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Sport Nutrition Tip: Nutrient Timing

By Marni Sumbal

A few weeks ago I went on a long ride with my husband Karel, and heading into the ride I was worried about my energy during the ride. We had an endurance session on the schedule — almost four hours — and I was concerned about my mind and body working together. Like many of you, I hate that foggy feeling in my head during long rides.

I kept reminding myself that within the past year and a half — since really focusing on my nutrition before, during and after workouts — I have not experienced that feeling, nor have I struggled with recovery, energy or getting sick. All throughout the ride, I felt amazing. If you would have asked me to anticipate my energy post ride, at 5:30 that morning, I would have likely said I would be suffering.

fuelOh, the beauty of nutrient timing.

I've been diligent about my nutrition during workouts, as well as fueling pre-workout to help control hunger and help with recovery and energy during workouts. A great thought related to your nutrition is: "It isn't a contest as to how little fuel you can take in before, during or after a workout."

The better you fuel, the harder you can train, and the quicker you recover. Fueling better means it’s easier to do it all over again the next time in order to get stronger. Your focus should be to have a strong body that will perform well.

Do you focus on nutrient timing as an athlete? I started to appreciate this topic while in grad school for exercise physiology, but it wasn't until I started applying scientific principles to my own training routine, that I started to recognize the vital importance of "eating for fuel." This means you can prolong training, reduce fatigue, boost immune system, quicken recovery and improve insulin sensitivity.

Here's a little insight in the topic of nutrient timing around workouts.

During exercise catabolic (break down) hormones (ex. epinephrine, cortisol, glucagon) prepare the body to use glucose (from muscle and liver glycogen) for fuel. They also increase heart rate, blood pressure, cardiac functioning, blood redistribution and respiration rate to withstand stress during training. It is the anabolic (build up) hormones that support muscle growth (hypertrophy), repair tissues, reduce inflammation, regulate macronutrient metabolism (carbs, protein, fat) which include IGF-I, insulin, testosterone and growth hormone.

Of importance to you as the athlete, especially if you struggle with recovery, feel run-down a lot (or get sick a lot) or feel extreme hunger or mood changes post workout: During prolonged exercise, cortisol levels continue to increase, muscle glycogen is gradually decreasing and insulin sensitivity decreases. By focusing on your training nutrition in all points of your workout (before, during, after) you can boost nutrient transport to muscles (like carbohydrates and amino acids), reduce the loss of glycogen and protein during exercise, enhance recovery (for more consistent training) and reduce muscle damage while strengthening the immune system.

My advice is to keep it simple. Nutrition options may include:
Pre-training: Toast, banana or plain cereal (ex. Shredded Wheat) with peanut butter, milk or an egg.
During: Sport drink, consistently every 10-15 minutes — liquids, calories, carbohydrates, electrolytes.
Post-workout: Whey protein brown rice + Pea (vegan) smoothie, cow's milk (low-fat) or chocolate milk (low-fat)

It may take some time to learn what works best for you, but once you find the formula that helps your body function best, you will notice a difference in your training sessions.

Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and holds a certification by the American Dietetic Association in Adult Weight Management. She is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Ironman finisher and an Oakley Women ambassador, and she has contributed articles to a number of triathlon organizations, such as Lava Magazine, Triathlete Magazine, and To contact Marni, email, visit or become a fan of TriMarni Coaching and Nutrition on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.