Recovery Redefined: Post-workout Nutrition
The biggest error in the common view of nutrition is the focus on small details. This error is evidenced by questions like, “How much protein, carbs, fats should you eat?” Food is greater than the sum of its parts. Food is meant to be enjoyed and we lose much of that enjoyment when we treat it like chemistry.
It is important to eat after exercise—and it should be soon after. However, it is unimportant to focus on small details like an exact number of minutes after a workout or a precise amount of protein or carbohydrates. Encourage your clients to choose a post-workout meal that they look forward to enjoying—consider the tastes, textures and aromas of the food they want to enjoy after a workout. When the body is consistently fed real foods, it gives you accurate signals of what it needs and when. All that is required is to listen to the intuitive signals the body sends and avoid the common mistake of over-thinking what “should” be eaten after a workout. Our bodies are smarter than any expert will ever be. If an individual is avoiding overly processed unnaturally sweet and salty foods, he or she can learn to trust the signals the body sends.
Eating on Rest Days
In general, a recovery day requires a slightly lower amount of food than a workout day. However, it is important to avoid another major error in nutrition and steer clear of the energy-balance equation. Many fitness professionals and even some people with advanced degrees who really should know better still erroneously promote this flawed concept—often with intelligent-sounding references to the First Law of Thermodynamics even though they have never studied physics.
This law has everything to do with matter and energy in chemistry and physics labs, and little to do with a sentient human with thoughts and feelings about food that powerfully affect body chemistry. The matter and energy that make up each human being is animated with consciousness not found in rocks, gasses and liquids. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail, but our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about the relative healthfulness of what we are eating directly affects the body’s response to that food.
This is another area where the wisdom of the body must be respected for true knowledge, understanding and appreciation for food to develop. Let your body tell you what it needs on recovery days and listen. A recovery day is not a day to “reward” oneself for exercise (as if exercise is a chore or tedious task for which there needs to be a reward). Exercise is its own reward—and so should be the act of eating.
If you are not exercising, your body will “ask” you for less food anyway. Attempting to quantify an exact amount of how much less is an exercise in tedium, drudgery and inaccuracy that is sure to remove any sense of enjoyment around eating and limit progress.
Foods That Speed Up Recovery
Continuing with the overall message of this writing, I will eschew the common approach of recommending specific foods for recovery. All food should be part of the larger nutrition mentality of providing the body what it needs to maintain optimal function. However, I will provide some general recommendations to help with specific choices. The after-workout meal should consist mostly of a good mix of carbohydrates and protein and be lower in fat to allow for the most critical nutrients for muscular recovery to dominate this meal. This gives the muscles a dose of what they need, when their need for it is highest.
Carbohydrates provide essential fuel for your muscles—and your mind—so removing or excessively limiting them leaves both body and mind ill-equipped to face the challenges of a workout and of life in general. Avoiding carbs should really be more about avoiding sources of poor quality, heavily processed carbs.
In general, strength and power athletes may require slightly higher amounts of protein after a workout, which should come from sources of food that are enjoyable.
Beyond that, eat foods that your body hungers for—the real foods that truly support, sustain and optimize function—and your body will recover nicely. There is little need for specialized foods or concern for eating a specific food or source of protein, etc.
The beauty of nutrition is that if we eat a wide variety of quality foods, there is no single food that you must eat and, as a result, your preferences can drive many of the choices you make. This leads to fulfilling not only the physical needs provided by nutrition, but also the psychological satisfaction that comes from choosing foods that are truly in line with what the body wants and needs.
When it comes to recovery, we must avoid treating our bodies as if we are manipulating machinery in exact, highly specific ways to achieve a known result in a specific timeframe. True fitness, recovery and physical enjoyment comes from honoring the wisdom of our bodies—providing not just the right ingredients to optimize function, but also assembling those ingredients into the regular behavior patterns that promote continuous, gradual progress toward the larger goal.
Check out Part I of this series, where I answer all your questions about recovery —how much, how long, what is considered rest, etc.—so you can help your clients get the greatest possible benefits from the workouts you design for them.