Meal Timing: Does It Matter When You Eat?

Meals and snacking patterns often need to be altered when traveling. As a result, I get questions from both athletes and non-athletes alike about how to best fuel their bodies: Should I stop eating after 8:00 p.m.? Which is better: to eat three or six meals a day? Does it really matter if I skip breakfast? Because meals can be a central part of our social life—and busy training schedules can contribute to chaotic eating patterns—many athletes disregard the fact that food is more than just fuel. When (and what) you eat impacts your future health (and today’s performance).

Food consumption affects the central clock in your brain. This clock controls circadian rhythms and impacts all aspects of metabolism, including how your organs function. Restricting daytime food and eating in chaotic patterns disrupts normal biological rhythms. The end result: erratic meal timing can impact the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD), type-2 diabetes and obesity.

Breakfast: Is It Really the Most Important Meal of the Day? If you define breakfast as eating 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories within two-hours of waking, about one-fourth of U.S. adults do not eat breakfast. This drop in breakfast consumption over the past 40 years parallels the increase in obesity. Breakfast skippers tend to snack impulsively (think donuts, pastries, chips and other fatty foods). They end up with poorer quality diets and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and overweight/obesity.

Eating a wholesome breakfast starts the day with performance enhancing fuel at the right time for your body’s engine. If you exercise in the morning, fuel up by having part of your breakfast before working out and then enjoy the rest of the breakfast afterwards. This will help you get more out of your workout, improve recovery—and click with natural circadian rhythms.

Meal Frequency: Is it Better to Eat 1, 3, 6, 9 or 12 Times a Day? In terms of weight, eating 2,000 calories divided into 1, 3, 6, 9, or 12 meals doesn’t change your body fatness. In a study where breakfast provided 54 percent of the day’s calories and dinner only 11 percent of calories—or the reverse, the subjects (women) had no differences in fat loss. Yet, in terms of cardiovascular health, the big breakfast led to significant reductions in metabolic risk factors and better blood glucose control. The bigger breakfast matched food intake to circadian rhythms that regulated metabolism.

Athletes who skimp at breakfast commonly get too hungry and then devour way too many calories of ice cream and cookies. If they do this at night, when the body is poorly programmed to deal with an influx of sweets, they are paving their path to health issues. Hence, if you are eating a lot of calories at night, at least make them low in sugary foods, to match the reduced insulin response in the evening. This is particularly important for shift workers, who eat at odd hours during the night and tend to have a higher rate of heart disease.

Should you stop eating after 8:00 p.m.? There’s little question that late-night eating is associated with obesity. Research with 239 U.S. adults who ate more than one-third of their calories in the evening had twice the risk of being obese. Among 60,000 Japanese adults, the combination of late-night eating plus skipping breakfast was associated with a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

A study with 2,200 U.S. middle-aged women reports each 10 percent increase in the number of calories eaten between 5:00 p.m. and midnight was associated with a 3 percent increase in C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. Inflammation is associated with diabetes, CVD and obesity. Wise athletes make a habit of eating the majority of their calories earlier in the day, to curb evening eating.

The Best Plan: Plan to Eat Intentionally. Failing to plan for meals can easily end up in missed meals, chaotic fueling patterns and impaired health, to say nothing of reduced performance. If you struggle with getting your food act together, consult with a sports dietitian who will help you develop a winning food plan. Use the referral network at to find a local sports RD.

Instead of holding off to have a big dinner, enjoy food when your body needs the fuel: when it is most active. If you worry you’ll eat just as much at night if you eat more during the day (and you’ll “get fat”), think again. Be mindful before you eat and ask yourself: Does my body actually need this fuel?

Most active women and men can and should enjoy about 500 to 700 calories four times a day: breakfast, early lunch, second lunch, and dinner. To overcome the fear that this much food will make you fat, reframe your thoughts. You are simply moving calories in your pre- and/or post-dinner snacks into a substantial and wholesome second lunch (such as a peanut butter-honey sandwich, or apple, cheese and crackers). The purpose of this second lunch is to curb your evening appetite, refuel your muscles from your workout earlier in the day (or fuel them for an after-work session) and align your food intake to your circadian rhythms. Give it a try?

By Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD

Staying Active By Airport Walking

Whether traveling for business or pleasure, chances are that many of us will find ourselves in an airport at some point in the coming months. While travel days can sometimes be chaotic as you try to get to the airport on time, haul luggage in and out of the car and make sure you have not accidentally left any of the necessities at home (even though you triple-checked to make sure you have your phone charger), incorporating walking as part of your experience can have many benefits. Here are some of the ways walking can benefit you and your family during travel:

1. Meet physical activity guidelines – Current guidelines recommend that adults accumulate the equivalent of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as walking. This activity can be accumulated in sessions as short as ten minutes. Regularly engaging in this amount of physical activity can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. It is important to realize that even on days when you’re traveling, the airport can be a great place to sneak in some physical activity. For example, you can choose to walk to your departure gate instead of riding a train or shuttle. In addition, if you arrive to the airport early or have time between connecting flights, you can use that time to walk around instead of sitting at the gate.

2. Relieve stress – Beyond the multitude of health benefits offered by engaging in regular physical activity, walking while at the airport can help relieve some of the stress associated with travel. If you are a nervous flyer, taking a walk through the airport before boarding your flight may help calm you and improve your mood. In addition, if you are traveling with children, walking around the airport is a great way to let them release some energy before takeoff. Walking before and between flights may also be beneficial for anyone who suffers from circulatory problems, improving blood flow before a long flight.

3. Find adventure – Many airports across the U.S. have art and culture exhibits set up for visitors to enjoy. Some focus on the history of the city or the airport itself, giving visitors a chance to experience the city without ever leaving the airport. Other airports display impressive artwork from local artists or keep children occupied during long waits with interactive exhibits. Doing a bit of pre-travel research about the airport out of which you will be flying or connecting could provide you with an idea of any art or cultural exhibits you may want to check out! Next time you are headed to the airport, make sure to take a comfortable pair of shoes so you can walk, de-stress and enjoy the journey.

Quick Tips:

  • If you are traveling for business and footwear is an issue, pack a pair of comfortable shoes in your carry-on bag so you can quickly change to walk around.
  • You can always ask an airport employee if there is a way to get to your departure gate or desired destination by walking instead of taking a train or shuttle.
  • Check out the website of the airports from which you will be departing or connecting to see what kind of art or cultural exhibits they may have!
  • If traveling with others, take turns walking in smaller groups so you can watch each other’s luggage.

By Virginia Frederick

Exercising While on the Road

Advancements in technology have made our world smaller. Face-to-face meetings and handshakes have changed into texts, emails and FaceTime. Even with instant electronic access, sitting across the boardroom table still is the best way to communicate. Most of us have experienced the sedentary nature of travel for business or vacation. One day of skipped exercise is not the end of life, but choosing how to use our time is important when we arrive at our destination.

Exercise for travelers with high stress and unpredictable schedules should be designed to accommodate individuals who are short on time and don’t have access to a gym or equipment. When in the car for long hours, use the moment after filling the car or the rest stops to engage in some quick exercises.

Bodyweight calisthenics and exercises like squats, push-ups, crunches, burpees and squat-thrusts are easy choices, if some smooth ground is available, because they require no equipment. Performing these exercises at high intensity will give you the maximum benefit. For those who are not quite as fit, some simple stretches and walking around will help keep the blood flowing and reduce stiffness.

If you have time on the road, search out short hikes or activities that you can use along the way to take a break from driving and insert some physical activity. This is also a great way to see some of the local sights. Another idea is to plan a short half-hour walk during a meal break, or once you have reached your destination (so long as it is not too late…).

When seated for an extended time in the car you can perform isometric exercises by contracting muscles without a joint actually moving (like flexing). And, similar to bodyweight workouts, no equipment is required. Last year while traveling for the ACSM conference, I was able to perform crunches, chest, back and leg resistance training while flying at 30,000 feet above the ground.

