Your Workout is Eating You Alive

Note: This is a guest post from Johnny B. Truant, of JohnnyBTruant.com.

I’ve got way too much going on.

iStock 000012265799XSmallFirst of all, I’m a budding endurance athlete. I decided to train for my first marathon last fall, and spent a long Ohio winter clocking runs in the freezing cold before the sun was up.

Second, I’m a seasoned athlete in other fields. I play a few sports when I get the chance; I’m a recreational powerlifter (I’m casually strong but not competition-strong with a max deadlift of 475); I’m a recreational Olympic lifter; I’m getting pretty serious about yoga; I’ve done a lot of Crossfit; I’ve dabbled in crazy stuff like strongman, parkour, and gymnastics.

Third, I’d like to lose a bit of weight — maybe 10-15 pounds. This is my narcissism goal. I’m lean enough now that this represents the fabled “last few pounds,” which are notoriously difficult to banish.

But the trickiest part of this complex amalgam is item number four: I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic.

Training and diet are hard enough by themselves. Add the need to fuel for performance while losing body fat (and add to THAT a desire to balance endurance with strength and to keep blood sugars steady) and pretty soon you’re tracking enough variables that it’s akin to getting a degree in nutritional biochemistry… or perhaps launching a spacecraft.

I’ve got too much going on, but there’s a big upside to all of it.

Diabetes — and the need to check blood sugar and measure insulin doses — means that I can tell when I’m screwing things up. I can tell when I’m taking in too much fuel, or when I’m woefully under-recovering after an activity. These are things that you non-blood-sugar-monitoring nondiabetics may never know.

And guess what? Those things you don’t know are dangerous. The bad things that are happening when you don’t recover properly are dangerous to your workout capacity, to your ratio of lean mass to fat mass, to your energy levels, and even to your health.

But it’s cool. Fortunately, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned as a diabetic with the insulin-producing crowd. I’m cool like that.

A primer in diabetes, blood sugar, diet, and what it means to you

When I started running last fall, weird crap started happening to my blood sugars.

See, exercise is supposed to lower blood sugar. You exercise, your cells need fuel, and so glucose moves from your blood into the cells. Exercise also enhances insulin sensitivity, meaning that less insulin is required to lower blood sugar.

But what actually happened to me was that my sugars would stay down during a run, but then afterward would explode upward and stay there all day, totally resistant to my efforts to lower them.

At the time, I was experimenting with the “Slow-Carb Diet” from Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Body. And why not? It was a fat-loss diet, and its goal is to keep blood sugar levels steady. For nondiabetics, this meant preventing insulin spikes, and for me, it would mean preventing blood sugar spikes that required me to take more insulin. Less blood sugar variability? Win. Less insulin? Win. More fat used for energy and less sugar stored as fat? Win.

And a lot of the time, it was a “win” situation. My blood sugars were rock-solid. I used a lot less insulin. My energy levels felt good, and I spontaneously gave up coffee during the week as an interesting side effect.

But when I went running, it all fell apart.

I couldn’t run for more than a few miles without totally running out of gas. My sugars became erratic throughout the day. After running, I got the blood sugar spikes I’ve mentioned. And, interestingly, I didn’t lose any fat at all. But something was changing in my body composition, and I knew it when my masseuse commented that it did look like I’d lost weight.

“Here,” she said, touching my tricep. “And here,” she added, touching my hamstring.

Muscles. Getting smaller.

Not good.

So I started reading. Calling people, like my doctor. Talking to trainers. I’d fought hard to gain that muscle, and I’ll be damned if I was going to give it up — while keeping my stubborn fat — without a fight. While, by the way, losing control of my blood sugars.

People run marathons and triathlons all the time. I wasn’t willing to stop training. I wanted to know what was happening. and eventually, through trial and error, I did.

Let’s just say this: You know how you hear that you should fuel up before, during, and especially after a workout?

Well, it’s true. It’s very, very true.

How to lose performance and lean tissue

I was doing the Slow-Carb Diet because of its great effects on my blood sugars, so I tried to eat well during non-workout periods and to fuel my workouts where possible with lower-carb sources: vegetables, nuts, maybe beans or hummus. Or, I wouldn’t really eat much at all around workouts. My reasoning was that if I could get through the workout and feel okay, there wasn’t much need for fuel.

