Considering every single body is different it’s hard to give exact foods to consume, so that’s why in this blog post I’m going to be outlining some general rules to help you make the best decisions around refueling your unique body.
First, let’s bust some myths out there.
Myth #1: You have to down a protein drink 30 mins after a workout.
False. The reason this myth has come about is due to the studies that have been performed on refueling. If you locate the small print at the bottom of each study – you’ll see they read, “IF the workout has been performed in a fasted state”.
More often than not, we are not working out in the fasted state. Therefore your body can draw upon fuels or foods eaten throughout the day.
This is actually an important piece of information to know because many people who work out are often stressing about finding food after a workout – for no reason. Now you know that you don’t have to settle for nutrient deficient protein powders (we’ll talk more about this in a second) to refuel after your workouts or runs.
Myth #2: High-calorie meals are important
False. It’s not about the number of calories you eat, it’s about the nutrient density and digestibility of those calories.
For example, peanut butter is very high in calories but it’s also difficult to digest. Roasted peanuts cause the fats to emulsify (combine together). It may make a good spread but it can be tough on your digestion.
Another example is, fries – or chips, as I would say. Since it has a ton of fat and starch, the calorie density of fries is going to be very high. However, large amounts of highly heated oil and starch are NOT a good mixture for a healthy diet.
I’ll talk about optimal foods to eat post runs that have nutrient density and high digestibility further in this post.
Myth #3: You have to eat X amount of protein, carbs, and fat
There are so many variables around food absorption/usage. Genetic factors, microbiome differences, time of consumption, rate of consumption, food pairing, the list could go on. That’s why it’s important not to stress over exact figures.
It’s pretty impossible to calculate your protein, carbs, and fats down to the gram based on how much macronutrients each individual person needs. Yes, you could get a general ballpark figure, but it doesn’t involve weighing food on scales.
A better way of controlling your macronutrient intake is to focus on well-portioned meals. Nutrients often digest better when eaten in synergy with other nutrients. This is why I like to focus on meals after a run or hard workout, and not just downing a protein shake per se.
Try to understand what your meal consists of, i.e a breast of chicken, some rice, and half an avocado. You’ll know from that you’ve got protein, carbs, and fat in your meal.
If you don’t know the nutrients that a food contains you can start using an app like MyFitnessPal to enter your meals and look at the breakdown of the foods. After a few entries on that app, you’ll be able to eyeball the contents of each meal and know if you’re covering your nutrient needs, and can stop stressing about every gram on your plate.
Now onto the things you should do.
As I mentioned when I was myth-busting, it’s not important to eat right after your workout unless you’re in a fasted state. Theoretically, it could also be a good idea to allow your body to recover a little and relax before throwing food down your throat and stressing your digestive system.
For example, it’s ideal to allow your body to fall into a parasympathetic (relaxed) state before eating, which is why it’s often not a good idea to eat on the go, and instead, sit down at the dinner table and take your time over a meal.
So if you’re not able to eat for the first hour after running – don’t stress about it. Give yourself time to recover and eat when it’s convenient or when your body is telling you to.
This is where it gets difficult. Everyone’s situation and diet will be different. Everyone’s body reacts to foods in different ways, so it’s important to learn what works for you.
In general, you’ll want a good mix of protein, carbs, and fats, but you should not obsess over numbers. Instead, search for food quality, nutrient density, and digestibility as they are way more important after a run.
So let’s get into it.
Avoid poor quality foods
It sounds really obvious, doesn’t it?
Yet I still see people head out and eat McDonald’s or indulge in a pint of ice cream after a race. Not good, people.
Let’s think about this in terms of stress. Running causes stress on your body, and eating a pint of ice cream will certainly stress your body. Adding multiple stressors together like this is a sure way to push your body over the edge.
That’s why it’s important after your big race, or hard workout, to avoid indulging in crappy foods and save that for a less stressful time. Instead, look to quality foods. Foods that will nourish your body with the nutrients that will help you recover.
This leads me to my next point.
Eat Nutrient-rich foods
Start looking for nutrient-rich foods post-race, run or workout! Usually, a good start will be adding lots of whole foods such as vegetables and meat. (Notice I didn’t mention fruit)
For example, when grabbing vegetables post run, opt for the deep-colored veggie varieties as these often hold more nutrients. Think, purple kale, beetroot, broccoli, blueberries (ok it’s a fruit but it still works). These are often very nutrient-dense and carry a high amount of antioxidants which reduces further damage to your cells.
In terms of meat, I hate to break it to you, but people in the western world have got it all wrong. We prioritize lean white meats (like chicken and turkey), but sadly they are fairly low in nutrient density. Instead, we should be looking at organ meats and fish to fill in the nutrient gaps. These nutrient gaps are usually in the form of minerals and vitamins that might be missing from our normal diets.
A good alternative if you’re a vegetarian (or a meat-eater) is to eat eggs. Eggs are a very versatile food, packed with nutrient-dense fats, and have one of the most bioavailable proteins around. Basically, eggs are an athlete’s dream. Just remember everything in moderation though.
A simple cheat for everyone is Huel. A nutritionally complete drink, giving you all the protein, carbs, and fat you need. I talk about it in-depth in my Huel For Runners post. To turn Huel up to 110%, then try some digestive enzymes to ensure maximum absorptions and reduce gut distress.
Eat Easy to Digest foods
If you’re vegan, then it’s pretty common to switch out animal products for nuts, grains, beans, and legumes. Looking at the nutrient density of these products – it may seem like a good alternative, but the breakdown is often calculated when the foods are raw/dried. The large number of plant toxins found in these foods can disrupt the digestive ability of our bodies.
For that reason, we should ALWAYS soak, sprout and ferment any grains, nuts, beans, and legumes. During these processes, enzymes and bacteria help break down the plants, much like our digestive system, and even reduce the toxin load of the foods. This means that when the food is transferred through our digestive system, we have less inflammation and an easier time digesting the nutrients that are available to us.
When fermenting foods, we’re not just limited to grains. It’s common in Europe to eat sauerkraut and even fermented fish – even after a run! In Asia, we’ve got natto and kimchi. And something that might come as a shock to many – but chocolate is a fermented product!
Fermented foods have the benefit of already being pre-digested. They also carry powerful good bacteria to help rebalance your gut flora. Consuming fermented foods with, or before a meal can help with digesting the rest of the food on your plate!
As you can see, I’ve tried to stay away from the diet wars, because most diets have some paths of truth to them. But instead, I’ve focused on what I feel is more important, and it comes down to food quality.
We can improve the quality in different ways, such as fermenting and sprouting, but we also have to make sure that we’re starting with a quality product.
If you’re still looking for figures to go by, then you can use a running calorie calculator to give you some general idea of how many calories you’re burning on your runs. From there, just make a rough estimate on the extra amount of food you need to refuel and recover.
Remember, don’t stress over the numbers. Once you start being more mindful about the food you eat and learn a bit more about the nutrient profiles of foods, it’ll be much more natural to healthily refuel your body and maintain good nutrient levels after your runs.