Two isometric exercise examples are pressing the palms of your hands together as firmly as you can to engage your chest muscles or stretching your arms wide apart to target your back. Gluteal squeezes can help the low back during long drives or flights. Hold each isometric exercise for approximately ten seconds and breathe naturally. These minor exercises can be effective in reducing the effects of being sedentary.

Remaining creative with exercises and having a flexible attitude can provide the keys to getting a workout in while on the road. Seeking the perfect exercise session like you get when home might not be realistic.

While on traveling, keep realistic goals for exercise—a little is better than nothing. Sometimes a break from the routine can generate a new enjoyment for the simplicity of exercise again.

By Robert E. Booker, Jr. and Samuel D. Enright

Tapering: What does that mean?


Q: I am getting ready to compete in my first half marathon. In my training, I have been following the advice of friends who are runners and consulting books/websites. Race day approaches, and my resources instruct me to begin “tapering.” What does that mean?

Good luck with that race! And, may we suggest that you add the following to your library of training resources: ACSM’s Training Considerations for Novice Recreational Runners, found in the 2014 ACSM’s Certified News. To taper properly you must have trained properly; this resource will help you do that.

There is no one correct way to taper prior to a competitive sporting event, so we will try to give you some general principles to use.

First, let’s define what it means to taper as part of a precompetition training routine. Tapering is a progressive reduction in training loads designed to reduce the physiologic and psychologic stress of training prior to a competition. A successful taper will optimize sports performance. In the case of a half-marathon, it is the final part of an entire training regimen that starts several weeks prior to the race. A successful taper will help the runner avoid doing both too much and too little in the period before a race, allowing the individual to stand on the starting line feeling “fresh” and ready to run a PR, or otherwise reach their goals.

Second, let’s underscore that there is not a great deal of scientific evidence for what constitutes an ideal taper. There are different “recipes” based on a runner’s experience, pre-race training and race distance.

Typical recipes will include having an individual do their final long run (approximately race distance) two weeks prior to race day, in the case of a half marathon. These recipes also suggest a gradual diminishing of mileage and an incorporation of non running cross-training in these final two weeks. Typically, the final two days of a taper will include a marked reduction of any running and even considering avoiding running entirely on the day prior to race.

Tapering is an important part of an overall training regimen for competition. Do it, and as you gain more experience as a runner, you can figure out over time what works best for you.

Q: While training to compete in an upcoming obstacle course race, I’ve been experimenting with different techniques to reduce muscle soreness after workouts. One technique I keep reading about is “cryotherapy.” I recall Kobe Bryant, among other elite athletes, championing the idea of cold water immersion after workouts to enhance recovery. Should I do the same?

Many purported modalities and interventions exist to facilitate post-workout recovery. These include heat/cold modalities, as well as foam rolling. A recent ACSM Q&A reviewed many of these interventions: Optimal Recovery: Practical Implications for the Recreational Athlete. We encourage you to read that!

Various forms of cryotherapy (cold therapy) are used in medicine. For instance, when you go to a doctor to get a wart “burned off,” the procedure is typically done with very cold liquid nitrogen. This is cryotherapy. Special types of cryotherapy are now being considered to treat heart attacks and spinal cord injuries. You are also using a form of cryotherapy when you ice down a tendon after working out.

There is also the type of “whole-body cryotherapy” which Kobe Bryant is reported to have used. Your specific question relates to the use of immersion of parts or all of the body in cold water/cold water immersion (CWI) to facilitate recovery from strenuous workouts.

The evidence for this treatment is mixed, with most studies showing little or no objective benefit.

However, CWI has been shown to improve subjective outcomes of DOMS and RPE. Thus, based on our current understanding of CWI for recovery from exercise: you may experience a placebo effect from the therapy. But if you want to be like Kobe, you may want to give it a try.

A final note of caution: as with many newer therapies, little is known about any potential inadvertent side effects of CWI. One should always interpret case reports with a note of caution, but we would be remiss if we did not share with you a recently published case report describing an abdominal aortic dissection after whole-body cryotherapy. If you are going to do post-workout CWI, we would always encourage you to do this while being observed and with a partner.