But what I realized eventually was that it was this very under-fueling of my workouts that was the reason for the blood sugar spikes.

And I thought: UNDER-fueling is causing SPIKES?

This seemed ridiculous. A rise in blood sugar, in my experience, always came from food. You drink a glass of juice or eat a potato, your blood sugar will spike. You then release (or in my case, inject) insulin to move that sugar somewhere else. Your blood sugar returns to normal; the juice or potato goes into storage, and life goes on.

So if I wasn’t eating much — and particularly not starches and sugars — then where was all of that blood sugar coming from?

Answer: It was coming from me. From my lean mass — exactly the place I didn’t want it coming from.

See, your body won’t simply “do without” the fuel it needs. It also won’t effectively pull calories from your fat stores if you’re out of carbs and sugars (more on that later). So if you’re not fueling up properly and you’re exercising with any real vigor, your body is getting that fuel, and it’s getting it from your lean tissues.

So pay attention, because this is a pretty important point: If you’re not giving your body what it needs to operate effectively, then your workout is eating you alive.

Recovery 101

Most of what follows comes out of The Paleo Diet for Athletes , which I happened upon at our local Barnes & Noble. What was crazy was that through trial and a whole lot of error, I had reached the same conclusions as the authors of the book had. It was as if these guys had stolen all of my findings, but had backed them up with actual science instead of random anecdotes.

(By the way, I’m a meat-eater, so I take Paleo as written. But you can do the Paleo diet as a vegetarian, or you can take the principles from the workout chapters of this book (where the rules change) and ignore the parts that deal with “normal Paleo” and still get the point I’m making here.)

The diet you eat most of the time is up to you. I chose Paleo, but the debate over which diets are healthiest outside of the “workout window” is a discussion for another post. What we care about here is that window.

And here are the three parts of the window:

1. Pre-workout

The goal before you begin is to ensure that your glycogen stores are topped off. In my own experiments, I actually found that (don’t judge me) Pop Tarts worked best. I’ll be changing that habit now that I understand all of this better, but it did the job.

Think carbs, but try to keep them to a few hours before your workout or immediately before. If you have a bunch of carbs in that in-between time, your body will respond with a big insulin spike and cause a bout of low blood sugar, which won’t help you out at all in the energy department.

2. Peri-workout (fancy term for “during”)

I actually nailed this one almost exactly myself through trial and error, but science backed me up. There are variants on how best to refuel during an endurance workout or event for different durations, and The Paleo Diet for Athletes spells them all out. But, in brief:

For workouts under 60-90 minutes, you probably don’t need anything during the workout itself because your glycogen stores will be sufficient to carry you through. So, you can just drink water.

For longer workouts, you’re going to need to try to keep up with your rapidly-depleting glycogen stores by taking in sugars during a workout, preferably in the form of a sports drink. If you don’t, expect a hard bonk when your stores run out.

3. Post-workout

You have about 30 minutes immediately after a long workout in which to give your body the carbs it needs to start refilling your glycogen stores. The authors of that book I keep mentioning recommend 0.75 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, plus around 1/4 as much protein. (You need the protein to repair the muscle you just damaged during your workout.) This “immediate post-workout” nutrition is best consumed in the form of a recovery drink rather than solid food.

In addition, for workouts or events longer than 60-90 minutes and up to four hours long, spend as much time feeding recovery as the workout lasted. So if you ran for three hours, you’d have your immediate recovery drink in the 30 minutes right after you finished, and then generally carb-up and replenish protein for an additional 2.5 hours.

I didn’t use this level of precision originally. When I was figuring this stuff out on my own, I just ate a bunch of normally forbidden foods (and took a lot of insulin) afterward because I was so hungry. What I found was totally consistent with this idea of a window in which you’re just tossing everything into the creation of new glycogen, though.

After a long run (2 hours or more), I could essentially do no wrong as far as blood sugar was concerned for a few hours after finishing running. It was like I had a buffer. Instead of playing that delicate balancing game of matching incoming starch and sugar with insulin, it was as if all those carbs just vanished and didn’t spike my blood sugar at all.

And of course, it turns out that that’s exactly what was happening. I was refilling glycogen stores. Why would those carbs hang out in my blood? They had places to go.

So that’s what you do.

