Foods to Fuel Your Workout

Movement, no matter what that may look like for you (walking, deadlifting, dancing or playing) is just the expression of a well-nourished body. This does not suddenly shift the moment you label it, call it a sport or become concerned about specific performance related goals. Real food can be enough, there is no hidden secret to going harder, faster, stronger! Your Paleo template can provide all the basic components you need to fuel your workout not just efficiently, but optimally.  

There is much myth built up around sports nutrition, protein powders, carbohydrate back-loading, intermittent fasting, pre and post workout macronutrient ratios and nutrient timing. There is much research on these topics which all conclude that 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, three meals a day comprised of whole, real foods is perfectly adequate. There should be no need to resort to non-Paleo foods for anything, especially with regards to carbohydrates. 

Macronutrients: What we really need. 


Protein is definitely important when discussing exercise and athletic performance and recovery. It is not a workout fuel as your body does not utilize protein as fuel for any kind of exercise. Athletes need protein for functional uses and to build muscles. For that purpose, most athletes do not need more than the average daily requirement of between 1.2 - 2.2 grams/kg of body weight per day.  

This implies that protein should not be your chief source of calories, and you can get plenty of sufficient protein from a Paleo style diet, even for muscle-building exercises. There is no need to start buying unnecessary, high priced protein shakes that are definitely not ideal for optimal health.  

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, ingesting some protein both before and after your workout probably has some benefit and certainly will not hurt. 

A Paleo diet provides plenty of protein for athletic performance. Focus on eating high-quality animal foods, and your protein needs are covered with no need to worry about timing or grams of anything. For quick, well-sourced, delicious, prepared protein options, check out this weeks Pete's Paleo menu. 


You have probably heard the well-spoken line that athletes need a lot of carbohydrates. They give you energy and keep you going through your exercise program. Carbohydrates should comprise up to 70% of an athlete's (and every elses) diet and if you give up on your whole grains you muscles will wither away and you may not make it to your next workout session. This can be slightly true for some. Low carbohydrate diets work really well for certain people and certain conditions, but they are not for everyone. Most people do better with a moderate amount of carbohydrates for exercise, especially if the exercise intensity is significant. 

When your body needs fuel, it has one of 2 options: carbohydrates or fats. At very low intensities, fat is the primary fuel source. As the intensity 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. 

This might lead you to believe that an increased carbohydrate consumption is only important for sprinters and weightlifters. This is misleading. Even moderate intensity workouts need some carbohydrates. In fact, since 30 minutes of jogging burns  more calories during the activity than an hour of weightlifting, you may end up needing a greater absolute amount of carbohydrate for the jogging, even if the relative carbohydrate usage is lower. 

Suggesting an average amount of carbohydrates needed can only be done on an individual basis, although the amount recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines is most probably too high for most people. Your specific needs will be dependent on your age, sex, activity level, and all the other factors affecting your recovery. 

Instead of fixating on precise percentages of diet, I would suggest experimenting with your own food and discovering what allows you to feel your best. Most active people both feel and perform better when they include some carbohydrates in their eating plan. Extremely low carbohydrate diets can slow down and hinder your recovery. Ketosis is not ideal for athletic performance, especially in those activities that work the muscles to exhaustion but 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. 

It is important to remember that 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 
  • Pumpkin 
  • Winter squash 
  • Alternative roots including cassava and tapioca 

Check out Pete's Paleo meals for chef created, delicious carbohydrate options. 

Conventional wisdom may have you believe that you should consume carbohydrates and protein before a workout to top up your glycogen stores and then again immediately post workout to refill them and maximize muscle growth. This is known as your 'anabolic window'. In reality, the evidence is inconclusive and the subject has much more depth and complexity than a simple linear progression of logic. 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. 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. Processed carbohydrate replacement products are generally nutrient deficient – eating whole, food-based, nutrient dense carbohydrates will always be your better option. 

It bears reminding that the Paleo diet is flexible enough to accommodate many levels of carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are part of the Paleo template. Eat a moderate amount of real, food based starchy plants and if you feel run-down or exhausted, try adding more.  


Fat is the underappreciated macronutrient as nutrition for exercise in conventional wisdom circles. There is, however, much evidence to support the consumption of 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 is where a Paleo diet stands out in comparison to the Standard American Dietary recommendations. The Paleo focus on whole, unrefined, minimally processed fats means you are eating plenty of healthy fatty acids whilst avoiding those which can become problematic. Consuming plenty of healthy fats will provide a great support in fueling your performance goals. 

On an even more basic level than getting the right macronutrient ratios, optimum athletic performance requires that you eat enough food. You need adequate calorie intake to support your athletic goals the amount of energy your actually require if often surprising. 

I am by no means suggesting you begin to count calories. In my opinion, that is probably not your best option. However, if athletic performance is a priority for you, you need to make a big effort to eat enough food. On a Paleo diet, eating enough food also means eating enough fat. If you begin to feel post-workout exhaustion or your performance is suffering, eat more. Good fats include those found in naturally raised animals, cold pressed olive oil, coconut oil and egg yolks. Pete's Paleo meals use some delicious fat options in their cooking and always taste amazing as well as leave you feeling satisfied and well fueled for your daily activities. Bacon anyone?

An important reminder: What you eat right before a workout does NOT fuel your workout or your muscles. There is simply not enough time to turn your pre-workout food into glycogen.  It takes about 24 hours to refill your glycogen stores so your body must rely on existing glycogen and fat stores to fuel your workout. That means what you consume the previous day matters for your workout. If you are regularly consuming 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. 

The Paleo diet is a template that can be tweaked to provide just about any combination of macronutrients your exercise and athletic performance night need. Paleo nutrition is flexible enough to encompass a variety of activities optimally, giving you room to experiment within the range of healthy foods. There should be no need to resort to over-processed, nutrient poor non-Paleo foods to obtain anything you may need fuel wise.  

Complicated schemes of nutrient timing might be the athletic advantage created between winning an Olympic gold versus an Olympic silver medal, but focussing on and stressing over these types of details is not necessary for most recreational athletes. Eat enough food; eat enough protein, fat, and carbohydrates without obsessing over any one of them, and spend your time thinking about more important things like how much fun it is to move your body and challenge its physical and athletic limits.  


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