CrossKitchen: March 2009 Archives


Photo: Tom Campitelli

So now we know that a double espresso before a workout works wonders, but what about afterward?  The topic of post-workout (PWO) nutrition is a hotly-debated one over in the bodybuilding territories of the internet.  Over there, the debate is typically not whether one should have anything post-workout, but rather which super-mega-extreme frothy tanker of aspartame and diheximethylcrapalose* (now in Fruit Punch flavor with real Acai!) will get you totally shredded (or pumped, I guess, depending on your goals).  Bypassing the hype, though, is there anything that sets the post-workout window apart from any other time for nutritional benefit?  Turns out, there is.

The Why
I'm going to geek out on you here for a second.  As you may or may not know, the body provides three separate pathways for generating and burning energy:  ATP/CP, Glycolitic and Oxidative.  In the first, the body burns adenosine tri-phosphate for extremely brief (under a second), maximum-effort movements.  In the second, the muscles burn through their reserves of glycogen at about 90% effort, which lasts about 12-15 minutes.  The final is the domain of the endurance athlete, in which the body combines oxygen from your lungs with bodyfat reserves to allow you to work at about 50-70% for, essentially, hours on end. CrossFit metcons specifically target the second pathway, focusing on intensity rather than strength or volume.  We will focus on strength (Max Effort) sometimes, and will occasionally dip into volume (Murph or a 10k), but the heart of CrossFit is the short, painful metcon (Fran is a classic example).  It is here that PWO nutrition is the most useful.

You see, immediately following a punishing workout, the muscles are desperate to replenish their spent glycogen stores.  The body can supply their needs by mobilizing body fat or by converting protein to glycogen, but these processes take time!  And your muscles are thirsty!  They need their glycogen NOW, dammit!  Here's where the magical non insulin mediated glucose transport comes in.  In the period of time immediately following a workout, we can fly in an emergency shipment of nutrients and amino acids directly to the muscles in a sugar airlift.  It's the most direct line from mouth to muscle you'll ever get, so it's a good idea to take advantage of it.

Why?  RECOVERY.  As you all know, 5-6 workouts a week is brutal, and there's nothing like a bad case of DOMS to wreck your day.  And it's not just about soreness:  faster recovery means you're able to hit the workouts harder more often, thereby providing greater stimulus and growth to your muscles and central nervous system.  Faster recovery means fewer injuries, and less likelihood of illness or overtraining.  Remember:  we do not get stronger in the gym.  All we do in the gym is controlled damage to ourselves.  We get stronger as a result of our body's response to that damage, so it is in our best interests to maximize our recovery by as many (legal/safe) means as are available to us.

The What

Hopefully by now I've convinced you that PWO nutrition is a good idea.  "But what," you're asking, "should I EAT?  Which is better, Gatorade or Muscle Milk?"  The answer, of course, is neither. Sure, you could lay out $50 for a tub of chalky-tasting chemicals specially formulated by marketing agents with a penchant for the letter "X," but why bother?  There are cheaper, healthier and tastier options.

When considering your choices, these are the things you want to keep in mind:  a generous amount of carbs, a small amount of protein, and as little fat as you manage.  Now, normally I'm not a very big fan of the carbohydrate, but in PWO-land all the rules go topsy turvy, so now they're good - and the higher their GI, the better (I know, right?).  As for protein, the ideal ratio of carbs to protein is 4:1, so about a quarter of the carbs.  Fat slows digestion/absorption, so while most of the time I'm huge fan o' the fat, this is not its time to shine.  So what fits the bill?


  • Chocolate milk.  As crazy as it sounds, lowfat chocolate milk is just about perfect for post-workout recovery.  It has that great 4:1 ratio and is quickly absorbed by the body.  In clinical studies, it performed as well or better than the highly processed fancy supplements.  If I were to get really nitpicky, I'd advocate one made with sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, but whatever.
  • Regular milk.  Rebecca's drink of choice.  Organic is better than not.  Lowfat versions have less fat, but whole has more nutrients, so I put that choice down to personal preference.
  • Kefir.  This is what I drink.  I have my reasons.
  • A sweet potato and a little jerky or salmon
  • An apple or banana with some skim mozzarella or deli slice
  • Applesauce with a little cottage cheese and cinnamon
  • Lowfat yogurt or rice pudding
  • Mix a little unflavored/unsweetened whey with some juice

You get the idea.  Eggs, tofu/legumes, brown rice etc are suboptimal, as the fiber and/or fat makes them slow to digest and absorb.  For 30-40 minutes of your day, fat and fiber are bad and sugar is good.

