To eat or not to eat, that is not a question

Because I’m in the throws of planning a nutrition session for the Saint Kentigern College Cycling team and coming off the back of some female specific seminars, I figured a nutrition post is probably in order.

It was a while back that I was having a discussion with a fellow Foot Traffic athlete. They are data mad and was describing the very real struggle they have post training. Do I shower, upload my data or eat first?

There should however be no question. Always, always, eating should be the top priority. Replacing any energy deficit you may have built up (more about this later) but more importantly, getting the important nutrients (protein and carbohydrates) to the muscles you have just worked so they can start the repair and recovery process as soon as possible.

The aim of training is to get stronger and therefore faster. The way in which this occurs is that we stress the body, specifically the muscles, bones and cardiovascular system, just beyond what it is capable of. This shocks the body a little and tips the seesaw slightly out of balance. The key here is ‘slightly’. Small changes in balance within the body trigger a cascade of responses resulting in the body adapting to meet the new level of stress that it has encountered. If you push the seesaw too far out of balance, however, or don’t allow it to adapt and accommodate adequately before introducing the next round of stress then the seesaw leans further towards injury and illness and the further over it tips, the more rapidly it descends towards these less than ideal outcomes.

So how soon after training do I need to eat? Within 15-30 mins but the earlier the better, and for females that 15 minute mark is even more crucial than for males. But remember you then need to have a proper meal within the hour.

What should I eat? Something high in fast absorbing proteins, particularly leucine. Whey protein powder is probably the best source as it is a rapidly absorbing protein but if you are vegan or allergic then plant protein sources are fine but you need to take about 50-60 g compared to the 30 g you need of whey protein. Branch chain amino acids or BCAA’s can also be handy here as they are very high in leucine, which is essential for triggering muscle growth. It should also have a good dose of high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates. Carbohydrates top up your muscle glycogen stores (energy for next round of exercise) as well as help to get more of that muscle repairing and developing protein into the muscles where it is needed. Why high GI? Isn’t that bad? The glycemic index is simply a measure of how quickly the food causes a spike in blood glucose compared to pure glucose, pure glucose having a GI of 100. In this case we want those blood sugars to be elevated quickly because that means the sugar is going to be getting to our muscles quickly. So basically any carbohydrate sources which are easy to digest and absorb by your body.

  • Protein shake made with your choice of protein powder and drinking chocolate (most protein powders are very low in carbs so you will need to add some – this is why I like to use a plain unflavoured protein powder, so I can add my own flavours and carbs and so I can avoid Stevia and it’s derivatives because I think they taste vial)
  • White bread sandwich with nutbutter
  • White bread sandwich with marmite and cheese (Yes, I’m a kiwi so I like Marmite and the salty hit after training is GOOOOD)
  • A green smoothie made with yoghurt and a tablespoon of nut butter
  • Yoghurt with museli and some chopped fruit or berries
  • Protein balls
  • Your imagination is your limit, but make sure it’s either easy to prepare and take with you (won’t go off in a hot car during a 5 hour bike ride) or quick to prepare as you run in the door

Do I have to eat after every workout? No. Easy recovery workouts are just that – recovery  – and therefore should not be stressing your body beyond what it is currently capable of. Ergo no need for repair and adaptation to occur.  Any workout that leaves you tired or sore however, no matter how long or short it is requires you to target that nutrition to the places it is needed.

And while we are on the topic of times when you absolutely should eat something, before early morning training is one of those times. As endurance athletes it’s easy to buy into the messages suggesting various forms of ‘fasted’ training help you to tap into the ample supply of energy you have stored in your body fat. However, missing in these arguments is the important message that fat is actually really hard to burn – try putting a lump of fat and a lump of bread separated in the oven and crank the heat up and see which one catches fire first. The reality is, we have to put more energy in to get the fat into a form so that it can then be used to provide energy than we do for carbohydrates. So if you haven’t eaten all night, and bear in mind that during sleep is when your body does most of it’s repairing and recovery (read high energy expenditure), your quick access energy tank (carbohydrates stored in the liver) are pretty depleted. If you then try to train, your body is less likely to want to waste some of its limited carbs to generate energy to liberate fats for burning and is more likely to try to shut you down instead and get you to stop wasting what little carbs are left. The body in all it’s magnificence has one goal in mind: to keep you alive. Training on low energy is perceived by the body as a life threatening stress, so it isn’t going to respond the way we want it to and do what we think is logical. Unfortunately females, this is even more true for you than it is for the males because of differences in hormones.



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