Post Workout Nutrition: High or Low Carb?
My previous post seems to have stirred some interest and a fair amount of confusion. Should one use carbs post workout or not? If so how much, and when? Like a great number of situations, how we manage our post workout nutrition depends on where we are and where we want to go. If you have followed my previous ramblings you might be familiar with the orientation I use for most of my decision making: How does a given decision affect Performance, Health and Longevity. Similarly, how does a given decision affect how one looks, feels and performs? Given all this I’m going to tackle post workout nutrition (PWO) first from the perspective of shoring up health, then performance, then longevity.
Low Carb PWO-Why
When we talk health and longevity we are talking insulin management and carbohydrate flux. For many people insulin resistance is more important to deal with than performance, at least initially. If one is sick, or just less than optimally well, it’s tough to imagine optimum performance. Also, from a purely aesthetics (gasp!) perspective we might want to lean out for summer and not be a fatty. That was certainly my situation and I feel a good bit better at sub 10% body fat, especially when Chico is a balmy 106*F. I have tinkered with higher carbs PWO for several months and my signs of insulin resistance were simply not budging. I still have some cortisol issues that are likely driving some of this…multi time zone travel really kicks my ass! So I finally wised up and went back to what has worked so well for me in the past.
I re-read the article by Mauro Dipasquale, and thought back a bit to what Poliquin had recommended to me at the Biosignature seminar last year: No carbs PWO, not till one is LEAN. For men that is below 10%, for women below 15% and in both cases, no sign of insulin resistance (high insulin readings at the love handles).
The Purpose of the PWO meal can vary based upon desired effects. Fasting produces a different effect from both low carb and high carb PWO meals. People get pretty spun out about which way is “right” but it’s really just a spectrum of options. In this situation the PWO meal of whey protein + coconut milk is providing quickly digested protein which will reverse catabolic actions of training, with just a bit of fat to suppress the normal glucose release of a large protein meal via glucagon. This would not be the end of the world but part of what we want with this PWO meal is the MAINTENANCE of insulin sensitivity. If we totally top off our glycogen stores PWO we impair insulin sensitivity and make it damn tough to lean out. So, one way to look at this is the a LC-PWO meal is focusing on muscular recovery and growth, while minimizing or limiting the effects of insulin or carbohydrate. This is in stark contrast with what we will see in the case of the high carb PWO meal. From my perspective this is THE PWO meal of choice from a health promotion standpoint. Insulin management, cellular stress mechanisms, hormesis…all the crap I’ll cover in the book are adressed when we choose a LC-PWO meal MOST OF THE TIME.*
Low Carb PWO-How
I used ~ 50g of Whey protein from a brand called Isoflex. It’s a mix of whey protein isolate, hydrosolates, glutamine peptides, some insulin sensitizers and other goodies. I ran with a vanilla flavor that is sweetened with sucralose. To this I added about ¼ can of coconut milk (legit Thai coconut milk…hardly any English on the can, not Whitey watered-down crap!) and 2 heaping tablespoons of coco powder. I shot this concoction down as soon as I wrapped up my CrossFit Football or ME-Black Box session. Recovery was good as in I was not particularly sore and miraculously, I started to lean out again, especially when I upped my fish oil to about 15g/day (Kirkland brand). Overall I was getting in less than 50g of carbs per day and feeling pretty damn good. Strength was solid, short met-cons were “ok” and I started to look like someone who “strength trained”.
Low-CARB Reality Check
If you are a strength oriented athlete you might thrive on this regime. Low carb in general, one or two higher carb meals per week (or maybe not). You will NOT however win the CrossFit Games or optimize performance in longer Met-con oriented activities. Several of the folks in the comments section were a little startled by the protein+fat PWO meal which seems completely at odds with what I talk about in 42 Ways to Skin the Zone. It is simply a different tool for a different situation. If one is overweight or showing signs of insulin resistance, a low carb PWO meal is the way to go. Solid food is just fine and likely even better.
Can’t everything be Fat Fueled?
