What you should know about nighttime training and eating

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Tell me if these scenarios sounds familiar:

– you ran some errands after work and walk through the door at 8 o’clock. After putting away the groceries, greeting the pets and getting set up, it’s nearing 9 by the time you get on the trainer.

– the kids are finally in bed. Their homework is done, they ate their vegetables and their soccer clothes are being laundered. But your evening isn’t done yet. While the couch looks inviting, your bike is waiting.

– the day escaped you again. You disappeared behind whatever mountain of work you set out to do, and by the time you turn off the computer, the sun has gone down and the office is empty. Another late night workout it is.

So many of us lead busy lives and cycling comes second. Yet we want to stay in shape and so, we resort to whatever hours available to get our training in. The problem is that late night training leads to late night eating, which in turn is less than ideal for digestion and recovery.

So what’s a girl to do?

“There’s all sorts of rules about eating at nighttime, most of them without any specific rationale, or based on old wive’s tales,” warned said Alan McCubbin, Advanced Sports Dietitian. “Many of them don’t have a specific scientific rationale, but are more behavioural strategies, designed to prevent people overeating at nighttime. This can be a useful strategy for people who are prone to eating for non-hunger reasons, like eating in front of the TV, boredom eating, procrastination eating, and so forth.”

But when it come to athletes who train at nighttime, different rules apply. If you want a high quality training session at night you’re going to have to be mindful of what you’re eating before, possibly during, and after that session.

How to fuel for nighttime training

Cramming in lots of food shortly before is never a good idea, but processed and/or sugary foods, alcohol and caffeine are notorious for impeding sleep quality, recovery and waking up fresh.
To provide a quick guideline, McCubbin suggested the following:

– Make sure you’re having adequate carbodhydrate leading up to and/or during the session. Exactly how much will depend on the intensity, duration and goals of the session, and some sessions may not require anything out of the ordinary at all.
– Consume adequate protein afterward to optimise the recovery and training adaptations, and
– if there’s a need to refuel quickly (i.e. you need to do a solid ride first thing the next morning), you’ll want to add some post-exercise carbs.

There’s two parts to this – the health aspect and the performance aspect.

The health aspect:

“We know that shift workers have poorer health than people who work during the day, in part because the body doesn’t metabolise food (particularly carbohydrate) the same,” explained McCubbin. “The blood sugar response to any given meal is usually greater at night than it is during the day. This is probably because some hormones in the body rise and fall at different times of the day, following a natural daily rhythm.”

For those people with or at risk of Type 2 diabetes, these eating patterns are a serious health risk. But for serious athletes who are younger, leaner and at very low absolute risk of diabetes, eating at night is very unlikely to put them at any increased risk, said McCubbin.

“If you’re exercising at nighttime, the body is going to increase its ability to use blood sugar during and after that session, so the blood sugar response to food consumed just before, during or after exercise will be lower anyway,” McCubbin said. “A modest amount of carbs during nighttime training (around 30-40g for every hour of moderate to high intensity effort) is unlikely to be a problem for the vast majority of people, but is only really necessary if the session is high intensity and the quality of the session is important (just like training at any other time of day).”

The performance aspect:

McCubbin said that consuming a serving of protein-containing foods before bed can help to increase the body’s adaptations to training (and probably minimise the loss of muscle if someone is trying to lose weight).

“I often suggest a protein snack before bed to athletes I work with, especially those who are either trying to gain muscle or trying to lose body fat without losing muscle,” said McCubbin. “But I also do it for cyclists during a hard block of training of during a stage race, especially if they tend to have an early dinner or go to bed late.”

However, riders doing a multi-day event should consume some extra carbs at nighttime due to the limited window in which to recover their body’s stores from one day to the next.

“If you finish a stage at  4 p.m. and have a big stage at 10 a.m. the next day, you’ve only got 18 hours (and probably 6-8 of those asleep) to restore your muscle’s supply of carbs, so it’s about being pragmatic and getting it in however you can,” said McCubbin. “But again, with the amount of riding happening in this scenario and the likely fitness level of the rider, any health effect of these carbs at night is likely to be negligible.”


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