The When
Note that this little trick only works if you've pushed yourself hard enough to deplete your body's glycogen stores.  So your special PWO meal/drink will only be effective if taken immediately after a hard metcon - the harder you worked, the better it will work, and the more immediate the better.  The window is only open for about an hour - after that, your body has returned to business as usual.  This is not to say that nutrition after a Max Effort workout would be bad for you, just that it wouldn't be any different from any other time of the day.

The How
This is not rocket science.  Obtain a portable drink container and/or some tupperware and make it happen, Einstein.  Try it for two weeks and see how you feel.

Personal Observations
For the last month or so, Rebecca and I have been following up our workouts with 16 oz of milk or kefir.  We have both noticed a decrease (not an elimination - this ain't voodoo) in DOMS, and a greater level of energy in our workouts through the week.  It's great stuff.  If you have questions or your own PWO nutrition strategy, please share in the comments.

Note that if your goal is weight loss, you might consider intentionally NOT eating in the hour after a workout.  In the absence of glycogen and and food, the body's response to a difficult workout will be to mobilize fat stores to replenish its immediate energy reserves.  The downside of this, of course, is that you're missing out on the benefits of increased recovery, so you need to be very careful about walking the line between healthy and overtrained - if you push too hard, you'll spike your cortisol and your fat won't be going anywhere.

*As far as I'm aware, there's really no such thing.  Not that any of us would know.

I am not a dietician.  CrossKitchen articles come from my personal experience, observations and research, and should not be construed as professional medical advice.

By Daniel Olmstead

Hi guys! Max has generously agreed to give me weekly space for a feature on nutrition that I'm dubbing "CrossKitchen." It is my intention to use this space to provide you with some of the information that I've picked up in my nutritional research - things like recipes, DIY tips, articles and anything else I can think of to help fuel your fire. If you have any ideas or requests, please let me know! -Daniel

Trimming the Fat

Good weather is just around the corner, and like all good CrossFitters and Rock climbers, we will all soon be stripping down to our skivvies in public at the faintest pretext. It is what we do. But if the long, cold, harsh California winter has left you with an unwanted layer of fat to protect you from the elements, you may be looking to tighten up a little before emerging from your Polartec cave. I'm here to help.

The Number One Rule you must Always Obey

"Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too much." - Michael Pollan

"You can't shit in the tank and expect good mileage." - Coach Glassman

Get used to hearing this, 'cause I'm going to harp on it a lot. If you're into needlepoint, you might want to stitch it up and surround it with little broccoli flowers: EAT REAL FOOD.

Everything else I'm going to go into here is a technique, but this is the bedrock on which it all rests. If you ignore everything else I say, listen to this. It makes all the difference in the world. More on this at a later date.

All diets boil down to two things

All successful diets cover two bases: caloric deficit and hormone control. Most people know all about the first and nothing about the second. OK, yes, it is good to take in a little less than you burn. But it is far more important to keep your insulin in check and to maximize your HGH response. Two advantages of high-fat, low-carb diets is that they increase satiety, thereby causing you to eat less, and they decrease insulin sensitivity, the greatest cause of obesity. If you can keep your insulin and cortisol levels down and your HGH and glucagon levels high, fat should just melt off your body. The trick is figuring out how to do it.

For more information:

Diet Round-up

Here's a quick rundown of the pre-packaged diets that have seen success across the CrossFit community.

The Zone

If there is an official diet of CrossFit, it is the Zone. The basic premise behind it is that if you can eat all your meals in portions of approximately 30% fat, 30% protein and 40% carbohydrates, you will put your body into an optimized performance "zone" that burns fat and builds muscle. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the Zone (I can't be bothered with all the weighing and measuring it requires), but I cannot argue with its record: many athletes around the world have seen appreciable performance gains and fat loss when zoning, and nearly all of the CrossFit superstars (Nicole, Greg A, OPT, etc) zone.

For more information:


Brainchild of Professor Loren Cordain, the basic premise of the Paleo diet is this: humans evolved over many thousands of years on a fairly specific hunter-gatherer diet. The relatively recent advent of agriculture has introduced a whole new generation of foods that our bodies are not "designed" to eat, and which consequently do us harm. Grains and sugar are strictly forbidden, dairy and legumes are discouraged. Basically, if you can't pick it up or chase it down and eat it, you shouldn't. This is probably the second most popular diet among CrossFitters, particularly those who find the Zone fussy (although it should be noted that you can do both Zone and Paleo at the same time - many do).