But here’s why you need to do it.

Carbs = good

See, I eventually stumbled and flailed to the conclusion that for me as a diabetic, I could and should do some form of low-sugar, low-starchy carbs diet (at the time Slow-Carb, today Paleo), but that I’d need to break the rules of that diet during the times surrounding long endurance workouts.

Once I figured this out and started fueling properly before, during, and after my runs, all of my issues went away. I no longer had the blood sugar spikes and my workouts felt great.

The problem I had with Slow-Carb was that it’s a diet meant for people who want to lose weight without having to exercise. Ditto the normal version of Paleo, and ditto most low-carb diet books and plans.

But there’s more. These diets are designed to help people lose weight without exercising, but the P.S. is that too much exercise will work against them.

Here’s what I mean:

The thought behind lower-carb plans is: Deprive the body of dietary glucose, and it will turn to fat as a source of energy.

But we’re endurance athletes. And the truth for us is: The body needs glucose to function during exercise (under most circumstances).

For me — and for anyone who wants to avoid the carb roller coaster while still fueling workouts — the trick is to find a way to combine the blood-sugar-equalizing benefits of lower-carb diets with the higher-carb needs of an athlete.

Hang on tight. This is where things start to get geeky.

The science

If you’re taking in adequate carbs in your diet, your body will store dietary glucose in reserve as glycogen until your glycogen stores are full. You might have 1500 to 2000 calories stored this way, and all of that energy is ready for use when you need it during a workout session. If your session is short and if you begin fully loaded up on glycogen, you will have sufficient glycogen to fuel you during the workout. If your workout is long, you will eventually run out. And if your reserves are low to begin with, you run out very fast — which is what happens if your diet is one intended to deplete glycogen stores (like most low-carb diets).

When you run out of glycogen, you bonk.

When this happens, your body will try to burn fat for fuel. The problem is that this process is slow and inefficient, and also doesn’t work right when you’re totally glycogen-depleted. There’s a saying that goes “fat burns in a carbohydrate fire,” which means that you can only efficiently use fat for fuel if it’s being used in addition to glucose from glycogen.

But if you don’t bonk?

Then, by the end of a workout exceeding 60-90 minutes, you’re pretty glycogen-depleted. As soon as you stop moving and rest, your body scrambles to recover, to make repairs, and to refill those glycogen stores. So it needs carbs, stat. If you don’t provide them, it’s going to start taking them from wherever it can. (This was the source of my huge glucose spikes. Diabetics, who self-administer insulin, simply can’t control one of these panic glucose-producing spikes the way a nondiabetic can.)

If you want to perform well as an endurance athlete, establish and keep a favorable body composition, and be able to recover fully between workouts so that you don’t burn out, your goal should be to top off glycogen stores and to keep them topped off until you need them.

But, over-eating starchy carbs does seem to be a sure-fire recipe for fat gain, so the trick is to get in and get out. Refill the carb stores at the right time, then back off.

But… is it REALLY necessary?

Can you get away without optimal recovery nutrition? Sure. People do it all the time, and that’s part of the problem.

If you can’t see what’s happening (say, by uncoupling the sugar-insulin hormonal connection and having to do it all manually, like I do), you’ll feel as if most of the time, you sail through fine. You’ll feel okay, and you’ll have done the run. You won’t know what’s happening inside. You won’t know that you’re robbing lean tissue to try and recover, and you won’t know that you’re less than repaired when your next session rolls around.

If you don’t recover properly, you’ll be spent when you begin your next workout. Eventually, you’ll suffer performance declines and burnout. You’ll lose muscle to waste that you’d do better keeping. You’ll run on fumes when you could be sailing.

I’m lucky. When I tried to cheat on recovery, I got immediate feedback in the form of out-of-control blood sugars. You might not have that feedback… but trust me, the damage is there.

Questions? Comments? Let’s hear ‘em! (People are always asking me about business and marketing, so I’d love a chance to discuss this stuff for a change.)

Johnny B. Truant is the creator of The Badass Project and runs JohnnyBTruant.com, where he sometimes writes posts that are vaguely about running.

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Comments

  1. Do you have specific suggestions for post-workout drinks, whether recipes or commercial products? I’m horrible about fueling– I’m okay before, if I’m running more than an hour I’ll bring some raisins but I don’t drink water, and I’m usually not hungry at all after I run and won’t eat at all, or not until much later.

