Eat like an athlete
Keen to borrow the nutrition principles of the world’s fittest bodies? Turns out time is your new secret weapon
What we consume is crucial to training, but now when may be just as important
Ever downed a protein shake straight after your workout, before you’d even left the gym? Perhaps you’ve forgone the banana and done your HIIT class hungry because fasted workouts are a thing, right? You, friend, have been dipping your toe into the pool of nutrient timing: the idea that it’s not just about what and how much you eat, it’s when that makes all the difference.
While it’s a newish concept to most of us, nutrient timing (often referred to as nutrient cycling) has been around since the early ’00s; based on some 50 years of research into the myriad ways different macronutrients – protein, carbs and fat – affect your body. The principles were first applied at elite sporting level, where they helped the world’s fittest get shredded, and then followed the inevitable dissemination into gym culture. Experts reckon this method could be the key to the body composition – and performance – you’ve always wanted.
The most common iteration of nutrient timing doing the rounds? Carb cycling.
“It essentially means scaling your carbohydrate intake up and down in accordance with your activity levels,” explains performance nutritionist Liam Holmes. He uses the principles of nutrient timing to get elite athletes and Crossfit enthusiasts to their leanest before competitions. “If you’re training for an event – be it a cycling race or the Crossfit open games – you’re going to want to shed those last few percentage points of body fat,” says Holmes. “Not only can excess fat hold athletes back from their preferred weight category, it makes bodyweight exercises, like pull-ups, that much harder.”
RACE AGAINST TIME
So how is it done? Most experts recommend a fasted training session followed by carbohydrates. “The body works harder when it doesn’t have carbs as fuel, so it learns to become a more efficient burner of the fuel once it is there,” explains Holmes. “Eating this way also means you’re more likely to be running off your fat stores.”
The technique is also favoured by nutrition coach Gillian Brunton, who says it sharpens the body’s sensitivity to insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas that allows your body to use sugar from carbohydrates as fuel. One method Brunton deploys to get her clients’ bodies more insulin-sensitive – and ultimately more shredded – is carb backloading. “Essentially, it means eating carbs at night on the days you’ve done a fasted workout in the morning,” she says.
The science seems to stack up. In Israel, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem put participants on a plan where they ate the majority of their carbs in the evening, before analysing their hunger levels, body fat, waist circumference and blood-sugar levels. After 180 days, they discovered the group eating carbs later lost more weight, more centimetres around their middle and were less hungry than those spreading their carbs throughout the day. Crucially, the baseline insulin levels of those eating carbs later on was significantly lower, which led the researchers to conclude that “manipulating carbohydrate distribution” could help improve insulin resistance.
WATCHING THE CLOCK
If we’re talking about timed nutrient intake, isn’t protein a thing, too? Early research on the impact of protein on muscle growth and repair raised the idea of an ‘anabolic window’ – a timeframe within which protein is optimally absorbed – but the science has since moved on. A review by California State University concluded that the anabolic window had been overstated and that the amount and quality of the protein was more important than when it was eaten. “Timing does matter with protein,” argues sport and exercise scientist Dr Graeme Close. “Rather than being squeezed into a window, it should be supplied to muscles in small amounts every four to five hours, after which muscleprotein synthesis – how your body rebuilds its muscle tissue – just switches off.”
WHY IT ISN’T EVERYTHING
The approach to nutrient timing today is less prescriptive. Researchers writing in the Journal of the International Society of
Sports Nutrition concluded the science itself doesn’t dictate any hard-and-fast rules, and practitioners should bridge these gaps with their expert “observations and experiences”.
In reality, professional approaches vary: Brunton keeps her clients’ protein and fat levels steady while playing with the size of their carb intake, while Holmes ‘seesaws’ the levels of fat and carbs, decreasing the fat content of a client’s meal plan during the high-carb phase to lessen their chances of overeating on high-fat, high-carb foods.
When it comes to incorporating the performance nutrition hacks of the fitness elite into your own routine, you’re essentially your own science experiment. To know what works – and what doesn’t – you’ll need everything except the macronutrient you’re playing with to remain consistent. That means it’s vital to have the nutritional foundations nailed first. “You need the three T’s: total food, type of food and, only then, the timing,” says Close. If you’re au fait with the fundamentals of fuelling your training – and you have a specific event to strip fat for – by all means experiment with carb cycling, under the guidance of a nutrition professional. But experts agree that setting a sustainable plan to fuel your fitness should be your first priority. “Focusing on the timing of your nutrition can work, but it also adds a layer of complexity to the business of achieving lean and healthy body composition,” says Close. “For the majority of people, there’s really no need to confuse the picture.” Brunton agrees that it’s more important to nail a healthy routine – food, fitness and mindset – before attempting to emulate athletes. “You can pay close attention to the timing, but if you’re eating the wrong things – or doing the wrong workouts – it won’t make a difference,” she says. The truth of the matter is, you simply can’t out-train a bad diet.