This is a sub-category of low-carb reality check. In general, I think there are activities/work outputs that just run better with SOME glycogen. I have noticed in myself and in some other people a surprising level of work output while in ketosis…but I still think there is a bit more to be had from a properly glycogen fueled athlete. This article from the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism sheds some light on the opportunities and possible limits of a fat-fueled existence. Keep in mind, even if you do not EAT carbs, your body makes some. This might be a natural way to structure training…what hepatic (liver) glycogen production can support…but we will look at that in the book!
High Carb PWO-Why
In the LCPWO scenario we are concerned just with the anabolic/muscle growth aspects of recovery. This MAY play towards performance if our game is strength oriented but it will likely NOT do us many favors if we desire to be the CrossFit Kid or some other glycogen dependant athlete. The HC-PWO meal becomes appealing when we need to replenish not only damaged muscle tissue but also the glycogen stores that fire intense activity. We can do this a dumb way (perfectly balanced protein/carb/fat meals the same proportion, every day, all the time) or we can be smart and take advantage of heightened insulin sensitivity PWO to fly protein and carbs into our muscles with less of a hit from insulin. In this scenario we should see not only solid muscular recovery due to our protein intake, but also rapid glycogen repletion due to the smart carbs we throw into the PWO meal. How much carb/protein is a great question and I honestly do not have a perfect answer. If you have followed OPT’s Blog you will have noticed that he scales the amount of carbs and protein based on volume/intensity of an effort and percent body fat. That friends, is damn smart. I know of some fairly technical formulas that involve weight, duration of activity and some other factors, but it all relates to fairly static state endurance activities. I find it tough to extrapolate much to the CrossFit world from this information. A nice rule of thumb I have found effective is find your Zone block allotment. From this use about ¼ of your daily protein for PWO meals, and ½ your days carbs PWO for “big” WOD’s, ¼ of your day’s carbs for “small” WOD’s. This does not mean you need to weigh and measure every meal, just use this as a tool to find a nice PWO carb/protein level. By the numbers this would look like: My block allotment would be 17 blocks. PWO protein would be 4-5 blocks, PWO carbs would be 4-8 blocks. Huge variability? You bet, you need to pay attention to how much carbs you need to recover from a given beating. This IS where writing down what you eat pays big returns.
What about Multi-event days?
Glad you asked, I hear there is this thing, the CrossFit Games looming in the near future. How should one fuel/refuel for events? You should have figured a bunch of this out already…now is NOT the time to alter your game plan dramatically but the formula above is a good place to start. I’d say most WOD’s would necessitate 50% of the days carbs PWO. If you have three WOD’s you are obviously not following Zone parameters today! You should have easy to digest foods (yams+ applesauce is a goody) as is a shake you know you tolerate well. A little protein is good for balancing things out, nuts are good for between event snacks. Whey protein in the yam+applesauce=damn yummy and very useful. Nothing new on game-day…gas while running “The Hill” seems like a horrid day.
High Carb Reality Check
I hope you see that a spectrum exists here…if I throw 10g of carbs into a PWO meal, it’s still pretty “low”. This is where people need to understand a little of the theory and then just get in and tinker.
I also had an asterisk* up above. It denotes the fact that although a low carb PWO meal is preferable for health, for longevity I think an OCCASIONAL HC-PWO meal is of benefit for a variety of reasons. Some of what I will cover in the book relates to two facts which seem at odds:
What is the metabolic profile most associated with EFFECTIVE aging? Answer: the ability to metabolize fat for energy.
What Helps to ensure this profile? OCCASIONAL bouts of glycolysis (large amounts of carbs).
To this end, once one is healthy, but following a low-carb approach drop in one HC-PWO meal every 5-7 days. Post burner is a perfect time.
Grab my Paleo Troubleshooting Guides
This printable, infographic-style download that will help you troubleshoot some common problems with the Paleo diet. This has been requested literally hundreds of times from readers and podcast listeners, and we’re happy to finally debut these guides. It has a special section on fueling for athletes.
How to use these guides
On the main page, select what area you need help with:
- Fat loss
- Eating for autoimmunity
- Fueling for endurance
- Fueling for power athletics
Then follow the easy-to-read flowchart to help troubleshoot or structure your individual approach to the Paleo diet.