    I want to be better– really, I do– but I really need to work at it.

    • Fruit smoothies. Simple ones with 2-3 ingredients work best since they’re the easiest to digest and assimilate. My favorite is bananas, mangoes and dates. You can add protein powder or other fixins if you like.

    • Totally agree with Ben. After a 2 hour hard bike ride (or run if I hadn’t gotten injured – damn stress fracture), I’m flat-out doing what the authors of that book said, and it’s this:

      3 cups of fruit juice
      5 Tbsp. of glucose/dextrose
      1-2 cups of fruit (I use blueberries)
      Protein powder sufficient for 30g protein
      Pinch of salt

      Blend well. (BTW, this is for my size, which is just shy of 200 lbs. Smaller people would have less.)

      That drink scares the hell out of me. It’s WAY more carbs than I ever have at once, and as a diabetic it’s downright freaky. But my blood sugar does not get out of control, and I seem fully recovered for my next workout.

      The above is for that first 30-minute window. I’d then eat more in my remaining 90 minutes of recovery.

      • Johnny, just wanted to say, my negative comments towards paleo weren’t directed at you. I think this was a great post and it’s very cool you are experimenting and trying to find what works for you. I especially applaud you being able to do all this while being diabetic (I’m assuming type 1).

        • Oh, I didn’t take it that way at all. And I didn’t figure Paleo would be popular here, so that’s why I thought people could just take the stuff around training and leave the rest.

          Yes, Type 1. Meaning that I can’t get rid of it through lifestyle choices like a lot of Type 2s can. Strength and the like were never hard, but endurance has proven to take some figuring!

  2. Yep, carbs are king for endurance and recovery. Sugar, water sleep. Simple carbohydrates for recovery, IMO fruit is best. I think the major shortcoming to the Paleo/Primal diets is the rampant carb phobia, like Mark Sisson limiting himself to 150g carbs per day. Surefire way to force you towards overcompensating with stimulants like coffee and inducing adrenal burnout (and therefore fat gain from stress) in the long run.

    I know this book takes a lot of sh*t but Doug Graham totally nails it in the 80/10/10 diet. Human cells run on glucose. They can convert into glycogen and store it. Eat fruit. It’s the natural best form of glucose and fructose. I just nommed down nearly a pound of raspberries writing this comment.

    http://www.foodnsport.com
    http://www.30bananasaday.com

    • As a diabetic, I’m getting great results with the hybrid approach. I eat much more and a much higher carb percentage around workouts, but then am very Primal/Paleo the rest of the time. Seems pretty awesome.

    • I love that you can reference both the Paleo Diet for Athletes and the 80/10/10 diet in the same post. Shows me that you have a very open mind and are determined to find what works best, regardless of labels and pre-conceived notions. I will be applying your pre/during/post workout fueling tips immediately!

      • Thanks, although my knowledge of Paleo is limited to articles I’ve read on the internet. Please don’t assume I’m an expert! I think I’ve got the gist of of Paleo, but I could be wrong. Definitely the more I read elsewhere I agree on the toxicity of grains and the idea of minimizing/eliminating them. So I agree with about half of it, but heavily disagree with the other half. I’ve been meaning to read a book or two on Paleo just so I know the full story. But reading a book about a meat-heavy diet is kind of a turn off since I’m a long time vegetarian, recently vegan.

    • yay, another 30bader!

      i’m off to get in a bike ride, and then have my breakfast of choice: 1500 calories worth of bananas and dates. high fruit = high voltage lifestyle.

  3. Damn, this is good. Thanks for sharing these insights from your trials, JBT. I always love hearing about your fitness pursuits and experiments.

    I’ll be educating myself much deeper on the Paleo Diet now.

    • Cool, Dustin… glad you liked it. I’ve found Paleo to take some getting-used-to, and I’m eating a lot of salads as my defaults. But I really like the way it’s affecting my blood sugars and the way I feel/perform.

      I’ll add that giving myself permission to eat carbs after a workout provides a nice little “cheat valve” that I didn’t have before. If you miss starches on Paleo, you can get plenty of them around training if your workout is long enough.

