Eat. WOD. Eat.

Follow these eight rules to create the ideal workout-time feeding plan.
By Matthew Kadey, MS, RD ,

You have only a few box jumps left, but it feels like your legs are pushing through quicksand — there’s no gas left in the tank. Could it be the burpees you just finished or a poor night’s rest that’s dragging you down? Sure. Or maybe you simply haven’t fueled properly for the task at hand.

If you want to get the most out of your CrossFit experience — namely improvements in strength, power, speed and muscular endurance — you need to have a game plan when it comes to what to eat and drink before, during and after your workouts. And, to be frank, that doesn’t mean wolfing down a whole-food Paleo meal in the parking lot outside the box. Just like a car runs best with a full tank of gas, your body needs the right kind of nutritional fuel to achieve peak performance. Here’s the lowdown on the latest science when it comes to optimally nourishing your workouts so you can get ready to soar.

Rule No. 1: Timing is Everything

It’s true in life and it’s true in nutrition. The preworkout and postworkout nutrition windows are among the most critical of the day because they mark the only chances you have to prepare your body for whatever your coach is about to throw at it — and recover afterward. We’ll get into supplements in the next issue (and that’s when the timing gets really technical), but even meal planning is important around workouts.

The idea is simple: You want to have enough nutrients flowing around to keep your body running smoothly but not so much food left moving through your gastrointestinal system that it turns those burpees into barfees. Similarly, after your workout, you want to refuel immediately with supplements (again, see next issue for more detail) and then settle in for a whole-food meal afterward.

Your move: Plan to eat a whole-food meal two to three hours before you hit the box and about one to two hours afterward. If you train first thing in the morning, this might be an unreasonable goal, so it’s OK if breakfast becomes your postworkout meal.

Rule No. 2: Focus on Protein

Nutritionists and scientists argue about fats and carbs all the time, but you’ll notice that no one spends much time arguing about protein. In fact, for people who are committed to performance, protein is the most important nutrient there is, and that’s especially true around workouts. After all, muscles are simply protein repositories, and if you don’t supply your body with enough amino acids (which are the building blocks of protein), your body will start harvesting them from your muscles, which will, of course, cause strength and performance to suffer.

Muscles are also naturally stressed by exercise; working out actually creates minute tears in muscle fibers, and it’s the process of repairing those tears that makes muscles grow. Ensuring your body has enough amino acids circulating at all times means that your body will be able to keep your muscles in top working order.

Your move: Aim to eat a total of about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight spread throughout the day, including at both preworkout and postworkout meals. Items like grass-fed beef, poultry, yogurt, eggs, hemp seeds, whey protein powder, wild fish, nut butters, quinoa and amaranth will give you your fill of protein.

Rule No. 3: Go Slow

Make your way to any race start line and you’re likely to see a bunch of eager beavers pounding back gels and neon chews as they try to get their last-minute sugar fix. But if one of your goals is to trim the fat, you may want a better fuel selection before your workouts. In an International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition study, healthy males were either fed a low-glycemic (slow-digesting) bar or one with a higher glycemic index (meaning that it raised blood-sugar levels faster) before completing 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise. It turns out that those who chomped on the slower-digesting bar incinerated a higher percentage of fat during exercise.

But even those who aren’t particularly interested in losing weight can reap the benefits of a slower-digesting carb source before working out. An International Journal of Sports Medicine investigation discovered that subjects who ate a low-glycemic snack 15 minutes before working up a sweat were able to maintain better blood-sugar levels during exercise and experienced improved endurance than those who ate a high-glycemic preworkout snack. Further, scientists in Taiwan found that subjects who ate a low-glycemic meal three hours before exercise had better muscular endurance capacity than those who consumed a high-glycemic meal.

High-glycemic foods like white bread increase insulin levels to a greater degree, which hampers fat burning and may take you on a blood-sugar roller coaster that can leave you wanting to tap out earlier. What’s more, when you burn more fat in the early stages of exercise, you’ll have a larger stash of glycogen — a storage form of carbohydrates and the most easily accessible fuel for intense exercise — available later on so you can kip through more pull-ups when others are running on fumes.

