The phrase "you are what you eat" is perhaps more true than we give it credit for -- the foods you eat are broken down into their constituent parts to then be absorbed and appropriated for various uses in the body, be it muscle building or the repair of a cell wall. This is particularly important to pay attention to when building and repair are at their most active: at key stages of childhood and adolescent development, during pregnancy, when recovering from an illness, or when engaging in strenuous physical activity.
This is a particularly timely edition of Nutrition Notes, as this week I finally started back at CrossFit! I've been out of a box for a couple months while we moved and got settled into life in Hawaii again, but I've been getting antsy to start throwing the weights around during my time off. I went to my first class earlier this week, and enjoyed properly refueling after the sweat session with some quality protein, starchy carbohydrate, and lots of colorful veggies. Read on for my reasons why.
Physical activity is usually a combination of anabolic or catabolic cellular activity - respectively, these terms refer to the building up or the breaking down of tissue. My workout earlier this week, for instance, utilized rowing, some upper body work on the pull-up bar, wall balls and power cleans, all strenuous activities that challenged my respiratory capacity as well as my muscle strength and endurance. The force I exerted on my bones and muscles encouraged growth by first "breaking down" tissue so that new/more/stronger tissue could be built in its place. Hence, a balance of anabolism and catabolism is the sign of a healthy metabolism and a good balance of work and rest in your physical activity schedule -- too much catabolic activity results in muscle wasting, and too much anabolic activity...well, no one ever really has that problem.
When you're remodeling a house, you must first knock down some walls or tear out the old plumbing before you can put the new stuff in; however, if you don't have the supplies at the ready for the new construction, progress will be halted and the structure won't be as sturdy.The strain of breaking and rebuilding demands that you properly refuel after a workout. We'll need to focus on three main things: protein, carbohydrate, and antioxidants.
Aim for a ratio of two parts carbohydrate to one part lean protein after a workout. I emphasize lean protein here because fat slows the absorption of nutrients as well as stomach emptying, and in a post-workout state we want to capitalize on our body's heightened insulin sensitivity to quickly and efficiently deliver nutrients to hungry tissue. Benevolent fats have their very important uses elsewhere, and should not be avoided; however, after a workout it's best to keep meals on the lower-fat side of things.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for a host of body tissues. We hear about muscle tissue a lot when talking about post-workout nutrition, but it's important to note that post-workout dietary protein also supplies the collagen framework of the skin, tendons and ligaments, transport molecules, and lot of other little bits and pieces that our body cannot do without.
Carbohydrate is important for post-workout refueling because it replenishes spent glycogen stores. Glycogen is a form of glucose that is mainly stored in the liver, and is accessed during strenuous activity to help fuel muscles for performance. A form of glycogen called myogen is also stored in the muscles, but in a much smaller amount. Eating adequate carbohydrate after a workout fills up your glycogen tank so that your next workout can be properly fueled, plus it nourishes the muscles, fuels the brain, and just feels so good to eat. I love a big baked sweet potato for this purpose.
Antioxidants are free radical-fighting compounds that help clear waste and control oxidative damage in the cells. Oxidative damage is a part of everyday life, but its particularly important to manage it when engaging in strenuous activity. Too much hard work plus too few antioxidants can lead to rapid aging as well as injury or disease, so in order to keep that at bay, fill up on colorful fruits and vegetables. I like to stick to vegetables only after a tough workout (just to keep the sugar levels of a meal low while I'm also eating a starchy carb), and vibrant veggies like Russian Red kale, rainbow carrots or bell peppers, beets, purple cabbage and the like that help round out a meal and keep your oxidative load low.
My post-workout meal from earlier in the week was a baked sweet potato, stuffed with some beef and a mix of sauteed red bell pepper, shallots, garlic, kale, and green apple. It was delicious and incredibly filling, and afterwards I felt stronger and better than I did before.
Some other options include steamed fish with ginger and garlic, plus a serving of white rice; seared chicken and butternut squash mash; or eggs and oven-roasted home fries.
A note on shakes and powders: I think these can be beneficial, depending on the goals of the individual and the ingredients list of the supplement. I sometimes will drink a protein shake (just protein powder + water) if I know its going to be a while until my next meal, or if I've worked out hard enough to need a little something to make it through the drive home. I love this brand - it's not sweetened, and has only three ingredients, but it tastes delicious and mixes up like a dream. However, real food trumps supplements every time. Try to get the majority of your post-workout nutrition from whole food sources.
What's your opinion on post-workout nutrition? Do you have anything that you love to eat after a hard workout? Are there any CrossFitters out there who have tips to share? Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.