  4. BINGO! I love love love this blog. I’m a triathlete who used to crash and burn after every ride I did. Sugar crash and yes, an occasional fall on the bike :P. Then I started eating like crazy on the bike. Gu, Hammer Gel, Infinit, potatoes, and mini-sandwiches of almond butter and jelly on white bread. No more sugar crashing. And I ended up gaining about 5 pounds which I truly believe to be muscle since I can now cycle about 2 mph faster than I was just 6 months ago. Eating prior to a swim is hard for me…I still haven’t found anything that prevents me from bonking and doesn’t upset my stomach. I hate to eat more gels…but I guess I might have to.

    • I think I’d try getting your glycogen topped off by eating a full, slightly starchy meal 2-3 hour prior to the race… or going with a quick carb RIGHT before you start (like in the 10 minutes prior). Of course, if you go that way and you’re getting stomach upset, it may have to be gels or a sports drink…

      • I tried Honey Waffle Stingers before my Friday night swim and they worked really well. Thanks for all you do!

    • i’d suggest dates blended with water. i’ve found it to be the only thing i can digest easily before and during a swim (i don’t do processed gels). it’s easy to drink it down on the way to the pool or just keep a bottle of it poolside.

  5. Johnny, appreciate your post. I’ve been doing Crossfit and eating Paleo 80/20 for 3 months now. Before that, purely running. During this period, I’ve found my body lagging post-WOD. That’s not to say I haven’t been getting stronger. In fact, my strength has doubled in 3 short months. However, it’s been difficult finding energy to go out and run as often as I did pre-Crossfit. This has led me to cheat on my diet on more than one occasion (carbs, carbs, carbs), but I started the Whole30 program this week to make a permanent change once and for all. I ran my first 50K this past month as well and plan to run more ultras later this year. Given that I’m doing Crossfit 5-6 times/week (which I don’t want to cut down on) and want to stick to eating Paleo, I’m afraid that my running is going to suffer. How would you recommend I compromise? Would I have to cut back on CrossFit or be less strict regarding my diet to accomodate increased mileage? It’s not easy forcing your body to go out and run after a tough early morning WOD. I know you mentioned The Paleo Diet for Athletes. Worth reading or same old information? Thanks!

    • Well, everyone’s different. CF is HARD, and metabolically intense, and I know a lot of people recommend going to 3 WODs or so when doing endurance at the same time. I don’t know if I’d be able to do 6 plus endurance. But your results may differ, and I’m pretty sure people do what you’re doing, too.

      One thing I noticed was that when I did “Fran” recently, I figured, “That’s a really, really short workout. No way I need to refuel much after that.” I was wrong. My blood sugar shot down and wanted to stay down all day, meaning I was getting a hell of an “afterburn” on it. I’ve since read that such intense metabolic work saps your glycogen like nobody’s business. In other words, CF or other metcon workout may be the exception to the rule – you may need to go starchier than usual after CF, etc. than you’d think given how short they are. (i.e., you normally only consider yourself really depleted after a LONG endurance workout.)

      I’ve been treating WODs like sub-90-minute endurance workouts — meaning that I’m not doing a long, sustained carb-up afterward, but am not being afraid of eating a lot of starch immediately after, within the 30-minute window. (It could mean a quick, sugary post-workout drink, but I’ve just been going to Chipotle and NOT having them omit the rice as I normally do.)

      I should probably add at this point that I’m not a doctor or anything. I’m just a guy who’s read a lot on this stuff because I had to thanks to my fun self-experiments.

      Oh, and that book is totally worth getting IMO. It revolutionized the way I thought about the combination of low-carb + endurance exercise.

      • Even as a vegan, I’d still recommend Paleo Diet for Athletes, if only for the section about nutrition around workouts (which is very much veg-friendly). It’s some of the best info I’ve found, very specific and it covers events and workouts of a wide range of durations. And I found the rest of it interesting, but it was my first introduction to Paleo so I can’t say whether it’s the “same old information” or not.

  6. I can not tell you how many DR.’s I have seen, money I have spent, books I have read trying to give me all the reasons you have listed as to why I can not figure out my nutrition while exercising. I have lost so much muscle, I am depleted. I always lose weight when I have an event I am training for, and it is not a good weight to lose. I know I am unhealthier at the end of it, because I dont know what my body needs. This is going to help me. I have written these formulas down, and have a Half Marathon in the morning, so I am going to refuel with the stats you listed, using a recovery drink and some recipes from Thrive that can get ME the proper nutrition for what my weight and race time is.

