Most of you know me, and know that I tend to be “thorough” when I’m asked questions…or I try to be. Time has been of the essence recently, so I haven’t had much time to blog. But I’ve been asked about pre and post-workout nutrition about 10 times in the past week, so here’s as thorough of a response and resource I can provide in about 30 minutes at the computer.
As always, this question has a veritable cornucopia of responses based on your goals and your current state in relation to those goals. So here’s a relatively straight forward way to break it down. I’ll use 3 categories (although you could probably break it down into more). There are a ton of considerations that go into this discussion.
Let’s start with the Post workout discussion, because it’s a little easier to address:
1. Beginner Athlete (someone new to intense training AND working on leaning out…lose fat)
Post-Workout – The assumption here is that this athlete is only
- A. Don’t Eat immediately (post workout fast). Let your body replenish glycogen stores naturally. Greater release of Growth Hormone and stimulation of fat burning/muscle gain. Eat a meal 1-2 hours later (Protein, Fat and carb). Here’s a great post from Mark Sisson on post workout fasting. The caveat to this is if you completely crash after a workout (low blood sugar due to glycogen depletion) and you can’t function, then by all means, eat immediately after. A small dose of either fructose-based carbs (i.e. fruit) or starchier glucose-based carbs (sweet potato) can really help (each for their own reasons).
- B. If you are going to eat, eat REAL FOOD with a bias towards protein…but the protein shake is probably not what you’re looking for here…not because of calories or even insulin spike per se, but because with the initial steps of leaning out, we’re trying to focus on food QUALITY and to limit potential irritants and inflammatory stressors from food. Remember, the assumption is that you’re still working on leanness, so we want to stick primarily to protein; if you do any carbs, avoid grains (as you should be doing anyway). A good example is a bit of jerky or maybe jerky and sweet potato.
- Bottom line, is that this is not dogmatic. If you feel like ass after your workout and your body is telling you to eat, then eat. If you’re not hungry, and you fall in category A (leaning out), then don’t eat just because Muscle-Bound Publication X says you have to eat within 36 seconds of finishing your workout.
2. Intermediate Athlete (leaned out, but starting to become more competitive and work harder on achieving more goals and PRs. Workouts are tapping farther into intensity so more glycogen is being used)
If the workout is glycolitic (i.e. leaves you on the floor) or, in general requires a steady output for more than 15 minutes or so (i.e. it’s not just lifting), then:
- A. Within 30 minutes of finishing workout, eat protein and carbohydrates in the following approximate ratios (in the form of REAL FOOD primarily)
- I. Competitively Lean (< 10% BF for men, < 15% BF for women) – 60%-70% Carb / 30-40% Protein
- II. Moderately Lean (11-18% BF for men, 16-25% for women) – 40-50% Carb / 50-60% Protein
- 1 – 2 hours later, eat a full meal consisting of Protein and Fat
- If you get sleepy after your post workout meal, then dial back on the carbs. Play around with the carbs afterwards over the course of a few weeks to find where you feel the best (recovery is good and you don’t get the 2pm coma feeling).
- The amount of carbs you can tolerate depends on a lot of things (age, sex, how long you’ve been training, current leanness, etc..). You have to play around with it a bit
- B. Consider fasting for the same reasons as with the Beginner Athlete. This would normally happen after a workout where you are just lifting.
3. Competitive Athlete (assumption is that your as lean as is optimal for best performance).
Post-workout options for the competitive athlete will be almost identical to the Intermediate athlete, but now we must consider multiple workouts (and the requirement to more immediately replenish glycogen), higher output levels, and that we are eating for performance…not necessarily health THERE IS A DIFFERENCE!!!!! I’ll push the competitive athlete to use liquid-based recovery nutrition immediately after workouts. They’ll generally be taking in more carbs than protein (i.e. case I. above) immediately after their glycolitically demanding workout (i.e. leaves you on the ground), and they’ll eat a much larger meal 1-2 hours after the post workout meal unless working out again that day. Depending on their goals during the current phase of training, the competitor may be taking in more calories based on strength and mass gain goals. This would shift as competition neared and they needed to revisit lactic work (the kind that makes you want to vomit…you know).
