Crouched by the fire, tired yet exhilarated, the successful hunter gorges on the spoils of his efforts. Whether it was a comb of honey still squirming with somnolent bees, an ash-dusted joint of meat, a briny quivering oyster, or an egg supped from it’s shell, this meal would have been the payoff for journeying into the dark woods, the deep ocean, or the vast desert.
From time immemorial humans have been willing to parlay bodily harm for nutritious reward because of the fact that sources of digestible carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are typically rare in nature. Yet, as often as the hunter returned to his tribe with an animal slung across his back, he more often came home empty handed.
The Exerciser’s Dilemma
Unlike the hunter gatherer, who would have toiled whether he ultimately feasted or fasted, we eat and exercise as a matter of choice rather than necessity. Having too many options, some healthy and some not so much, presents it’s own set of challenges however and makes answering the question, “What should I eat after a workout” difficult.
N=1 + N=1
Although no one can say with 100% confidence what will work best for you, that doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch. Finding out what has worked for others can, at the very least, give you a jumping off point for your own self-study.
To provide you with exactly this sort of inspiration, I posed the question, “What do you eat after a hard workout” to nine different Paleo experts, all of whom spend their active time in different ways.
1. The Grappler – Robb Wolf, RobbWolf.com
While you probably know him best for his book “The Paleo Solution,” what you might not know is that Robb earned a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) from Kelley Farrell of Conviction Martial Arts. While Robb participates in BJJ primarily for fun and, if he ever needs it, self-defense, the workouts are nevertheless rigorous.
“Depending on intensity I may do a shake and a ripe banana immediately PWO, then a solid meal consisting mainly of carbs from tubers and a small amount of meat, chicken etc. Currently I use whey protein in my shake, but it does give me some acne, so I’m looking for other options.”
2. The Strongwoman – Stacy Toth, PaleoParents.com
A working mom, a prolific author, a podcast host, and a strongwoman, a really strong woman. Training out of NOVA Strength and Conditioning, Stacy lifts Atlas stones, flips tires, and recently hit a deadlift PR of 315lbs.
“I like to focus not just on post-workout foods, but also pre-workout nutrition. I find that focusing on nutrient density reduces delayed onset muscle soreness and improves performance and recovery in general. I eat as many micronutrient-rich foods as I can. I also have found that since I don’t like coconut water, drinking mineral water has been immensely helpful.
On days that I train, I eat carbs that digest well for me, from winter squash, potatoes, and even white rice sushi, I don’t discriminate. In fact, I’ve found including more carbohydrates into my diet has reduced my cravings for sweets, helps regulate my hormones, and even improved digestion, since without a gallbladder fats are harder for me to digest. My favorite post-workout foods are rotisserie chicken with a side of yuca or sushi. All the Strong men and women also love our N’Oatmeal Cookies, sweetened only with fruit.”
3. The Oly Lifter – Stephanie Gaudreau, StupidEasyPaleo.com
While Stephanie loves making Paleo “Stupid Easy”, she isn’t afraid of working out hard. A former competitive mountain biker turned Olympic Lifter, she is equally at home on a trail or a lifting platform.
“I really love Epic bars, Scotch eggs, sweet potatoes pureed with applesauce, and white potatoes. I know some people don’t think white potatoes are Paleo, but I do!
Then, of course, there are things like grass-fed whey and white rice which I, and many athletes use, due to their convenience despite the fact that they are technically not Paleo.”
4. The Triathlete – Ben Greenfield, BenGreenfieldFitness.com
Not only is Ben, “really good at working out”, he’s also really smart and his book, “Beyond Training” is a must-read for any serious athlete. That being said, he’s given the subject of post workout nutrition serious thought.
“You may have noticed that I don’t talk too much about what to eat after your workout – and there’s a reason for that. In every study or experiment that has investigated the benefit of immediate post-workout nutrition replacement, subjects were fed after completing an exercise session that they had performed in a fasted or semi-starved state.
In other words, of course you’re going to benefit if you eat a meal after a workout in which you were completely depleted of energy. But how many of us actually roll out of bed in the morning, hop on a bicycle, and ride hard for 90 minutes to 2 hours with absolutely no fuel?
So here’s the deal: if you’ve actually had a pre-workout meal, or any other recent meal, there’s no crucial, do-or-die need to eat after your workout – especially if you’re still “burping up” that meal you ate before your exercise session. But it does make sense to fuel within that 20-60 minute window if you haven’t had anything to eat before your workout and you’re in a totally energy depleted state, you’re going to be working out again within the next 8 hours, or you’re trying to pack on muscle as fast as possible. In any of these cases, after your workout simply eat a real meal.”