    Thank you, thank you….THANK YOU!!!

    • You’re welcome!

      Matt asked why I wrote this post… he said, “What could possibly be your reason [as a meat-eating marketing guy] for taking the time to write a post this involved for a vegetarian running site?” My answer was that it took me sooooo long to figure this out that I wanted to share what I’d learned with other people who might be in my bind.

      For me, it’s taken getting over a large fear of carbs. Especially as a diabetic, I’ve learned to be wary of too many carbs, and my immediate-post-workout drink has 150 grams! And then on top of that, I’m supposed to keep going and keep going… it’s crazy.

      Even my doctor didn’t know the answer to this. He was the one who told me to eat something after and to NOT shut off my insulin (I tend to go low during a run, and eating more/using less insulin are both normally okay choices when you go low), but I had to figure out the rest on my own.

  7. great post!! i’m a triathlete and like some others, i’ve done the low carb thing and not refuelling properly after workouts. i couldn’t understand why the harder i pushed myself, the more muscle i lost and the more fat i gained. it wasn’t until i paid attention to getting carbs in during that crucial recovery window that i really started to notice muscle gain and no longer feeling flat and drained the day after hard/long workouts. now i make quick refuelling (and staying on top of my nutrition during workouts) a priority.

    • Yeah, in my experience, respecting that window is really the most important thing you can do. And the great thing about it is that it’s the one time when a lot of food that’s ordinarily “junk” is pretty good for you: white rice and bread, for example, are better than brown or wheat, and obviously sugar is one of the keys during this time.

      • That’s exactly what I noticed and exploited, too. I came to Paleo from Tim Ferriss’s “Slow Carb” diet, and what I liked most about that was that there’s a full cheat day… so I didn’t want to move away from the capability to cheat. But that window lets me do it, so I don’t feel deprived.

  8. Thanks for that, great info. As a Type 1 and a fairly new runner this stuff is gold. You just can’t go past people’s personal experiences relating to Type 1 – might not work for everyone the same but gives a damn good place to start. Cheers Johnny.

    • Thanks man. What got me was that I figured I could just keep decreasing insulin because the exercise was doing the job of BG lowering for me. What I missed was that if there’s NO insulin, then NO glucose can get to the cells… and they really need it.

      On long runs and rides, I now lower my basal rates (I use a pump) to 30% of normal. And then I take insulin boluses as needed when I drink Gatorade, etc.

      I also take the large insulin bolus that will deal with the post-workout carb surge about 10-15 minutes before I’m done so that the insulin has time to work, and hence that my BG doesn’t spike much. (Natural insulin works almost instantly; injected insulin has a lag.) But I’ll only do that when I know there’s no chance I’ll get lost or something at the end… it would suck to have taken that much insulin and then not get the carbs!

      Doing this, typically, I can keep my blood sugar below 125 or so even while ingesting HUGE amounts of carbs. Which is flat-out amazing to me.

  9. It’s a reali helpful post. I’ve just started to do Slow-Carb diet but am also confused about fueling pre- and post-workout. Doing indoor cycling (around 45 minutes; high intensity) almost everyday, I experimented doing so empty stomach in which I survived the training but died the next day versus eating 20g of dried mulberries an hour before training which made me feel superhuman…… (FYI: I’m 21-year-old petite woman)

    One thing I’m not sure is the time for post-fueling as Tim said it takes at least an hour and a half (for solid)/ 40 mintues (for liquid) to get into your body, isn’t violate the “30-minutes window”? Should I get my protein shake before my iron-pumping session instead??

    • I don’t know… it’s possible that the “30 minute window” takes that into account, meaning that even if it takes longer for the sugars to get where they need to go, the window is technically longer and just stated in terms of “consumption time.” But again, I don’t know.

      I do know that Slow-Carb is NOT meant for us, though. Tim is an exercise minimalist, and he’s always talking about the minimum effective dose, which in the case of Slow Carb is very brief HIT training, sprints, and metabolic work like Crossfit. So if you want to train for endurance, that’s not really the diet to follow… at least, as written.

