Nutrient timing around exercise
Some of my most frequently asked questions (at the gym) surround timing of food and nutrients around a workout. I’ve written in depth about recovery here, but thought I would cover this topic on its own.
Before I begin, I want to stress that no matter what I type here, you are the biggest expert at your body. If something I suggest doesn’t work for you, then that recommendation is not right for you. Like I tell all my clients, be willing to try something new, but also be willing to pay attention to how your body responds to that experiment and make adjustments accordingly.
Now, let’s talk about how to plan your food around your workouts.
Technically, for a standard CrossFit WOD, you need no special pre-workout meal. Depending on when you workout during the day, your previous meal is generally all you need. If you are an early morning worker-outer, consider trying a fasted workout. That just means you’re still fasting from the night before when you workout. Your dinner from the previous night should still provide all the fuel you need, especially if it was a nutrient-packed meal. Coffee is fine on those mornings, just don’t add any sweetener (to maintain the fasted status). If you feel okay doing this, it’s actually a great opportunity to turn on your body’s fat burning engine.
If not eating before an early morning workout upsets your stomach, eat a small piece of fruit or another carb source. An hour or less before a workout is not the time to eat a bunch of protein or fat since those take longer to digest and could still be in your stomach in time for the workout (making you feel blah). This recommendation goes for snacking in general before workouts.
Step one in recovery: flail around a bit. Subject's identity redacted for his privacy.
Post-workout nutrition can be looked at in two stages: glycogen replenishment and muscle recovery. For those who like to CrossFit multiple days in a row, you will want to consider specifically recovering your glycogen stores immediately post-workout. What does that mean? During intense exercise (like a WOD) vs. a slower and heavier session (like the strength portion), our bodies rely mostly on our glycogen stores for energy (and some on the free glucose that is circulating in our blood at the time). Glycogen is the stored version of glucose found mostly in our muscles and some in our liver. If you’ve ever noticed that by day 2 or 3 of a string of intense WODs that your energy was lacking or that you didn’t feel as strong as previous days, you may be shorting yourself in this recovery process. This can be achieved as simply as drinking a FitAid or another recovery drink or eating a piece of fruit (with minimal fat or protein with it). Again, this should happen as soon after the workout (even during the cool down) as you can manage since your body is primed to do it at this point. (*Visit my previous recovery post to see specific products that I use for recovery.)
Muscle recovery is the next step in the recovery process. Exercise causes damage to our muscles and our connective tissues. Eating protein post-workout serves to help repair this damage. The simplest thing to remember is to eat a good serving of protein (about the size of your palm or a scoop of protein powder) within two hours of your workout. Include some carbohydrates to further encourage your energy recovery and include minimal fat since fat can slow down digestion and absorption. The type of protein is up to you. Some people simply use their next meal for this, while others like to use a protein powder for convenience and digestibility. It’s really up to you to determine what's best.
On top of this, there are subtle nuances than can aid in recovery like including creatine or BCAAs in your recovery regimen or other supplements like fish oil, collagen or turmeric. Like anything, if you choose to try any of these, be willing to pay attention to how it affects your body in the process.
Don't neglect the recovery process! Consistent recovery is the best way to ensure consistent results.