Eat before you work out. Don’t eat before you work out. Eat only carbs after a workout. Don’t eat carbs…ever.
There are so many mixed messages about how to fuel for and recover from a workout from protein powders to carbohydrate back-loading, intermittent fasting, pre and post workout macronutrient ratios and nutrient timing. For professional, elite athletes these aspects of fueling are not only important, but critical to gain the competitive edge. However, for the majority of the exercising population, real food can be enough. There is no hidden secret to going harder, faster, stronger or longer! A well-formulated Paleo diet can provide all the basic components you need to fuel your workout not just efficiently, but optimally. There should be no need to resort to non-Paleo foods for anything, especially with regards to carbohydrates.
Paleo Foods For Athletes
The Paleo diet can be tweaked to provide just about any combination of macronutrients your exercise and athletic performance could require. Paleo nutrition is flexible enough to encompass a variety of activities optimally, giving you room to experiment within the range of healthy foods.
Protein is not a workout fuel as your body does not utilize protein as fuel for any kind of exercise and protein should not be your chief source of calories. Athletes need protein for functional uses and to build muscles. Most Paleo athletes do not need more than the average daily requirement of between 1.2 - 2.2 grams/kg of body weight per day.
A Paleo diet provides plenty of protein for athletic performance. Focus on eating high-quality, humanely-raised animal foods including grass-fed and finished beef, pastured pork and poultry, wild-caught fish and eggs from pastured chicken. There is little need to worry about timing or grams of anything.
What about protein powders?
Protein powders are not essential, but they can help some fitness enthusiasts meet their baseline protein requirements. Bear in mind you need to choose a digestible, anti-inflammatory powder, preferably naturally sourced and minimally processed.
When it comes to timing, the research is unclear on the effectiveness of both pre- and post-workout protein consumption. The study concludes that although there is no definitive proof of it being a huge advantage, eating some protein both before and after your workout probably has some benefit and certainly will not hurt.
Carbohydrates provide fuel and energy to keep you going through your exercise program. There is a pervasive myth that carbohydrates should comprise up to 70% of an athlete’s diet. Although this can be slightly true for some, low carbohydrate diets work really well for certain people and certain conditions, too. Most people do better with a moderate amount of carbohydrates for exercise, especially if the exercise intensity is significant.
At very low intensities, fat is the primary fuel source. As the intensity of exercise increases, carbohydrate usage increases as a proportion of the total.
Very low intensity (walking, doing dishes, weeding the garden) requires low total energy expenditure which is derived predominantly from fat.
Moderate intensity (recreational bike rides, easy jogging) begins to demand a higher total energy expenditure, still predominantly from fat but with a fair percentage from carbs.
High intensity (sprinting, HIIT, CrossFit) begins to decrease fat usage and increase the reliance on carbohydrate for fuel as the intensity increases.
The Paleo diet is not a low carbohydrate diet and there is no need to consume non-Paleo foods to get adequate amounts of carbohydrates for your performance. There are many delicious and highly nutritious sources of Paleo friendly carbohydrates including:
- Seasonal fruits
- Root vegetables
- Winter squash
- Alternative roots including cassava and tapioca
Determining your personal carbohydrate needs will be dependent on your age, sex, activity level, and all the other factors affecting your recovery. Experiment with your food to determine what allows you to feel your best. If you feel run-down or exhausted, try adding more.
Most active people both feel and perform better when they include some carbohydrates in their eating plan although some athletes thrive on lower carbohydrate intakes. As long as you are consuming sufficient carbohydrates to fuel your own performance goals, then you are eating the perfect amount of carbohydrate for you.
As a recreational athlete you are most likely getting sufficient carbohydrate in your daily diet, regardless of timing. It is way more important to get enough carbohydrates for your optimal performance on a daily basis than being overly concerned with timing. Unless you are exercising more than once a day, your glycogen stores will be refilled by your next workout regardless of when you eat your carbohydrates, especially when they come packaged in a nutrient dense Paleo meal.
There is ample evidence supporting the body utilizing fats as an alternate energy source, especially when reducing your carbohydrate load. Fat is particularly important for aerobic exercise (like long-distance running), because fat is the fuel your body prefers to burn during this kind of activity. :
Fat quantity and quality are particularly important when following a Paleo diet. The focus is on whole, unrefined, minimally processed, naturally occurring fats including the fats from well-raised animals, olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil.
Download our fat guide for more information on Paleo fats and how to use them
A common roadblock many fitness enthusiasts run into is under-eating This can result in slowed progress, plateaus, decreased metabolism, impaired appetite, and not feeling your best! Whether your goal is to build strength, boost performance, lose weight or lean out, if you are under-eating, you will struggle to reach your goals. Everybody is different, and depending on your health history, current health status and body type your personal needs will vary.
Eating enough is important, but eating ENOUGH quality, real foods matters more. Your macronutrient ratios are a piece of the equation but quality and source matter! Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts often tend to focus more on calories and macros, neglecting food variety and the micro-nutrients (the vitamins and minerals) that give your body what it needs to use your energy sources best.
Real food, deliciously prepared, perfectly balanced and delivered right to your door – ready when you are. Real simple! Choose from this week’s menu here >>>>>>
Hydration is essential for fitness performance. As little as a 3% fluid reduction in the body can cause a 10% - 20% decrease in performance. If you often find yourself hungry, especially between meals, or feeling fatigued or run down, it could be a sign your body needs more water. The same organ that triggers hunger (your hypothalamus) also triggers thirst.
Clean, filtered water is best. In addition, add a pinch of sea salt to your water and season your food liberally for electrolyte boosting power (sodium, potassium, and magnesium).
Read on here for more on adequately hydrating
A common question around fueling a workout is whether nutrient timing matters. For most fitness enthusiasts nutrient timing does not matter as much as you think, especially when compared to what you eat consistently overall in a given 24-hour period.
Studies have confirmed that the “post-workout” window or “perfect time” for eating a post-workout meal really only matters if you have not been fueling consistently or eating adequately.
The food you eat today actually impacts tomorrow's workouts and performance more than today’s, based on digestion and maximum power output since glycogen stores (energy for your muscles) are usually replenished within a 24-hour period (provided that daily energy needs are met). If you are regularly eating proteins, healthy, natural fats, and good carbohydrates like vegetables and fruit, you will have plenty of glycogen stored for your body to use for fuel.
Digestion is an often-overlooked component of any fitness nutrition protocol. You could be eating the highest quality, well-balanced Paleo meals, but if you are not digesting your food appropriately, then you are not going to maximize the nutrients you have so diligently chosen to consume.
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts are at higher risk for impaired digestion, primarily because exercise is a stressor to the body. While it is a positive stressor, all stress causes a rise in cortisol and a decrease in stomach acid (HCl) production.
Learn more about supporting your digestion here
Complicated schemes of nutrient timing might make the difference between an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver, but they just are not necessary for most recreational athletes. Eating a Paleo diet consisting of enough high quality, well-raised proteins, naturally occurring fats, and whole-food carbohydrates without obsessing over any one of them will free up your time to think about more important things. Make sure you are hydrated and take steps to maximize your digestion.
The idea is to focus on how much fun you are having moving your body around, celebrate your performance (no matter your skill level) and enjoy seeing what a well-fueled body is able to do