The important lesson I learned while prioritizing post-workout nutrition

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As gym owners, a question we get asked a lot is “what should I eat after a workout?”

It makes perfect sense why this is a common question. You’d hate for all your hard work in the gym to go to waste by an ill-conceived meal afterwards.

In fact, we’ve also actively encouraged our athletes to think about what a post-workout meal should consist of, oft-noting after a tough workout how important it is to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle after a workout through adequate carbohydrate and protein consumption. You might hear one of us say, “don’t skip that rice tonight!” after a particularly grueling workout.

I must confess though, this advice is predicated on the assumption that every other meal is on point, which includes rest day meals, pre-workout meals, intra-workout nutrition, and any other eating, snacking, or meal throughout the day. In fact, it’s a necessary precondition: post-workout nutrition is only effective if the environment is already primed and ready for it.

We must master the basics before we focus on the details. I’m putting “post-workout nutrition” in the ‘Details’ category.

Suppose you work out three times a week. Suppose you also eat three meals in any given day. That means you’re eating 21 meals per week (not including snacks), and three of those would be considered “post-workout” meals.

There’s no denying that post-workout meals are important. But I would argue that the other 18 meals in your week are far more critical to your health and to reaching your health and fitness goals.

Another issue with putting too much emphasis on post-workout meals is that “post-workout nutrition” often gets misinterpreted to mean “I can eat whatever I want after the workout because I worked really hard tonight.” Cue the fried rice and cream cheese wontons, the cheese curds and beer, or whatever else someone may think they ‘earned.’

But even when it doesn’t get misinterpreted that way, that is, even when post-workout nutrition is on point, the primary focus should still remain on the other 18+ meals throughout the week. Let’s not mistake the forest for the trees! However stellar your “post-workout nutrition” is, it still won’t be enough to move the needle without addressing all the other variables that go into a more comprehensive approach, such as:

  1. How many meals are you eating in a day?
  2. Do you know how much you’re eating in a day?
  3. Do you know if your protein intake is optimal?
  4. Do your meals always contain a lean protein, vegetables, a healthy fat, and if they contain a carbohydrate, a minimally processed one?
  5. Are you eating slowly?
  6. Are you eating to 80% full?
  7. How is your sleep quality?
  8. What is the overall volume of your sleep?
  9. What are you doing for exercise?
  10. What else are you doing to fit movement into your day?
  11. How is your movement quality?
  12. What measurable steps are you taking to manage your stress?
  13. How supportive are the people and things around you of you and your goals?
  14. Do you feel in control of the food choices you make, or do you feel turmoil, anxiety, and feelings of restriction, guilt, pressure, or obligation around food?
  15. …And how consistent are you with all of these measures?

When you consider the above 15 variables, it’s easy to see how “I’m working out three times a week and I’m having my post-workout shake with my post-workout meal of white rice and chicken; why am I not seeing progress?” is a common question we get asked. Well, we can start by looking at what the other 165 hours in the week look like outside of your workout, as well as what the other 18 meals in your week consist of.

As you can see, what you eat after a workout is one small piece of the puzzle. Heck, what you eat in general is only part of the equation!

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