By now a lot of you are signed up to participate in the 2018 CrossFit Open at Kingfield. As coaches, we’ve been preparing you, by retesting Open workouts in classes and providing you with information on what movements, weights and time domains you can expect. We’ve discussed strategy and intensity in class, as well as addressed skills like handstand push-ups, toes-to-bar, muscle ups and barbell cycling. We do this to ensure that a great experience is had by all! From a training standpoint, you’re ready but have you considered how you fuel your training?
Today, I am going to share with you another piece of the puzzle: nutrition for performance. If this isn’t already something that you’re considering on a daily basis, I’m putting it on your radar now. Proper fueling around exercise is one of the biggest keys to adaptation and growth. The reason why I feel this is especially important at this time of year is that with the impending Friday Night Lights event, many of you will be working out at a time that you do not normally train. The intensity is high, the energy is electric and if you’re not careful, you could end up with a less than ideal performance in the workout. Not to mention, your recovery will take a hit. So, today, we discuss briefly how you should fuel around workouts and how to adjust if you’re; a morning, or midday regular outside of the Open.
Before we start, know this: when it comes to nutrition (on any level, for any person) everyone’s a little bit different. What works for you may not work for the person next to you. What I recommend here will require some personal experimentation on your part to dial in what works best for you. That being said, there are some steadfast guidelines that we can follow based on the general physiology of most people. We are going to break this up into pre- and post-workout bullet points, giving you a few things you can focus on both before and after you train.
Eat anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours prior to training. You need to know your body and your schedule. The further away from your workout meal is, the bigger it should be (relatively speaking). If you prefer to workout on an empty stomach, then eating a full meal balanced with protein, carbs and fat about 1.5-2 hours before working out might be best for you. If you can handle eating closer to your workout, eating a smaller meal primarily consisting of protein and carbs (and low in fat) is going to be best.*
*Let’s say your plan for the day went south and your timing and scheduling is all off. Not to fear, try to get some rapidly digesting carbs and a bit of protein in right before you workout.
Stick to lean protein sources and carbs primarily before training. Around exercise, as we’ll also discuss in the post-workout section, fat is not ideal as it is slower digesting and actually impedes the absorption of other macronutrients.
Protein ingestion prior to exercise keeps us primed for anabolic and repair processes once we’re done working out - it doesn’t really contribute to energy that can be used by our cells during exercise. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel, making it readily available for the working muscles to use.
The type and “quality” of the carbs you ingest prior to training will depend on the time you are eating. Further away (1-2 hours), you’ll want slower digesting (lower GI) carbohydrates. Think dense starches like sweet potato, carrots, berries, oranges, apples, steel cut oats, or whole grain bread or pastas. Be careful with highly glutinous foods here as if you don’t consume them regularly, they will make you feel sluggish and foggy. If you’re eating closer to your workout, you can start to lean towards faster absorbing and digesting carbs (high GI). Think bananas, pineapple, fruit snacks, cereal, granola bars or white rice.
This is by no means set in stone - it’s a starting point. Recall that food is highly individual. If you function really well off of a full bowl of rigatoni pasta thirty minutes before you work out, go for it (although I’d encourage you to try something else and see if you perform better…).
Digestion isn’t really happening once you start working out. When adrenaline is high, our bodies don’t really have the ability to prioritize processes like digestion. So if you’re still feeling a little shaky or hungry, you have two choices.
First, you can roll with it. See what happens when you workout hungry. Some people actually prefer working out on an empty stomach! Not you? The second choice is to drink some carbs. Try to keep them pretty pure - just added sugar, electrolytes and maybe a little caffeine - and dilute them down to have them last longer. Gatorade or some of the sports drinks we provide at the gym are useful (KillCliff or Formula O2).
A quick note on pre-workout as a supplement. I do not recommend the use of pre-workout supplements. The negatives outweigh the positives in most cases. Dosing appropriately is usually a problem - too much and your heart will want to beat out of your chest; too little and nothing happens. If you’re not used to it, you will likely perform worse by taking it before a workout. In my opinion, your money and your taste buds are better spent elsewhere.
Eat within 30 minutes to an hour after finishing. Individuals will vary here but to the very best of your ability, you should be getting calories in within this timeframe. When we perform certain types of exercises, primarily resistance/strength training, for a significant length of time, our bodies start to release a slew of hormones, one of which is human growth hormone (HGH). It is one of the only times it is naturally present in the bloodstream (the other is after quality sleep!) and therefore we can take advantage of its benefits. However, if we don’t provide the materials necessary to do the work HGH is capable of, we can miss out. It doesn’t linger long so make sure you’re ready to take advantage.