Your move: Provide your body with a sustained release of energy by consuming a meal with a good mixture of carbs, protein and healthy fats two to three hours before your workout. This could be anything from chicken with a side of mashed sweet potato and sliced avocado or whole-wheat pasta topped with grass-fed beef Bolognese. To make sure you are fully powered while at the box, grab a low-glycemic carb source 30 to 45 minutes before exercise and eat it with a protein shake (again, more on workout supplements in the next issue). Think homemade granola, a couple of plain brown rice cakes, a handful of dried dates or apricots, apple slices or a banana. Even if you’re up with the birds and are performing overhead squats before most people crack an eyelid, make sure to take the time to consume this low-GI snack.

Rule No. 4: Play the Clock

No question, once you’ve been exercising for more than an hour, especially if you’ve been consistently pushing the pace, your energy supply is dwindling — glycogen stores become depleted and blood-sugar levels begin taking a nose dive, and it’s just a matter of time before you hit the wall. On the flip side, in sports-nutrition research circles it’s generally believed that people have enough stored glycogen to allow them to cruise through workouts lasting an hour or less without additional fuel.

However, a large review of studies in the journal Sports Medicine postulates that following this once-standard advice could be keeping you from finishing your last set of box jumps with zeal. Researchers from the Netherlands found that carbohydrate ingestion during shorter bouts of high-intensity exercise lasting only 45 to 60 minutes also can give you wings. The going theory is that because your carbohydrate stores are unlikely to be significantly drained during this time frame, the performance boost likely hails from the stimulation of your central nervous system, thus lowering the perceived effort of exercise.

Your move: If you’ll be exercising continuously for longer than an hour, start replenishing your carbohydrate stores around the 45-minute mark and then every 30 to 45 minutes thereafter. A 2013 Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study found that 78 grams of carbs per hour was the sweet spot for the best performance boost in a group of triathletes. You can get your carb fix from sports drinks, gels, chews or even certain whole foods.

If you’re exercising for an hour or less, you may not need to make special dietary accommodations beyond drinking water. But if you find that you’re often feeling tortoise-esque toward the end of more arduous sufferfests lasting only about one hour, you may want to experiment with consuming a touch of fuel to see whether it gives you more power to finish strong. This should be about 30 grams of easily digested carbs like dried fruit or a gel at about the half-hour mark of your workout.

Rule No. 5: Load Up

Some time-honored sports-nutrition tricks really do work. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine reported that athletes who ate at least 3.2 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight during the day before a race posted significantly faster times and maintained speed better than those who ate fewer carbs. Carb-loading before a big physical undertaking (we’re talking a daylong event, not your daily box workout) serves to saturate your muscles and liver with glycogen, helping you push the pace and go the distance.

Your move: No amount of carbs will make up for inadequate training and turn a donkey into a race horse, but if you have a big event on the horizon, one that will require a significant amount of exertion, try bumping up your carbohydrate intake a day or two beforehand. Ideally, these carbs should come from whole-food sources instead of processed versions. Extra servings of sweet potatoes, dried and fresh fruit, brown rice, quinoa and whole-grain pasta can help get you there.

Rule No. 6: Think Natural

Paleo-ers rejoice. While engineered sports-nutrition products are always getting better, research has shown that Mother Nature also can provide the fuel needed to boost your workouts. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that those dried grapes known as raisins are just as good at bolstering endurance during exercise as packaged sugary chews. The various guises of dried fruit possess high amounts of natural sugars that can be quickly and efficiently burned for energy production. More proof that honey is nature’s sweetest treat. A Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study found that honey can help you go faster and increase muscle power output during exercise.

Your move: If you’re going hard for the long haul or feel like your WODs need a little energy boost, consider keeping some natural fuel on hand. This can be in the form of a handful of dried plums, a box of raisins, a couple of honey sticks or even a banana. Or visit the baby-food aisle where you’ll find pouches of puréed 100 percent fruit and vegetable blends. No whatchamacallits included.

