Eat before you work out. Don’t eat before you work out. Eat only carbs after a workout. Don’t eat carbs…ever. The mixed messages in the media about how to fuel for and recover from a workout, run the above gamut and then some. Add to that the numerous extreme diet trends, and you’ve got even more (mis)information at your fingertips.
As a Paleoista, I’d like to set the record straight by going back to basics. Way, way back—like a couple million years, to be a bit more precise! Since our ancestors were athletes in their own right, we can look to them to mimic the food groups they consumed and model an eating plan accordingly. The goal is to eat with a focus on local, seasonal veggies and some fruit, wild fish instead of farmed (or canned), grass-fed meats, and a good dose of healthy fats.
Don’t worry—I’m not going to suggest you take up hunting, throw away your clothing in favor of a loincloth, and take up barefoot running. I’m Paleo, but I’m no cavewoman! What I do suggest is that you eat a variety of whole foods from farmer’s markets, grocery stores, and even your own backyard, and steer clear of processed, packaged items that are high in salt, sugar, bad fats, and assorted chemicals.
As we exercise, our nutritional needs change and the more we provide our bodies with clean, high-octane fuel, the better we can expect them to perform.
But how do we make full use of those foods? It depends on what you’re doing. What I eat when preparing for a long day of Ironman training is vastly different than what a client might eat for an epic strength-training session and still different from how you could prepare for a short bout of intense cardiovascular activity first thing in the morning. Let’s break it down:
1. Strength Training
Strength sessions done in a fasted state first thing in the morning can potentially help the body to release maximal levels of HgH (growth hormone) which allows the body to recover, repair, and refuel for the next workout. This can also happen later in the day if you do them roughly an hour after eating a lean-protein meal and follow it with a similar lean-protein meal about 45 minutes to an hour after your strength-training session.
Examples of lean-protein meals: Sliced, lean pastured turkey breast or an egg white omelet. (Save the yolks to eat later. They’re good for you!)
2. Shorter Duration Morning Cardiovascular Activity
Training first thing in the morning in a fasted state has been proven to help the body become more efficient at utilizing fat as a substrate. Even for those who don’t necessarily need to lose weight, Paleo practitioners believe functioning on fat as your fuel throughout the day provides for improved mental focus, balanced energy levels, and less cravings for sweets, as the latter is typically representative of a blood sugar crash in disguise.
If you haven’t tried working out in the morning without eating first, do so in a controlled environment. Start with something as simple as a 30-minute cardio session the first couple of times to see how your body reacts. You can build your way up to longer bouts of activity over time. Just be sure to give your body the opportunity to adapt. Don’t go out for a two-hour run in a fasted state if you’ve never tried it before and have been relying on carbohydrate gels up until now.
Afterwards, be sure to eat a proper Paleo-inspired breakfast focusing, as most Paleo plates do, on eating a hefty portion of a variety of veggies, balanced out with some wild proteins and a good dose of healthy fat. As your workout duration increases, begin to add some Paleo-friendly starches like yam, or a higher glycemic fruit, like ripe banana, to your breakfast to help your body recover.
An example of a post-cardio Paleo breakfast: An omelet made from two or three cage-free eggs then cooked in coconut oil and placed on a bed of leafy greens with avocado.
3. Longer Cardio Sessions
If your workout stretches beyond two hours, begin to include more starch. (Contrary to popular belief, we do not need starch at every meal; we need it only when we’re going to be moving our bodies.) About two hours before a long workout, eat a meal that has a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. No need to overthink it—just have some yams with some easily digestible protein, such as a couple of soft boiled eggs, or a homemade smoothie.
Also keep in mind that it can sometimes get tricky to fuel with natural foods during long training sessions or races such as marathons or Ironman competitions. Subsequently, you may need to include some not-so-Paleo items, like carbohydrate gels. But the rest of the time, if the bulk of what you eat is real, unprocessed food, eaten in proper ratios, you’re hedging our bets for success.
To recover from a longer session, first hydrate, then eat something similar to what you ate pre-workout. Return to normal Paleo eating as soon as your body lets you know it’s time.