For more information:

Intermittent Fasting

More philosophy than diet, IF can be boiled down to this: "Eat. Don't eat for a while. Eat." This particular topic is near and dear to my own heart, so (again) I'll go into it in more detail at a later date. But the basic premise is this: occasional fasts of 16-24 hours are highly beneficial to the body in numerous way, including (but not limited to) insulin control, calorie control, increased recovery, performance and mental acuity, etc etc. Fasting means FASTING - nothing with more than 5 calories passes your lips, and intermittent means INTERMITTENT - some folks do it five days a week, some just one, and some whenever they feel like it, but you should definitely not do it all the time. It is possible to do Zone, Paleo AND IF all at once, but at that point I'd start accusing you of being orthorexic, and the mockery would commence.

For more information:

The Anabolic/Ketogenic/Velocity/Warrior/Atkins Diets

There are minor variations among them, but they all follow a consistent theme: by lowering your daily input of carbohydrates to under 30g, you will put your body in ketosis, whereby you are no longer deriving your energy from glucose like the rest of us, but rather from ketones manufactured from fat by your liver. This also has the effect of turning your body's focus to its fat stores for energy, particularly since all that fat and protein you're eating has increased your satiety such that you're on caloric deficit. Some people report remarkable success on these diets, but they seem (to me) to be in the minority. They also tend to be really heavy to begin with. Personally, I think these diets can work well in the short term, but are not very sustainable and tend to kill your metabolic conditioning. There's also a danger of yo-yoing with such an extreme diet. And if you're vegetarian, forget it.

For more information:

Diets that suck

You know this already. Any diet that requires you to buy their branded "food" (ie, slim-fast). Any diet that pushes the old-fashioned high-carb, low-fat philosophy (yeah, ok, it works for some people, but they are few and far between). Any diet that relies on limiting your choices so severely that you could never hit caloric surplus ("I can eat whatever I want, as long as it's pickles and muenster"). Any diet that uses fancy chemistry to bypass food's inherent natures (ie, sugar-free soda, no-carb pasta, etc). Any diet that focuses exclusively on caloric deficit with no regard to hormone control (this can work, but isn't great for athletes). Any diet that promotes starvation.

You are a beautiful snowflake

Everybody is different. What works for me may not be the best option for you. It will take some experimentation and documentation for you to determine your own optimal method of weight loss. Since everyone needs to do it from time to time, and it typically sucks, it's in your best interest to figure out the most efficient method for yourself. That said, here are some tips and tricks from my own experience:

  • Eat real food. Quality trumps quantity.
  • Write it down. Keep a food log. Fitday is an extremely useful tool, but it can be a bit high-maintenance. The easiest thing is to add a food component to your own workout log (you are keeping a workout log, right? RIGHT?). Blogger is free and easy, and if you give us the link we can all leave snarky comments when you break down and eat an entire box of Thin Mints. A notepad and pen is also cheap and easy. Just the simple act of writing down what you eat will make you more aware of what you're putting in your body, which is invaluable.
  • Set reasonable goals. Don't crash diet. It never works. You might knock off ten pounds in one punishing week, but you'll burn yourself out and, in a fit of drunken rebelliousness, gain back twelve pounds in one night of gluttonous self-mutilation. Plus, you'll mainly be losing water, and the elevated cortisol will burn your muscles and kill your performance. I recommend a goal of ONE POUND PER WEEK. It's nice and maintainable, and easy to remember.
  • Find a metric that works for you. If the numbers on the scale send you into a panic of doubt and self-recrimination, don't use them. Get a tape measure and use your waist measurement. Stand in front of a mirror naked, grab your bouncy bits and jump up and down - less jiggle, more better. Learn how to use bodyfat calipers, or get yourself tested.
  • Cheat. You will get out what you put in. If you are 90% strict with your diet, you can expect to reap 90% of the reward. 90% is really, really close to 100%. If that 10% difference is the difference between sticking to it and dropping it for being too hard, I'll take it. When you cheat, cheat hard, but be aware that you're setting the rules aside for this one meal, and get back on the horse when you're done.
My own snowflake story

Before CrossFit, I lost 40 pounds by simply eating less and cycling more. I bottomed out at 12% bodyfat, though, and couldn't get below that for about a year. Ultimately, I found that the following plan works extremely well for me, and can get me below 10% whenever I want it to:

  • A diet that is approximately 50% fat, 30% protein, 20% carbs, ~2500 cal/day
  • Fasting 4-5 times/week, 16-20 hours per fast
  • Morning workouts while fasted:

    • High-intensity intervals (either Sprint-8 or sets of 10 burpees), followed by ~30 minutes of very mild cardio (ie, running at 6mph)
I'd be happy to share more info with anyone who's interested.

Whew! That was a mouthful (so to speak). I hope you found something useful in there - if not, hopefully next week. If you have any questions or notes from your own experience, please share them in the comments.

New Club Records

"Grace" 1:57, 2nd
"Fran" 2:57, 2nd


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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the CrossKitchen category from March 2009.

CrossKitchen: April 2009 is the next archive.

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