Rule No. 7: Drink Up

Dehydration can tame your workout by increasing core temperature, reducing blood flow and accelerating muscle glycogen use. By the time you’re hankering for a drink, you’re probably already well on your way to being dehydrated. For shorter workout sessions, water should suffice to keep you hydrated. But any full-steam-ahead exercise lasting beyond the one-hour mark could benefit from a drink made with carbs and electrolytes. This serves not only to help stymie a performance-sapping drop in glycogen and sodium levels but also to actually encourage better hydration.

The correct amounts of simple carbs and sodium in a drink can raise the rate at which fluid leaves the digestive track and enters the bloodstream. But don’t get lured in by the marketing hype of overly sugary sports drinks. Drinks with a more modest 2 to 5 percent carbohydrate concentration (1 to 4 grams of carbs per 3 ounces of liquid) appear to promote optimal hydration and keep your stomach from crying foul. New Zealand researchers found that fluid absorption was fastest in cyclists who downed a 3.9 percent drink than when they used a product with a more lofty 7.6 carbohydrate percentage. They also reported less GI discomfort with the former. An ideal sports drink also should deliver 80 to 100 milligrams of sodium for each 8-ounce (1-cup) serving to help replace what’s lost in sweat.

Your move: To sidestep dehydration, slug down 0.12 to 0.15 ounces of liquid per pound of bodyweight for each hour of activity (19 to 24 ounces for a 160-pound guy) or up to 0.4 ounces if you’re prone to sweating buckets. An increasing number of products make it easier to meet your hydration needs without too much of the sweet stuff. However, sports-drink makers rarely label the percentage of carbohydrates in their drinks, so you’ll need to break out the calculator. Simply divide the total carbohydrate content listed on the Nutrition Facts panel by the serving size in milliliters and then multiply by 100. For example, if a sports drink contains 14 grams of carbohydrates in a 240-milliliter (8-ounce) serving, you would have a drink with a 5.8 percent carbohydrate level (14 ÷ 240 x 100). As a pre-emptive strike, also imbibe about 2 cups of water within the hour before working out.

Rule No. 8: Refuel to Recover

When it comes to fueling hard-charging muscles, don’t take the post-exercise period (roughly an hour or so after a workout) too lightly. When you exercise intensely, your energy stores become depleted and your muscles suffer damage. This, along with a change in the hormonal environment — including an uptick in certain stress and anabolic hormones such as cortisol, growth hormone and testosterone — means your body desperately needs nutrients to initiate the restoration of energy reserves and the rebuilding of damaged muscle tissues so they can get stronger, faster and bigger. In short, your body’s construction crew wants to work hard after all those punishing sets, but it needs the right building materials to do so.

To optimize recovery from a stomach-churning workout, research shows that you want to seek out a combination of protein and carbohydrates. Case in point: A 2014 study out of Ball State University in Indiana found that feeding volunteers a test meal consisting of about a 2:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio soon after a bout of exercise turned on the machinery involved in muscle protein synthesis. Further, a University of Texas at Austin investigation discovered that consuming a mixture of protein and carbs one hour after exercise resulted in greater improvements in muscular endurance and lean body mass compared to when just carbohydrates were taken in after working out.

The amino acids from the protein in your postworkout repast function to kick-start muscle repair and growth, while carbohydrates serve to replace spent muscle glycogen stores and to raise insulin levels, which helps drive amino acids and other recovery nutrients into muscle cells.

Your move: For the best fitness gains, aim to consume 20 to 30 grams of protein and 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrates just about immediately after leaving the box. The best way to do this is through a combination of protein powder and a fast-digesting carb source like white bread with jelly, sorbet or even gummy bears. (Though in a pinch, chocolate milk turns out to be excellent recovery fuel. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that chocolate milk did a bang-up job at promoting muscle recovery by supplying the right combination of carbohydrates, protein and fluid.)

Then once you’ve cooled down and dried off, it’s time to refuel with food. Think a bison steak with sweet potato, chicken stir-fry with brown rice or a turkey wrap.

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