single day!  How often have we heard, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day!”.  In the case of an early morning workout, at least have a healthy snack (apple, banana, granola bar, etc.).
  2. Eat frequently! Eating every ~2-3 hours keeps fuel in the tank so the body will not have to feed off of your muscle. It also helps recovery so you are ready for the next training session, practice or competition.
  3. Pre-training snack. Unless you had a meal within 3 hours of your next workout, eat a small carbohydrate-rich snack 45-60 minutes before the training session or practice.
  4. Post-training snack. Eat a carbohydrate and protein snack (e.g., low-fat chocolate milk, PB&J, etc.) as soon as possible following training, practice or a competition but at least within 30-60 min afterwards to reload carbohydrate in muscle and help repair and rebuild muscle.  If you wait more than 60 minutes, your recovery will suffer. Your muscles are like dry sponges after a workout, ready to super-absorb the nutrients they need to fully recover and repair.  Eating carbs & protein within 30 minutes of a workout will also help your anabolic (building) state. 
  5. Don’t forget to hydrate! Keep a water bottle with you and stay fully hydrated before a practice or competition. This means drink water all day long! Low-fat milk and 100% juice can also help to hydrate our bodies. When you urinate, it should be clear to light yellow.