For all the common ground you share with other people reading this article right now (a love for training and eating clean and a desire for an aesthetically pleasing physique), your work or school schedule is like a fingerprint in that it’s entirely unique to you. The problem with this variety is that some of the advice you get will be slightly less than universal. For instance, the guy who wakes up and hits the gym before work will not have nearly the same nutritional plan as the guy who trains after work; one doesn’t have the time to eat a solid meal before working out, while the other is likely already close to meeting his daily caloric requirement before stepping foot in the gym. And do you think that the late-night trainer can adhere to the same high-octane stack of preworkout supplements like the midday trainer? Not if he ever plans on sleeping again.
However, despite the differences between the early bird and the night owl, one thing remains constant: the elements of the preworkout meal. No matter what time of day (or night) you train, you still need to get in 20 grams of a faster-digesting protein and 20 to 40 grams of slow-digesting carbs within half an hour before your workout. Timing that meal with the day’s other meals can be complicated. Personalizing a diet and supplement plan so that it fits your physique goals and your schedule is one of the most critical factors in enhancing results. To help you do that, we’ve recruited Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., owner of jimstoppani.com and author of The Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength (Human Kinetics, 2006), to provide a preworkout food-and-supps plan for trainers of every schedule persuasion. Which group do you fit into?
Here is the standard preworkout meal that you should be eating no matter what time of day you train:
- 20 grams of whey
- 3 to 5 grams of creatine
- 2 to 3 grams of beta-alanine
- 5 to 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids
- 1 medium apple or orange
GROUP 1: EARLY RISERS
This is perhaps the most dedicated group of gym-goers in existence. These fitness enthusiasts are able to summon the will to crawl out from under their cozy covers and work themselves into a sweat at the break of dawn. But mustering an appetite when your first rep takes place before the sun has had a chance to rise can be a bit dodgy.
- 6 a.m. awake; take one dose of a nitric-oxide booster (or 3 to 5 grams of arginine) plus 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine (if your NO booster doesn’t already contain caffeine)
- 6:30 a.m. preworkout meal
- 7 a.m. hit the gym
- 8:30 a.m. postworkout meal
- 9 a.m. breakfast
“Taking arginine immediately upon waking helps boost blood flow,” Stoppani says. “Caffeine not only will help you shake your morning haze but also can provide immediate increases in strength and facilitate fat burning. Creatine helps your short-burst strength and is critical no matter what time of day you train.”
“Whey protein digests pretty quickly, stopping the muscle wasting that your body can slip into overnight as your body is deprived of amino acids,” Stoppani explains. “The slow-digesting carbs help to provide light, lasting energy for the workout. You can refuel with a more substantial breakfast after.”
GROUP NO. 2: LUNCHTIME TRAINERS
Working out at lunch not only can get you through the dread of your morning workload or class load but also can give you a nice jolt of energy to power the rest of your day. Plus, it clears your evening schedule for more important activities, such as catching up on your Netflix episodes of The Shield. But because this is also likely the time you’d usually be taking down a significant helping of food, it may be tricky to fit in a preworkout meal.
“The answer,” Stoppani says, “is to bracket your workout with two whole-food meals: a midmorning snack and lunch. For the midmorning snack, try half a cup of cottage cheese with half a cup of pineapple. Then, 30 to 60 minutes after your postworkout shake, you can have lunch.”
- 11 a.m. midmorning snack (20 to 30 grams of protein, 10 to 20 grams of carbs)
- 11:45 a.m. take one dose of a nitric-oxide booster (or 3 to 5 grams of arginine) plus 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine (if your NO booster doesn’t already contain caffeine)
- 12:15 p.m. preworkout meal
- 12:30 p.m. hit the gym
- 1:30 p.m. postworkout shake
- 2 p.m. lunch
“Some people worry that caffeine competes with NO boosters, causing blood-vessel constriction,” Stoppani says. “However, research shows that when you exercise, the blood-vessel dilation resulting from the exercise overrides any constriction caused by any stimulant. Plus, caffeine has been shown to boost nitric-oxide levels, giving you a double whammy.”
