(The following is an updated version of an article I wrote a few years ago)
In this first installment of optimal post-workout recovery fueling, we’ll look first at why, and then what to do after workouts that are more strength oriented.
First of all, optimal recovery foods are very individual. What is best for one person may not be the best for another. What is optimal for you will even change over time as you’ll see below. Anyone telling you differently is either trying to sell you something, or is not well informed!
Why does what we eat post workout matter any more than what we eat during other times of day? The post workout window of time (1-2 hrs depending on which study you look at) is unique because the muscles are more insulin sensitive at this time, and are ready to receive amino acids (protein) and glycogen (carbs). This speeds recovery for the next session and increases performance faster. An important second reason is that following a workout, stress hormones are elevated. An important job of the recovery meal is to reduce and clear these hormones.
But Post Workout Meals aren’t “Paleo”….
A common argument of the “Primal/Paleo” crowd is that “Grok” never had a post workout shake. If you are exercising purely for health’s sake, then you should indeed train in a manner not requiring a shake. However, you very likely have 100 x more daily life stress than “Grok” had, so you need to eat afterward to replenish your muscle glycogen and reduce the stress response. “Grok’s” body could handle a little extra stress of waiting for food because his overall stress load was so low. (Besides, most of “Grok’s” exercise was hunting, and a feast would be soon following anyway.) Food is usually your main tool here, but If you have performance goals, then recovery drinks are something you may wish to consider. Though I am a proponent of eating an ancestral type diet, I do believe that we can safely benefit from some intelligent sports supplementation.
Strength Workout General Guidelines:
In general, following a strength workout, you will want to have a higher protein and moderate/lower carb intake. Let’s look at some guidelines for an example workout:
A. Back squat: 5 x 5, rest 3 min
B. DB Walking Lunges: 3 x 16 (heavy), rest 90 sec
C. KB Swings: 5 x 15, rest 90 sec
>12% bodyfat – 40g prot/20g carb
8-12% bodyfat – 40g prot/35g carb
16% bodyfat – 30g prot/10g carb
12-14% bodyfat – 30g prot/20g carb
<12% bodyfat – 30g prot/30g carb
(numbers here are from James Fitzgerald)
As you can see, the leaner you are, the more carbs your body can handle and use to replenish muscle glycogen. These are just general guidelines, as many individual factors may change this prescription. Older trainees may not be able to utilize carbs as well as those who are younger, and may benefit from using a lower amount. The total number of reps performed is another factor. Less total reps = less carbs needed. More reps = more carbs. Also, the more muscle mass used in the exercise increases the carb requirement. Squats and deadlifts require way more carbs per rep than curls and leg extensions!
Next, you must next take into account what your goals are.
Select from the appropriate ratios above. You will get the best results from using whole foods post workout if this is your goal. Now is not the time for post workout shakes, as they will drive your insulin levels very high. This is not good if you are trying to drop bodyfat. You may optionally wish to delay your post workout meal for one hour following your workout, but not longer.
Example PWO fuel: 5-6oz lean chicken, 1/4 cup yams, steamed broccoli.
General Health and Wellness:
This is the person who is mainly interested in living well and long – their goals may include playing with kids/grandkids and being able to hike on occasion. This person will never be doing double day workouts or even training hard two days in a row very often. You’ll select from the appropriate ratios from above. You will get the best results from using whole foods post workout if this is your goal. There is no need to use special recovery drinks, food will do the job just fine.
Example PWO fuel: 5-6oz lean chicken, 1/4 cup yams, steamed broccoli.
If you are suffering from any fatigue issues or know that you have adrenal fatigue, follow the fat loss guidelines even if you are not trying to loose bodyfat. You definitely don’t want to use shakes at this point, as the blood sugar spikes from recovery drinks may stress your already taxed adrenals. Eat solid food mixed meal following your workout, do not wait one hour. Be sure to include green veggies and healthy fats.
Example PWO fuel: 5-6oz beef roast over salad greens, tomato, and avocado, plus 1 cup acorn squash.
This is the athlete serious about achieving personal goals, whether it be the Crossfit Games, soccer, mtn biking, triathlon, etc. You may have more than one training session in a day, and recovery for the next session is paramount to you. We’ll look at two options here, the basic and then the high-tech.
Either way, select from the ratios above. If the session wasn’t too grueling and you do not need to train again on the same day, solid food may be a good choice. However, shakes may be appropriate for you in many cases. Whey protein (preferably concentrate) + carbohydrate powder such as *Quadricarb, Refuel, Recoverite, or maltodexitrin works well. You can also use coconut water. I like to use a variety of mixtures, hitting my required P/C ratios for the day’s session. Following the post-workout shake, eat a mixed solid food meal 45-60 minutes later.
Some optional additions to your post workout arsenal could be: branch chain amino acids – mix and take during the workout; 5-10g glutamine in the post workout shake – both can accelerate recovery. I also take 3g of lysine following workouts that I think will leave me very sore, as they have been shown to cut deep muscle soreness.
Example PWO fuel: 40g whey + 50g Quadricarb + 3g lysine immediately following; 45 min later a meal with chicken, yams, coconut oil, and mixed greens.
If this is you, I am trusting that you are under 10% bodyfat at this point. If not, you should re-evaluate your goals and set your sights on a short term goal of getting below 10%. Why? Because if you are not under 10%, your body will not handle the extra calories and carbs as well as possible, and you will likely gain more fat than muscle upon overfeeding! If all is well, then let’s get to it.
Use the above ratios, but push the carbs higher – up to 70-100g in your post workout shake or meal. Much research also has shown that what is consumed before and during the workout may be even more important than what you eat after! Each situation is unique, but if serious about muscle gain, I’d sip 30g BCAA mixed with 20g whey and 30g carb powder such as dextrose while training. (avoid any fructose during the workout)
Example PWO fuel: following the workout – 40g whey + can coconut water + Quadricarb (80g carb total). 45 min later, whole food meal with chicken, yams, coconut oil, and mixed greens.
Consider any Food Sensitivities:
Another consideration about your post-workout feeding is food sensitivities. It should go without saying that if you are sensitive to whey, don’t consume it! The exposure will create a stress response and inflammation, then the body’s reserves will be needed to deal with this instead of helping you recover from your workout! The same is true for any solid food you may be sensitive to.
So, to recap: our goals are to reduce the stress hormones released during the workout (cortisol, adrenaline, etc) and begin the recovery process by getting protein and glycogen (carbs) to the muscles while they primed and ready. In the next installment, we’ll look at endurance & metcon refueling, plus some other methods.
*If you are interested in some of the high tech options, CrossFit Portland carries the Poliquin line of pharmaceutical grade supplements – including grass-fed whey and Quadricarb. Coconut water is available here as well, plus we stock OPT’s Refuel.