5. The Efficient Exerciser – Keith Norris, PaleoFX.com
Former college football player, entrepreneur, and PaleoFX mastermind, Keith combines both the “old school” and the “new school” in his training regiment.
“What’s a ‘normal’ day for me look like? Well, let’s start with the workout itself, because that will drive the post workout meal.
The other day I did 5 rounds of 5 reps for both front squats and weighted dips in approximately 30 minutes. Normally, I wouldn’t be hungry following something like this and would just head to the house, and eat when I felt like it, but on this particular day I was going to be in a set of meetings that would last into the evening. This is where protein shakes come into my list of options. I blended up 4 egg yolks, 16 oz raw, unpasteurized, buttermilk, 46 grams ID Life meal replacement protein, and 5 grams of creatine. That saw me through the meetings and into the evening.
At roughly 8 PM, I threw-down on heavily buttered boiled fingerling potatoes along with an amazing grilled, free range pork loin chop. My take on starches: you need to have “earned” them via intense exercise.”
6. The Player – Darryl Edwards, TheFitnessExplorer.com
Darryl Edwards presents a “curious case”, he seems to grow younger rather than older! What’s the secret to his “fountain of youth”? Plenty of play and nutrient dense foods.
“My post-workout meal is pretty much the same as a standard dinner for me with the addition of some fruit. A personal favorite of red snapper, fried plantain in coconut oil, leafy greens and a couple of mandarins. Why?
Red snapper is packed full of protein to aid in muscle and tissue repair whilst the omega-3 fats reduce inflammation and provide cardiovascular benefits. The fried plantain is a complex-carbohydrate source high in potassium important for bone health and in conjunction with the leafy greens and fruit provides a source of micronutrients and phytonutrients important for supporting the immune system post-activity with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. It also is pretty tasty!”
7. The Kickboxer – James Gregory, FastPaleo.com
When James isn’t combining Paleo recipes for his website FastPaleo.com, he’s throwing combinations in the ring. Known as “The Art of Eight Limbs,” Muay Thai kickboxing is one of the toughest sports on the planet.
“Muay Thai kickboxing sessions are long as they comprise both skill and conditioning work, typically between two and three hours. As soon as I’m done, I like to get a glycemic boost and a bit of protein, both to reverse the catabolic process, and, as importantly, to lift my mood and keep me from crashing. This usually takes the form of a fruit shake with whey protein.
I do well with whey and cultured dairy, and the quick digestibility fits the bill perfectly. Within two hours after that, I’ll have a ‘real’ meal with a focus on protein, electrolytes, and anti-inflammation, and a bit more carbs. This usually looks like a half pound of raw grass-fed beef, a banana, a fresh-cut salad, something salty like olives, some coconut water, water water, and a bit of fresh vegetable juice with things like kale, ginger, apples and carrot for both a shot of extra nutrients and anti-inflammatories without a ton of sugar.”
8. The Gymnast – Ryan Hurst, GoldMedalBodies.com
The sport of gymnastics combines balance, strength, and flexibility in equal measure. Ryan Hurst, program director for GoldMedalBodies.com, has figured out how to stay active in the sport by understanding how to best fuel his body.
“I’m 41 and have tried many, many different ways of eating and I’ve found the personal plan my good friend Nate Miyaki has set up for me has worked the best.
He changes it up depending on what’s going on in my life for travel, training specs, shoots, etc, but in general it looks like this: black coffee for breakfast and nothing after my morning workout of hand balancing. Lunch is basically grilled chicken, avocado, and veggies, but if I have a really heavy day of ring work or lifting in the afternoon I’ll have a very small piece of fruit. Dinner is more lean protein, tons of veggies, and rice. Yep, white rice.
Since I skip breakfast and with all the work I do throughout the day I back load carbs. I’ve found this works the best for me over the years.”
9. The Bodybuilder – Mario Singleman, EvolutionaryStrength.com
How do you become the first 100% natural (and Paleo!) bodybuilder? You keep it simple.
“So my first reaction was to over think this answer. I kept debating my answer, because it was SO simple. Post workout I need to replenish my body, eat fast, eat an easy to prepare meal, AND eat something my body accepts. So my favorite post workout meal is (already prepared) mashed sweet potatoes with eggs “over easy” as well.
Easy to prepare, easy to eat relatively fast too. Because I’m a slow eater this is actually a consideration. I tend to keep it simple post workout and just focus on carbs and protein. Eggs are a great source of protein and the sweet potatoes replenish my muscle’s glycogen stores. I’m not a big fan of this carb up for most people though, I find it unnecessary without an extended, intense workout. Of course I rehydrate with water as well.”