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  • Do You Need to Eat Post-Workout Meal?

    Do I Need to Eat a Post-Workout Meal? | stupideasypaleo.com

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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!

    Adam C.

    Adam’s question is an incredibly common one, and something I hear a lot over at The Paleo Athlete Facebook page and after folks read The Paleo Athlete. Let’s break this down.

    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.

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    Do I Need to Eat a Post-Workout Meal? | stupideasypaleo.com

    What do you usually eat post-workout? Leave your answer in the comments below.

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    20 thoughts on “Do You Need to Eat Post-Workout Meal?

    1. Hi, I was reading your answer for the post work out question, and it got me thinking. I don’t do Crossfit or any other intensive workouts, but I do work out 5 times a week. What I do is follow the T-25 series (Basically, incase you have never heard of it, it’s an intensive 25 min workout, that includes cardio and muscle building). My question was since it’s not as intensive as Crossfit, would there be any suggestions of Pre and Post work out foods in mind. I’m already following the paleo Diet since last year. My biggest concern though would be the Pre workout, since I get up sometimes at 4:50 in the morning to workout (will not have any other time in the day because of work).

      1. Hi Wendy!

        Since you’re waking so early, a pre-workout may not be the best idea but if you can stomach say, a hardboiled egg or a handful of nuts, it can help take the edge off hunger. If you find that training fasted doesn’t negatively impact your performance, I wouldn’t worry about eating (and vice versa).

        For post-workout, it sounds like breakfast would be the next meal, so I’d go with something with protein and a bit of carbohydrate on your high-intensity days, keeping fat a bit more minimal until lunch.

        1. Thanks for this reply 🙂 I was going to ask a similar question 🙂 the better I am getting with my paleo meals throughout the day the less I feel the need to have a pre-workout snack, I train around 5-6am in the morning before work and I find if I have something straight after I don’t feel much like breakfast – was thinking of maybe just beefing up my breakfast to ensure it contains good sources of protein, some carbs and stacks of veg and some fat. Would this be okay?? I find if I have a smaller usual breakfast I am hungry by 10am on the days I train. (FYI I follow a Mon, Wed & Fri Resistance training program, and do a 5-7 km walk or run on Tue, Thu & Sat). Any advice would be much appreciated 🙂

    2. I have been thinking about this a lot! Thank you for posting this. I go to Crossfit classes 2-3 times a week at 6:15am. When I started back in June, I would skip breakfast or eat a handful of nuts (or a larabar) prior to my workout and then eat breakfast as soon as I got home. More recently, I have been getting insanely hungry mid workout (usually between WODs), so I have started drinking a protein shake (protein powder and water) as soon as I get up. I understand that the protein shake is inferior to real food, but I can’t stomach a meal that early. I do eat breakfast when I get home. Any advice?

      1. Hi Natalie…when you say you get “hungry mid-workout (usually between WODs)” does this mean you’re doing more than one workout a day?

        1. Sorry for the confusion! I really meant mid-workout (sometimes the WODs were broken up into sections and I started getting hungry between sections…. and that got a little distracting.) Only one workout a day!

          1. Oh okay, gotcha. Protein shakes (I’m assuming whey) are lauded for being really fast digesting, which is probably why you’re feeling so hungry mid-workout. How about a hardboiled egg (there’s some healthy fat in there to keep you feeling a bit more full) and a handful of nuts?

    3. What are your thoughts about having an 8 oz glass of chocolate milk after a workout for a post workout drink? For someone who does a mix of p90x and t25 three times a week.

      1. As someone who doesn’t do well with milk proteins other than whey, I avoid it. I’m assuming the chocolate milk you’re referring to has sucrose (table sugar) in it, which wouldn’t be my #1 choice for a carbohydrate post-worokout. In a pinch, it’s probably fine but if you’re training 3x a week and have a day off in between a post-workout probably isn’t necessary.

    4. Hi, Steph. Thanks for all the information and I guess I might be asking the same thing as the others. Well, I work out (not as frequently as I’d like to), but let’s say it’s about 4x a week. I lift weight, but they’re not that heavy and my biggest concern is about losing some belly fat. My schedule is pretty messed up because of my working hours. There are days when I go to the gym right after waking up/having breakfast. but most of the time, I have breakfast, teach a morning class and go to the gym about three or four hous after I had breakfast. I usually don’t feel hungy, so is it really necessary to have a pre workout meal? I run as well.

      I only feel hungry about thirty or forty minutes after I finish working out, which is great for me because it’s near lunchtime. So, in that case, I wouldn’t need a post workout meal, right? What I like about the paleo woe is that it gives me freedom to eat when I’m hungry ’cause I really can’t stand having to eat evey 3 hours. 😛

      Well, that’s pretty much it. I hope I didn’t bother you that much, heh.

      1. Hi Amanda,

        If you’re training 4x a week, I don’t think you necessarily NEED a post-workout given your schedule and your goals. It also sounds like not eating a pre-workout is fine. I recommend eating a pre-workout for people who 1) are feeling really hungry; 2) have gone several hours without eating and / or 3) are struggling to maintain caloric intake.

        It sounds like (and I’m guessing here by what you’ve described) you are pretty stressed out. Stress and a hectic schedule on top of training can make it harder to lose fat particularly around the abdomen because of the influence of cortisol.

        When you say you don’t lift very heavy, do you mean you don’t lift heavy for your ability or compared to others?


    5. Hey! This is helpful. I do gym workout 5 days a week: crossfit 2-3 times a week and MMA the other 2-3 days. I do yoga one day a week on Saturdays. I usually have a blend of dates, walnuts, pepita seeds, flax seeds blended in my food processor and mixed into my coconut milk/chia seed mixture. It ends up being like a yummy cereal. Is this not a good option. I didn’t see nuts/seeds anywhere in your suggestions. Thanks!

      1. During post-workout you want to limit fat, which is why there are no nuts, seeds, coconut, etc listed. Keep post-workout low in fat for faster refueling / recovery 🙂

    6. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I’ve been kinda freaking out about if I need to do a post workout meal or not lately, and I all could find was conflicting information. This was extremely clear and helped me realize what the REAL purpose of a post-workout meal is for, instead of thinking it’s just some arbitrary “thing” that you’re supposed to do after you workout. I’m really aiming to get things “right” with my nutrition, sleep, workouts, etc. this year but sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming. Thanks for making things so simple and clear. Love you website and I’m excited to get my hands on your new book!

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