Meal Frequency and Performance

By | August 20, 2007

In my last column I discussed how eating more frequently could be better for weight loss. While this may be important to many of you, others may be more concerned with enhancing performance, strength gains, and gaining lean body mass. It is those of you for whom this article is geared towards. This week I’ll discuss why eating the right foods more frequently will undoubtedly make you bigger and stronger—and this isn’t some over hyped ad; it’s real life, based on science.

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While this if difficult to refute, pre- and post-workout nutrition are tied for a close second, with “during” nutrition just a nose behind. Refueling immediately post-workout is probably not a new concept. Working out depletes glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) and promotes protein breakdown (catabolism). Eating the proper nutrients soon after a workout will help replenish this glycogen and enhance protein building (anabolism). Always remember that working out is merely a stimulus needed to enhance muscle growth and recovery. However it’s the actual time between workouts when your muscles grow.

The late Mike Mentzer used a great analogy when discussing training. Lifting weights is like digging a hole in your muscles. If you continue to train and train without allowing for adequate recovery, the hole, per se, will only get bigger. Although he was speaking more in terms of overtraining, this same philosophy can be adopted to nutrition. If you continue to train and don’t feed your body the nutrients it needs (adequate energy via macronutrients and nutrient dense foods), the hole will continue to grow deeper. Refueling the body allows for growth (i.e., you fill the hole from training with new lean body mass). Ultimately, overtime this hole will not only “fill in” but will begin to overcompensate by overflowing or, growing larger by building more lean body mass. Extrapolating this example to nutrition and what you now know happens during rest, you should be well-aware that post-workout nutrition is crucial for recovery. Since this is not a new discovery, this article will concentrate more on pre- and post-workout nutrition. Several recent studies have demonstrated the importance of this concept, so let’s take a look.

As I mentioned, training results in muscle protein breakdown; therefore, it makes sense that the higher the baseline protein status, the less negative impact training would have. To look at this simplistically, if you start at 100% protein status and go down to 50% from training, it would be better than starting at 50% and going down to 0% from training. In the second example you would always be trying to get up to 100%, whereas if you consistently fed your body the nutrients it needs, you would be better off.

A recent study investigated whether ingestion of a supplement (6 grams of essential amino acids and 35 grams of sucrose) taken immediately before or after a training bout would alter the net protein balance in muscle. Interestingly, the authors noticed a significantly greater increase in those taking the pre-workout supplement compared to those taking a post-workout supplement. It appears that the mechanism here is there were more amino acids (remember these are the building blocks of protein) available for the working muscle. Moreover, this effect carried over so that there was enhanced availability of amino acids for at least the first hour of the workout. So, you ask, “what if my workouts last more than an hour?”

Well, maybe it’s time to refeed your body some more nutrients during your workout. Why should you hinder your workout because your muscles are tired, hungry, and just plain beat up? Race car drivers have the fastest, top notch cars available. However, during the Indy 500, for example, they need to stop to refuel. Think of your muscles as race cars; you don’t give them the fuels they need and they won’t perform.

So now the question is not only if you should feed your body before and/or during a workout, but what should you feed your body at these times. As I discussed in the previous study, participants received 6 grams of essential amino acids (equivalent to approximately 12-15 grams of whole proteins) and 35 grams of sucrose (carbohydrate). In terms of protein, there are obviously a million choices. But I don’t think gnawing on a filet mignon on your way to the gym is intelligent. As you are all aware, there are also a number of protein powders available (whey, casein, soy, etc). Furthermore, the processing of these proteins differs too (hydrolysates, isolates, and concentrates). Wow, this is starting to get a bit technical. Let’s cut to the chase.

Studies have shown that whey protein, when consumed independent of any other foods, is absorbed more rapidly than casein protein. Although most of the time foods are often combined with one another, it’s safe to say whey is generally absorbed more rapidly. In terms of the various processing methods, taking one over the other will not make or break your muscle gains. Therefore, if taking a protein supplement prior to a workout, it would be best to take a quality whey protein supplement. Similarly, if taking a product during or after a workout, whey would take the cake. This is because you want a protein that’s rapidly available to your muscles. You don’t want to be sitting at the gym with a stomach full of protein powder sloshing around. Try a set of squats like that! With that said, mixing whey protein with some carbohydrates (either via powder or your favorite carbohydrate product—not soda!h) would be wise.

There are a number of pre-designed formulas on the market. In general it would be best to stick with a carbohydrate:protein ratio of approximately 3 or 4:1 (e.g., for every 30 or 40 grams of carbohydrate, you should have 10 grams of protein). This could be a great thing to drink slowly on the way to the gym and continue to sip throughout your workout. Then, be sure to consume sufficient energy immediately after your workout and continue to refeed your body throughout the day. Of course whole foods provide more nutrients than any supplement can provide, but carbohydrate:protein supplements are much more applicable and easily digested, so are useful immediately before, during and after workouts.

So now let’s get back to the frequency of eating statement from the beginning. Utilizing the recommendations from my last piece on meal frequency, plus those in this column, one would be eating about 8 times per day. Without getting into meal specifics, here’s an example of a day:

Meal 1

Meal 2
Pre-workout drink


Meal 3
During workout drink

Meal 4
Post-workout drink
Meal 5

Meal 6
Afternoon snack

Meal 7

Meal 8
Evening snack

Of course when I use the word “snack” I am referring to a nutrient dense food, such as low-fat yogurt, fruit, etc. rather than what most American’s consider as snacks. As long as your energy intake is sufficient for muscle growth and enhanced recovery, but not so high it’s resulting in fat storage, you’re on the way to a new you. The best judge of that is the mirror; not the scale or anyone else. Only you can set goals for yourself and shoot to achieve those; don’t let anyone or anything get in your way.

Until next time, here’s to good health!

About the Author:

Dr. Chris Mohr RD, PhD is a health nutrition consultant to a number of media outlets and corporations including Discovery Health Channel, Clif Bar, Waterfront Media, and Fit Fuel. He has authored and co-authored several textbooks and textbook chapters, including consulting with LL Cool J on “LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout” (Rodale Press, 2006). He is also co-creator of Meal Plans 101 nutrition software. For more information on how you can utilize Chris’s expertise go to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *