By Dr. Julia Gonen
Here is a basic summary of my talk last month which is always relevant, but especially now as the Open continues. The quality and quantity of our food over our entire day, week, year, life matters more for recovery than anything specific in a window of time pre or post workout. During recovery from a WOD there are a few considerations we need to keep in mind (not including supplements)...
Protein - Protein intake is paramount. I can’t stress enough (or talk enough) about the importance of protein. I’m not going to get into too much detail right now, but know that you must increase your protein intake if you want to increase your lean muscle mass, repair existing muscle that has been damaged from exercising, and keep a positive amino acid balance in our body for all of the hundreds of other jobs proteins do in our body. The amount of protein will vary depending on the person, but in general we can say ~1.8 - 2.5g/kg body weight and that could depend on your total caloric intake as well. I can tell you that many of you aren’t taking in sufficient quality protein per day to keep up with muscle synthesis and repair which is a must if you want to keep progressing. To consume this quantity of protein, most people need the addition of a protein powder (whey protein isolate being the best choice due to its amino acid composition). It’s best to divide this into 4-6 servings to consume throughout the day. One of those times should be close to your post-workout period.
Hydration - Drinking water has a myriad of health benefits. Water is an essential nutrient. Along with proper nutrition (clean eating is optimal, but that’s a whole other subject), drinking plenty of water will supply your body with everything necessary for peak performance. Metabolism, fat loss, muscle hypertrophy all depend on water as a main substrate. There is a clear connection between optimal hydration and performance. Water is probably the best ergogenic aid. This means the water you drink during your workout and more importantly the water you drink throughout the day leading up to and after exercise. Your urine colour should always be a pale straw colour and clear throughout the day and plentiful. If not, you need to drink more. You can weigh yourself pre and post exercise to ensure you are drinking enough as well. You don’t want to see a loss of more than 2% body weight. This becomes even more important during the summer months when it gets stifling hot in the gym and we are sweating buckets. Often we are told that we feel nauseous or have cramping muscles during exercise because of the loss of electrolytes, but in regular Crossfit workouts, which are generally not endurance events (and even during endurance events), it is most likely due to lack of proper hydration leading up to exercise. We should also not to restrict sodium as dietary sodium is the next most likely culprit. Perhaps you need to pay more careful attention and track your water intake, but urination can be a good indicator. Some people are less sensitive to thirst mechanisms in the body so thirst is not always a reliable indicator of hydration status. Dehydration can increase cortisol release and promote insulin resistance, which works against our goals and in the long term can cause a metabolic shit-storm (my new favourite term). Dehydration can cause loss of muscle power and strength.
Besides using your urine colour and thirst as an indicator we can generalize based on the literature that women should consume ~2-3L per day and males 2.5-4L per day based on size, environmental conditions and amount or intensity of exercise. Having said all of this excessive hydration can also be damaging, so don’t overdo it either.
Carbohydrates - this is a more contentious topic in nutrition circles. There was a recent article going around in the Crossfit world (I saw it in my Facebook feed) that likened carbohydrates to steroids (wow, what a claim!). I read the study they are referring to and not to my surprise the study was poorly designed, and poorly interpreted, so please take everything you read in Crossfit blogs with a grain of salt. People have agendas and like to push them. Always try to read studies for yourself if it seems too good to be true. In this study the authors actually stated in their conclusion that there was no significant difference between ingestion of a high carbohydrate diet or a moderate carbohydrate diet for Crossfit performance in their limited study, but the headlines make us believe otherwise. So, as Public Enemy taught me, don’t believe the hype. We are not endurance athletes and do not need to carb load before WODs. However, we do need to eat enough carbohydrates throughout the day in order to replenish our glycogen stores. How much we deplete in our workout depends on what workout we’ve done, how often we are working out, our genetics, and other factors. So our needs change on a daily basis. Carbohydrate intake is much more individual than protein. Technically, carbohydrates are not even essential (protein is essential), meaning that we can survive and even thrive without too much (but that doesn’t mean it is best for performance in Crossfit). We can produce energy via other pathways and may become efficient at doing so. But the question remains as to the amount of carbs that will optimize our own individual performance. This depends, and is something to systematically test out for yourself. After all, you are your own experiment. But the reality is that some people are just less carb tolerant than others due to many individual factors. Over time by doing Crossfit regularly and by consuming a clean diet you should become more tolerant of carbs. So your carb intake may need to change over time as your fitness & health improve.
One more thought about carbohydrates is to choose wisely when ingesting carbs. Your body doesn’t care where you get the sugar (glucose) for energy, whether it is from carbohydrates sources such as white rice, jelly beans or whole grains in terms of replenishing glycogen stores. However, the quality does matter a lot when it comes to nutrient density, not just energy density (energy is a euphemism for sugar). Squash and sweet potato (my favourite starchy carbs) are rich in anti-oxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, and fibre all of which support our body in so many ways - decreasing inflammation, providing substrates for essential biochemical reactions, providing our good gut bacteria with fuel to thrive and produce nutrients for us and to keep our gut healthy (the gateway to the inner world of our body that also act as sentinels in first line defence). This is in contrast to, say, white rice. White rice is an easy and abundantly cheap source of carbohydrates, but that just it. Beyond glucose it’s really not providing us with ANY other nutrients to support our body for recovery. The vitamins, fibre, phytonutrients have all been stripped in the processing of the product. What does remain is an unwanted by-product of rice farming - arsenic. Accumulations of chronically low doses of arsenic over time may have a deleterious effect. So I urge you to choose wisely every bite you take or over time the accumulation of all of your choices will bite you in the butt. It’s only a matter of time. There is so much chronic disease, metabolic derangement, cancer, autoimmune disease in this world, and doing everything you can as early as possible to support your body is wise to protect your future self.
Oh, and timing of carbohydrates matters much less than you think. We now know that it is in the 24 hours preceding a workout where we need to replenish our glycogen stores. There is no window post-workout for carbs.
Foods help with recovery due to their protein content, vitamin and mineral content, and their content of various phytonutrients (back to the simple reality that there is way more to food and performance and keeping healthy than simplistic macronutrients). This is why it is best to choose to eat real, unprocessed foods that aren’t stripped of nutrients and to include a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits and herbs and spices everyday. My dad drilled it into me as a kid that “the whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead” and I took him seriously. We weren’t rice eaters, but the same goes for those who eat rice as a staple carbohydrate. Swap out the white things for better choices. All foods are not created equal. Some items to add in to your daily food arsenal to quell inflammation, decrease muscle soreness and promote recovery are the following:
Tart Cherry juice - tart cherry juice can help with post workout muscle soreness & inflammation, increase muscle repair, lower pain and modulates cell signalling. The phytonutrients in tart cherries called anthocyanins have been shown to be as effective as NSAIDs (Ibuprofen etc) without the side effects. They are also cardioprotective and can quell chronic inflammation from arthritis or central obesity.
Ginger - decreases inflammation, pain & muscle soreness. Studies have shown it to be as effective as NSAIDs in reducing pain and inflammation in arthritis. You can grate ginger and make a tea with it. I also love to make carrot ginger soup. Here’s my recipe: http://www.juliagonen.com/blog/67/carrot-ginger-soup-recipe/.
Rosemary - rosemary is a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, is easy to grow and tastes great. It quenches powerful free-radicals and inflammatory molecules produced in our body. Sage, clove, sumac and cinnamon are other great herbs and spices to include. I use dried rosemary on roasted vegetables such as sweet potato.
Turmeric - you can take a variety of anti-inflammatory supplement that contain cur cumin (the active constituent in turmeric) or just include in your diet since studies show that we actually benefit most from dietary turmeric rather than supplements. Always use turmeric with some type of fat (olive or coconut oil is great) and some black pepper for best absorption. I put turmeric on roasted cauliflower, in carrot ginger soup or make as a beverage with coconut or almond milk warmed with a pinch of black pepper, grated ginger and a bit of honey, and cinnamon.
Pineapple - pineapple is high in both vitamin C and bromelain. You will find bromelain in many popular anti-inflammatory supplement. Bromelain helps to reduce swelling, bruising, inflammation and muscular pain. We always eat pineapple with our burgers.
Beets - beets are a super healthy source of carbohydrates, fibre, magnesium, potassium, vitamins, and also contain the phytonutrients betaine and betalains. Betaine is a molecule also called trimethylglycine (TMG). TMG is also a methyl donor and it is cardioprotective. Betaine promotes cell hydration and resilience to stressors similar to creatine. Beets are also high in nitrates that help to dilate our blood vessels and increase blood flow to our muscles (what is known in broscience as ‘the pump’ lol - I always think that sounds so ridiculous). Just be aware that beets or beet juice can turn your urine or feces pink or even red!
Recovery Meal Ideas - A few healthy recipes to help you recover better!!
Chicken burgers with dried tart cherries
2 lbs ground chicken breast
1/4 cup dried tart cherries
2 tsp dried coriander
Handful chopped parsley
1/2 onion chopped finely
salt and pepper to taste
Sautée onions in 1 tbsp butter, coconut oil, olive oil or ghee until translucent. Chop dried cherries into smaller bits. Mix all ingredients together by hand until uniform. Form into 8 1/4lb hamburger shaped patties. You may need to dip your hands into water between each patty since ground chicken is rather sticky. Place on indoor or outdoor grill to cook or in preheated oven to 350F and cook for ~10 minutes until done, but not overcooked.
Roasted beet slices
Romaine lettuce wrap
Roasted rosemary sweet potato
4-6 medium sweet potatoes, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp dried rosemary
Preheat oven to 350-375. Mix ingredients together. Place on parchment or a silpat on a cookie sheet. Place in oven and cook for ~20-35 minutes (depends on how well done you like them and your oven).
Turmeric roasted cauliflower
1 head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp turmeric
Toss ingredients together (be careful using your hands because turmeric stains). Place on parchment or silpat on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for ~15 minutes (doneness depends on how you like it cooked). I wait until the cauliflower turns slightly golden and crips on edges.