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Adam C. writes:
Steph, I’m wondering if you can help me figure out if I need to eat a post-workout meal? I usually train 3 times a week at CrossFit, and I hike once a week. There’s so much confusing info out there!
Nutrient Timing, Simplified
For the purpose of Adam’s question, I’m going to simplify this discussion. You can really go crazy with PubMed and Google Scholar, digging into the primary literature about pre-, intra-, and post-workout nutrition. My aim here is to provide a summary of the most salient points.
Eating protein and carbohydrate after training serves two main purposes. First, consuming protein means you’re supplying the necessary amino acids for repairing muscle (via a process called muscle protein synthesis). After muscle is worked in training, microtraumas must be repaired. Protein that is dense in the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) is preferred, and that looks like meat, seafood, eggs and for some people, whey protein. (Click here to read my stance on whey.) For a complete list of BCAA-rich proteins that are compatible with a Paleo approach, click here.
Second, eating carbohydrate in an insulin-sensitive state helps replenish your main glycogen (stored glucose) tank: muscle. A smaller amount of glycogen is also stored in the liver but is not the primary source tapped into when you train hard. Consuming a carbohydrate that is rich in glucose after training is important, especially when said training is intense and / or long. What does that type of carbohydrate look like? Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes (click here to read my stance on white potatoes), plantains and yuca provide the most nutrient bang for the carbohydrate buck. For a complete list of carbohydrates that are compatible with a Paleo approach, click here.
It’s worth mentioning here that post-workout meals are best when they don’t contain fat (or contain very little). Why? Fat causes the stomach to empty slower which is counter to the point of the post-workout refuel. Save the fat for your three square meals a day.
How soon should you eat protein and carbs after your workout is over? That’ll be covered in the next section.
The Issue of Frequency
So, we’ve established that consuming protein and carbohydrate post-workout is important for recovery. But how soon after training do you need to eat it? Is there ever a time when you don’t need to eat post-workout?
When trying to help individuals determine if eating a post-workout meal is right for them, I always come back to this one factor: frequency. How often are you training and more critically, how much time do you have between training sessions?
Let’s compare two hypotheticals.
Adam trains 3 times a week (MWF) at CrossFit and hikes once a week, typically on Sunday. In Adam’s case, he has a full day to recover and refuel between each training session. Even though his intensity is high on MWF, he has time to replenish with regular meals. His Sunday hike, while it goes for a couple hours, is low on the intensity scale. Unless Adam is trying to aggressively gain mass, it’s unlikely that he will suffer from lack of a post-workout meal.
Contrast that to Lauren who trains 6 times a week (Tu-Sun). She’s a competitive cyclist who includes long rides on the weekends and interval training during the week. Also, two days a week she strength trains then goes for a ride, including intervals. On Fridays, she trains in the afternoon after work, and Saturday morning is a long ride with her club team. She takes Mondays off. Lauren is training far more frequently than Adam. She’s working out on back to back days, doing some double sessions, and including intensity in her training. Someone like Lauren would be wise to eat a post-workout meal not only from a caloric standpoint, but also to provide the substrate for recovery. Specifically, her Friday night post-workout refuel is really important because she’s got less than 12 hours between sessions.
It’s worth mentioning that Adam, while he trains, is not really interested in being a competitive athlete. Yes, he wants to improve his lifts and his benchmark workouts, but CrossFit for him is fun and a way to stay active. He’s not really driven by performance. Lauren, on the other hand, is training for some large national-level races and has specific performance goals. It’s an important distinction to make, because, as a performance-driven athlete, Lauren really needs to pay attention to her post-workout nutrition, sleep and recovery practices more than Adam.
To summarize, the more frequently you train (especially if those sessions include intensity and / or are back to back), the more important it is to eat a post-workout meal. And, when you’re training the next day, it’s generally best to eat a post-workout meal.
When and What to Eat Post-Workout?
If eating a post-workout meal (because you’re training frequently and performance is a priority), eat as soon as possible once training is over. If the workout was particularly intense and you’re drooling and sweating all over yourself, let your body relax a bit and get closer to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state before trying to shove some food in your mouth. For most folks, 15-30 minutes after the workout ends is a good window, though some sources will say 15-60 minutes.
I don’t think it’s worth arguing about 30 minutes, but I will caution you against the following: You’re training like Lauren and waiting a few hours to eat anything. Remember, her schedule includes a high frequency of training. Getting nutrients in as soon as possible is her best bet.
What to eat is relatively simple: something with protein and carbohydrate. The options here depend a LOT on your lifestyle, time demands, food tolerances and personal preferences. Some people like leftover meat and sweet potatoes. Some people lean toward protein shakes with added carbohydrate for convenience. (Remember, supplements are not nutritionally superior to real food.) If you are trying to lean out a bit, I recommend avoiding liquid foods like protein shakes and sticking to solid foods.
The best way to find what works for you is to test it out and make some notes in your training log about what you ate, when you ate it, and what your recovery and performance are like. Click here for a list of protein and here for a list of carbs to get started. Shameless plug: My ebook The Paleo Athlete goes into a lot more detail about how much to eat (and the theory behind all this), and my upcoming cookbook has 100 recipes specifically for performance-minded folks (and it’s on early bird sale pricing from Amazon and Barnes and Noble right now).
How much to eat varies a lot and depends largely on things like body size and activity level. Click here to see some fueling tables, but please know that you’ll need to test things out. There’s no way I can possibly give specific recommendations for as wide and varied a readership as I have because I don’t know the details of your training and life. My best advice is to start with a modest amount of protein and carbs and track your recovery and performance data. Write down how much you ate (roughly, don’t be a crazy person carrying around a food scale) and when. Write down how you felt in training, if you felt recovered, etc. If you notice that over time you’re not performing well, it may be time to bump up your post-workout protein and / or carbohydrate.
For example, I might eat a chicken breast and half a sweet potato about 30 minutes after I train. If I do this for a couple weeks and notice that I feel really sluggish, sore and generally not recovered, I might bump it to a whole sweet potato. Then, I’ll stick to that for a couple weeks and note any changes.
Hopefully this has given you the tools to evaluate whether or not a post-workout meal is necessary for you.