Train Hard, Recover Smart

Quick: what’s the most important meal of the day?

If you said “breakfast” then you’re wrong, at least if you’re a hard-training combat athlete. According to Martin Rooney, author of ‘Training For Warriors, the Team Renzo Gracie Workout’, the two most important meals of the day are your pre and post-workout meals.

Furthermore, Mr. Rooney isn’t alone in this belief: there is research on sports as diverse as endurance running and weightlifting showing very significant effects of preworkout, and especially postworkout, nutrition.

Getting some extra liquid, carbohydrates and protein into your body shortly BEFORE a workout allows you to train harder, longer, and minimizes muscle damage and compromise to your immune system during your workout.

Eating (or drinking) within 45 minutes AFTER exercise actually helps heal your body, builds new muscle, and replenishes your body’s energy stores so that you’ll feel fresh for your next workout.

Lack of proper postworkout nutrition is a huge contributing factor in overtraining. If you often feel like a stumbling zombie for 24 hours after intense training then the first thing you should try is making sure that you get good nutrition into your body soon after the training stops. If you’re doing multiple workouts in a day then then postworkout nutrition is often the only thing between you and total system breakdown.

It is important that your post-workout meal be consumed soon after your workout (within 45 minutes). After training your body experiences an ‘anabolic window’, during which the cells of your body are especially able to absorb and use nutrients. This window starts to close soon after you stop training, so it is better to get something into your belly fast rather than waiting and having the perfect meal two hours later.

OK, so what should these meals look like? Most people agree that the pre and post workout ‘meals’ should be in liquid form, both to provide you with liquid to replace lost sweat and to speed absorption of the nutrients. Basically we’re talking about an athlete’s version of the bodybuilder’s shake.

THE PREWORKOUT MEAL

(c. 10 minutes before exercise)
This is a chance to get some liquid, fuel (sugar and carbohydrates) and electrolytes into your body before your workout, giving it something to burn up and sweat out. The addition of a small amount of protein helps limit muscle breakdown. A typical preworkout meal might consist of:

  • 12 oz of water
  • 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose and/or maltodextrin)
  • 5 to 10 grams of protein (e.g. whey protein)
  • electrolytes (mostly sodium, potassium and magnesium)

THE POSTWORKOUT MEAL

(within 45 minutes of finishing exercise)
This feeding gets nutrients into your body at a time when it needs them most and also when it is most receptive to them (the ‘anabolic window’ window again). A typical postworkout meal might look like this:

  • Lots of water
  • 20 to 30 grams protein
  • 80 to 100 grams carbohydrate
  • electrolytes (e.g. sodium, potassium, magnesium)

These formulations have a lot of carbohydrates, and that’s not random or accidental. Many athletes are so fixated on protein that they overlook carbohydrates, but carbs help replenish your body’s energy supplies AND have stimulate your body to build more muscle. If I had to choose between a postworkout meal consisting either of carbs or protein I’d go with the carbohydrates every time (but obviously having a mix of protein and carbohydrate is the best).

You can buy powdered shake mixes that purport to give you the exact right mixture of these ingredients, typically with the addition of some secret or proprietary compounds (exotics like black mamba venom, or fancy chemical names like 2,3-diethyl-dichloro-cancer-some-day). While these mixtures are convenient they are also very expensive.

A cheaper alternative is to buy bulk powdered sportsdrink (Gatorade, Powerade, etc), maltodextrin (an easily absorbed carbohydrate) and protein powder (whey, hemp, egg, etc.). Play mad scientist, mixing up different concoctions using water or diluted fruit juice as a base until you find a mixture with flavor and consistency that you like.

Feel free to experiment: for example I eventually discovered that my body reacts quite badly to whey protein and now use a variety of other proteins instead.

I can’t say that I follow these guidelines religiously, but the bottom line is to try and get something into your belly immediately before and immediately after exercise. If all you can get your hands on is a small bottle of Powerade or Gatorade then that is still way better than having nothing at all.

Please note that I’ve skipped over a lot of chemistry and physiology in this article: if you want to know more about this topic check out just about any sports nutrition book (‘Nutrient Timing’ by Ivy and Portman is one of my favorites).

Train hard, recover smart!

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