GROUP NO. 3: THE AFTER-WORK CROWD
It’s been a long day. And while every fiber of your being simply wants to go home and put your feet up, your inner Arnold knows that it’s time to punch your timecard at the gym. This is another awkward time frame, however, because you are so close to dinnertime and are likely a few hours past your last good snack.
Again, you’re going to have to put your main meal (here it would be dinner) off until after you work out, but don’t worry about getting hungry. “So long as you take in what’s prescribed here, you won’t be longing for dinner, even though your internal clock is set to eat around this time,” Stoppani says. “Consider your dinner a reward for your hard work.”
You’ll keep hunger at bay not only by having the customary preworkout meal but also by having a whole-food midafternoon snack about two hours before you hit the gym. That gives the food time to digest so that the only thing weighing you down once you get there will be the 70-pound dumbbells you’re holding. As far as supplements go, so long as you are off work at a decent hour, it’s OK to mix in the same set of supplements that you would if you trained earlier in the day. But if you get out of work later than usual or plan to go to bed earlier than usual, you may want to consider eliminating supplements that could interfere with your sleep.
- 4 p.m. afternoon snack (20 to 30 grams of protein, 10 to 20 grams of carbs)
- 5 p.m. take one dose of a nitric-oxide booster (or 3 to 5 grams of arginine) plus 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine (if your NO booster doesn’t already contain caffeine)
- 5:45 p.m. preworkout meal
- 6 p.m. hit the gym
“Turkey is a good lean protein source, so I often recommend eating a turkey sandwich in the middle of the afternoon,” Stoppani says. “Make sure you’re eating it on a slow-digesting bread, like whole wheat or rye for longer-lasting energy at the gym.”
“Those who are more sensitive to caffeine might find that taking it this late in the day affects their ability to fall asleep,” Stoppani says. “If that describes you, skip the caffeine and take an NO booster that’s stimulant free.”
GROUP NO. 4: NIGHT OWLS
There’s something peaceful about the gym after 10 o’clock at night. Aside from the gentle hum of a few treadmills and a small scattering of lifters, you can have your run of the place at that hour. The day firmly in your rearview mirror, you lose yourself into your playlist and take to manhandling the iron without worry of interruption.
However, despite its allure, some people actively avoid training at this time of day, figuring that working out post-dinner will be pre-emptively sabotaging any positive changes in body composition. On the contrary, a day’s worth of fuel is sitting at the ready, waiting to be used for war with the weights. And even though you’ve likely eaten dinner, you’ll need to down some food in the preworkout window to maximize results. “A cup of reduced-fat (2 percent) Greek yogurt with a tablespoon of honey is a good option this late in the day,” Stoppani says, “because Greek yogurt contains more casein protein, which is slower digesting, than regular yogurt. That will keep a steady flow of amino acids traveling to muscles through your workouts and even as you get close to bedtime.”
Clearly, this late at night is no time to be using caffeine, even though it’s a great preworkout supplement, particularly because poor sleep habits can wreak havoc on recovery from intense workouts, interfere with hormone levels and slow the body’s ability to burn fat. However, the good news is that “boosting nitric-oxide levels has been proven in clinical studies to increase training intensity and endurance even without caffeine,” Stoppani says.
- 8 p.m. post-dinner snack (20 to 30 grams of protein, 10 to 20 grams of carbs)
- 9 p.m. take one dose of a nonstimulant nitric-oxide booster (or 3 to 5 grams of arginine)
- 9:45 p.m. preworkout meal
- 10 p.m. hit the gym
“Carbs are important before workouts to keep energy levels up and ensure that you’re maximizing output with the weights, but if you’re watching body-fat levels, don’t overdo the carbs this late at night,” Stoppani says. “You’ll burn some of them off in the gym, sure, but anything left over could be directed to fat stores while you sleep.”
“Most NO boosters have turned into preworkout supplements, which include not just nitric-oxide boosters but also a stimulant to take advantage of caffeine’s benefits on strength and endurance,” Stoppani says. “But there are several brands that still provide pure NO-boosting formulas that are stimulant free. Or you can always supplement with arginine, citrulline, glycine-proprionyl-L-carnitine, Pycnogenol or horny goat weed to get NO levels up.”