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Friend or Foe: Fat and Post-Workout Nutrition

By Bob Seebohar

chicken There has been much confusion among athletes surrounding what to eat after a workout and competition. We know that a combination of carbohydrate, protein, fluid and sodium is important to speed recovery from hard efforts but, other than the traditional post-race pizza party, there hasn’t been much attention to what we do with fat in this “recovery window.” Before we launch into the fat story, it is first important to understand the difference between recovery and post-workout nutrition.

“Recovery” vs. “Post-Workout” Nutrition

The term recovery nutrition has been misinterpreted by some athletes to reflect the food and drink consumed only immediately after training. In fact, the opposite is true. Recovery nutrition starts before a training session begins. Think about that for a moment. If you don’t begin a training session with a full “tank of gas” (carbohydrate stores) then you will develop an even greater carbohydrate deficit by the time you finish a workout. Therefore, it will be much more difficult to “recover” nutritionally and if fact, can take up to 12 hours longer to fill up your carbohydrate tanks again!

The following diagram will explain this concept visually. The solid bars indicate carbohydrate stores (or what I refer to as your “gas tanks”). The striped bars indicate your body’s use of carbohydrate needed for training. As you can see from the first diagram, this athlete follows good daily nutrition principles thereby keeping a full gas tank throughout the day. She uses fuel during training and creates a deficit by the time she finishes training which is normal and expected. However, what is important to note is that she still has over one-half of a tank of gas by the time she finishes her workout. As you can see, she can fully replenish her tank of gas within 12-16 hours. I know this may seem like a long time but wait until you see the next example!

diagram1

This second diagram depicts an athlete who does not have good daily nutrition habits, enters a training session in an already carbohydrate-depleted state and finishes her training with only a quarter of a tank of gas. Both athletes can fill up their carbohydrate tanks but the key difference is that it will take this second athlete up to two times as long!

diagram2

This may not seem that important until you try to do another workout in the next 24 hours. It’s fairly unrealistic to approach every training session with a completely full tank of gas (I mean, life happens, right?) but if you can minimize your fuel loss after a workout by maintaining as full of a tank as possible before the workout, you can refill your tank quicker and have better quality workouts the next day.

The point is that recovery nutrition does not begin immediately after a training session. Recovery nutrition encompasses your daily, during training and after training nutrition. This is why “post-workout” nutrition is a better term used to describe the food and fluid you put in your body immediately after a workout to fill up your carbohydrate and fluid tanks again.

What About Fat?

As I mentioned earlier, carbohydrate, protein, fluid and sodium are crucial nutrients to consume post-workout. But where does fat fit in the plan? Interestingly, there is some new information that links fat to the inflammation response.

Chronic inflammation, which can be caused by injuries, illnesses, poor eating or health habits and exhaustive exercise is detrimental to health as most of us know. What is interesting is that an association can be made between chronic inflammation and performance from the perspective of blood flow dynamics.

The more blood is able to flow more freely throughout the body, the more nutrients are able to be delivered to the muscles and waste products are more efficiently delivered away from the muscles (obviously beneficial for any athlete). When there is injury to the endothelial cells (the cells that line the body’s circulatory system), the inflammation response is initiated and the diameter of the endothelial cells becomes smaller. This produces less blood flow through the circulatory system, which in turn equates into less nutrients being delivered to speed the nutritional recovery from exercise.

This is where the type of fat that you eat becomes important. While there has not been published research on athletes and this topic, there are many detailing the role of different fats on endothelial function and inflammation. The data suggests that trans and saturated fats can actually produce a pro-inflammatory response while unsaturated fats can produce an anti-inflammatory response. It appears that the “super fat” in the case of inducing an anti-inflammatory response is polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3’s.

Practical Application

Currently, there are no specific guidelines for consuming fat after training. In fact, I would not recommend eating much if any fat in the first hour post-workout because it can interfere with carbohydrate absorption. However, if you can simply include more unsaturated, specifically omega-3 fats, throughout the day this will help quench the inflammation response a bit. Focus on eating a healthy portion of the following foods:

  • Tofu
  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Ground flax
  • Walnut oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Salmon
  • Soybeans
  • Halibut
  • Winter squash
  • Pumpkin seeds

The easiest way for most athletes to consume more omega-3 fats is by sprinkling ground flax on salads, pastas, cereal and sandwiches as well as using more omega-3 rich oils. Try to include a healthy portion of fat 90% of the time you eat throughout the day and you will easily consume enough of these performance benefiting fats.

These fats have always been identified as health promoting but now there is good reason that they also can have a positive impact on performance. It is becoming easier and easier to include these types of performance foods in your eating program but start gradually. It’s never a good idea to introduce a large amount of a certain nutrient to your body at one time. Remember, make it simple and you will be more likely to adopt these recommendations into your lifestyle without issue.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as head coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist. He is the current coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.

Bob's new book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, will teach athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body's ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition.  For more information and to order the book, visit www.fuel4mance.com or contact Bob at coachbob@fuel4mance.com

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