Alright, so hopefully that didn’t leave you with more questions than answers. My goal is to get you to experiment a bit, but have a reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ask others what has worked for them.
So now it’s off the the land of pre-workout food
Again, the answer depends, but there are some good guidelines.
1. LIFTING. For MOST individuals, if the workout is primarily lifting without a hard/fast effort involved (i.e. no 5 min AMRAP after the lift), then they can usually eat right up until the start of the workout and be OK. Because carbs can cause some mental fogginess (depending on quantity and your tolerance), you can stick with primarily protein and fat prior to a lifting workout. This goes for all experience levels.
2. THE PAIN TRAIN. If there is a lactic/glycolitic effort during your workout (i.e. you can tell it’s going to be a challenge) then having glycogen stores topped off is important. This does NOT mean the cliched “carb-loading” pasta dinner. It just means an appropriate amount of rest and or carbs to replenish glycogen within 3-4 hours of the workout. Some people can eat very close to a hard workout. I, personally, perform much better on a nearly empty stomach prior to a hard workout. However, we have the “green-face” affect that we see pretty much every TAKEOFF course to consider. This is when a new athlete, in the midst of their first workout (generally less than 5 minute effort) suddenly gets a flushed/green hue to their face. We know immediately what question to ask: “When did you last eat?” Without a doubt, the answer is something like, “Lucky Charms for breakfast!?” (keep in mind that TAKEOFF starts after 6pm).
An important consideration (and one that’s tough for new athletes to grasp when they have competing goals of performance and leanness) is that glycolitically demanding workouts (i.e. what you think of as a classic hard CrossFit workout) DEMANDS sufficient carbohydrate intake prior to the workout. That doesn’t mean necessarily immediately before, but close enough that you don’t deplete that glycogen through your fasting efforts or just being too low carb. So when we ask people to reduce to an APPROPRIATE quantity of carbohydrates via primarily veggies, some fruit and starches like sweet potatoes….if they go TOO low carb while trying to do full-effort CrossFit workouts, then 1) they fail miserably in the workouts and feel like utter shit, and 2) they hinder their fat loss goals because they are stimulating a stress-response (cortisol release!) due to too low of glycogen under glycolitic demanding conditions. The body will use available protein or muscle tissue to create sugar to fuel your fun workout….but at the expense of increased inflammation, adrenal stress (remember the hormone pool analogy and that sex hormones and hormones controlling fat storage are the first ones affected by excess stress) and likely fat storage. The body doesn’t necessarily like to be physically stressed AND starved at the same time.
So if you’re new to this whole “fat is a great fuel for the body so I’ll reduce my carbs to normal levels below 100g per day because Jeremy is telling me to”, you must temper your CrossFit goals and output. This is why I steer newer athletes who desire leanness to focus on M, W and F workouts (lifting) and to go easier on their workouts. And in all honesty, the persistent cortisol elevation associated with beating yourself into tar EVERY workout is another reason we program the way we do (i.e. with rest periods, shorter WODs in general, and periodization).
Alrighty folks. That was just shy of 1500 words of pure confusion, huh. I wish it were as easy as “eat this, not that” when it comes to pre and post workout nutrition…but it just isn’t. We’ve got an old Nutrition 101 podcast that addressed this. I’m re-editing it a bit but I’ll get that out there soon. It basically addresses this exact question. The bottom line is that it’s different for each individual based on their current position and goals. You’ve gotta play around with it a bit, BUT THAT REQUIRES CONSISTENCY IN YOUR EFFORTS!!!! Don’t try one thing for one day and then shift the next day. Try post-workout fasts every 3rd workout for 1 month. If it works, sweet, that’s a data point. Now try something else and see if you feel better or worse. Get it? You now have some direction in which to start your experimentation.