Consume 20-40g of protein, depending on your size, after a workout. Protein, specifically amino acids, are the building blocks of muscle tissue. During your exercise, specifically resistance training, you have broken down parts of your existing muscle tissue. Don’t worry! This is a good thing - as long as you ingest quality protein post-workout. That ingested protein can then be transported to these degraded areas and be used to rebuild and therefore assist in adaptation.
Consistent protein consumption throughout the day is critical to supporting existing muscle mass and high activity levels. It also tends to be more satiating than carbs, despite having the same calorie to gram ratio (4 cals/g).
Consume 2-4g of carbs per gram of protein alongside your protein post-workout. Now, I am all for quality, whole, real foods making up the majority of your diet. But if there was ever a time to sneak in a treat or perhaps your favorite more-processed-than-not food, immediately after a workout, especially one where the weight is heavy or the intensity is high (or both). This serves three major purposes:
1. Replenishment of glycogen stores - we’ve depleted our blood glucose and often times some of our glycogen, stored in our muscles (we store glycogen in the liver as well but it’s highly unlikely that CrossFit workouts unless it’s “Murph”-esque, will tap into this). You know that shaky feeling you can get post-workout, where it feels like your whole body is thrumming? Get some sugar in you! Your blood sugar is low and if left alone, you’ll feel dizzy, mentally foggy and weak.
2. The processed options tend to be more calorically dense - this one of the scenarios where we want caloric density. If you were to try to eat enough broccoli to meet your carbohydrate needs after a workout, you would quickly try to find something else.
For a quick comparison, eating one package of pop tarts is ~75g of carbs. That’s an appropriate amount for a ~135-175 pound athlete.* So two pop tarts or 18 cups of broccoli? Your choice.
Now to be clear, my point here is not to deter you from eating quality carbs post workout. Two cups of roasted sweet potato would work too. Or a few cups of your favorite cereal fits the bill too. The point is time and effectiveness. If you eat the broccoli, you’re probably going to go slow or even stop eating it. If you eat the pop tarts, you’ll get them down quick, better aiding the recovery process.
*Determining this depends on a lot of other factors and is a topic for another time.
3. Psychology matters. If knowing that you get to eat those pop tarts after you train keeps you on track nutritionally the rest of the day/week/month/year, hell yeah. Here you are stymying the sugar monsters and using those sugars as effectively as they can possibly be used.
That being said, exercise is not and should never be the REASON you eat pop tarts (or enter treat of choice here:_____________). That is a poor association to make. If you are telling yourself you are working out so you CAN eat the pop tart, stop that now. You have every chance to eat the pop tart, regardless of exercise. Instead, you are working out so you feel good, get stronger or improve your health. You eat the pop tart because you know that it works well as a post-workout food. You could eat it at other times but instead, you’ve CHOSEN to take advantage of an optimal time. Physiologically, we are primed to use that pop tart for good things. We are fueling our body appropriately to recover well and adapt to our training so we can continue to improve.
Eating after a workout sounds awful - I’m not hungry. This is something I hear a lot. I get it. But I’m not onboard. Find a way. If you need to liquify your post-workout shake - think to prepare protein powder, banana, chocolate milk and ice blended up and ready to go - or eat pureed baby food packets to get those critical calories in. Figure out what works for you!
Solid food is going to lend itself to feeling fuller longer, liquid calories are going to digested and absorbed faster. Your choice depends on your preference and what your responsibilities are after you’re done training. For me as a CrossFit coach, sometimes I have to jump right into a training session or class after working out. It’s these times where a shake with all my protein and carbs is ideal. But if I have time after training, I’ll house a bowl of cereal no problem. Another scenario is I have a break, say an hour after training, but it’s before I have to coach for three straight hours. This is when I might try to have a meal post-workout instead of a shake or cereal. I have enough time to come down from my workout and I’m consuming something that will stick with me through those three hours.
To employ these strategies takes planning. You’ll find that’s a prevalent theme when it comes to eating in a way that supports health, performance, and fitness. This could be a great starting point to practice planning in advance, especially if working out at night isn’t the norm for you. There are many variables that come into play here so patience and willingness to adjust are key as you dial in timing, type and amount of food. Also, training in the morning, immediately upon waking, is a slightly different story for a different post (although you can certainly apply some of these strategies, especially post-workout if you are an early gym bird). My hope is that you can use this information, apply it as it works best for you and reap some benefits.
P.S. If you want more nutrition information or are curious about individualized nutrition coaching, I am proud to announce that we are officially launching Kingfield Nutrition at the beginning of March. To mark the occasion, I will be giving a free 75-90 minute seminar on Sunday, March 4th, covering some basic nutrition topics and fielding any questions you may have. You don’t have to sign up, just show up! We will post an official time soon, but we’re shooting for just before the morning classes (8:30 am or so). Hope to see you there!