  10. Wow! Thanks for posting this. I have been on a blood sugar roller coaster for the last year. I had lost 70 pounds in a little over 2 years, but as I got closer and closer to my goal I felt like it wasn’t coming off fast enough. In an effort to speed up the process I had almost totally cut out the carbs that had helped me fuel up and complete my workouts. Not only did I not lose any more weight…I started gaining and my composition started changing and I was hungry all.the.time! Just about 2 months ago I started eating carbs again even though in my head I was thinking “this will never work!” And sure enough it is. I feel like myself again. Anyway…this post really confirms what it took me a year to figure out :)

    • That’s exactly what happens with me! I’m like, “Why are these last pounds so stubborn? I’m doing everything I can!” And so I was freaked out about the carbs, but what the hell… nothing else was working.

  11. Johnny, thanks for the great post. I appreciate the help in making sense of all of this! I have the Paleo Diet for Athletes but I am new to this and got a little overwhelmed with all the info. You made it so simple and right now I am enjoying a post-workout smoothie after a 5 mile trail run.

    Matt, I appreciate how you offer so many viewpoints on your blog – I started following you when I was experimenting with vegetarianism but have since added meat back into my diet. I try to just eat whole foods and not worry about the label I put on my diet. I continue to follow your blog because it is balanced and offers so much great info. Keep up the great work – it is VERY appreciated.

  12. Thank you for the great information. I am never hungry after my long runs, so I don’t end up eating until hours later. I have known about the window for food, but never understood why and what kind of foods were best. Now I know better!

  13. Thanks Johnny, and Matt for bring in this guest post. I am an ex-competitive olympic weightlifter, and for strength training I seemed to find a diet that worked for me. Now though, I’m all yoga during the week, and then long hikes (9-12 hrs with decent elevation gain) on the weekends. I’ve been having a heck of a time fueling my hikes, and recovery has been poor (feel like I’ve been hit by a bus for a few days after). I’ll be pouring through this post carefully to extract your info. My big challenge I think is eating to accommodate my lower activity during the week, and then timing the ramp up to have enough stores for the hike.

    Are you suggesting that for a Saturday hike, I don’t need to ramp up Friday? Just eat a bigger carb breakfast and then get the right food during the hike?

    • My understanding is that at low intensities (50-55% of max HR and below), fat is sufficient to fuel you… meaning that you wouldn’t need to do any carbing up at all. But every person is different, so don’t go with dogma… go with what works for you!

  14. I have lost fifty pounds over the last 12-16 months. (Picture proof on my blog) I lost this through running and juicing.

    The interesting thing was I did not lose so much weight when I was training for my half but after the half the weight fell off. I put this down to the fact that I realised I had to hit the carbs during my half marathon training but eased off them when I was out of training.

  15. My simple question is this. Say you’re monitoring your total calorie intake for the day and you have your meals planned out . . . or they’re just predictable that you’ve got some good homeostasis going on.

    If I run a few hours after breakfast and right before lunch, does my standard lunch count as post-workout recovery? Or do I need to think more along the lines of recovery carbs + regular lunch? Anyone have thoughts?

    • What I do (and I’m not saying it’s correct, but it’s what I do) is to just eat that next meal, but make sure it’s carb-rich. I personally wouldn’t worry a ton about it as long as my lunch had a lot of fast carbs in it.

      For a while, I was actually going to McDonald’s after my longest runs and eating two whole breakfasts. Healthy? Probably not. But it did work well.

      But now that I know more, I’d probably NOT have much fat during that first half hour and would focus on carbs/protein. Fat slows down the entry of sugars into the body, and you don’t want that during the first half hour or so.

      • The McDonald’s thing raises and interesting question. Like there’s a guy now who is training for a marathon on an entirely McDonald’s-based diet, and he’s pretty fast too (definitely sub-3 hour). So he’s making a point that McDonald’s works for short-term training, but probably doing a lot of harm by giving people another reason to think McDonald’s is okay.

        The interesting thing is that this type of junk food seems to work really well for refueling (and in my own experience I’ve noticed that fries and Coke are like miracle foods during an ultramarathon). So it makes me wonder how harmful it is, long term, to refuel this way, (even just talking about something with tons of sugar like Gatorade) if your body is obviously benefiting in the short term and recovering well and (perhaps) using up all the bad stuff.

        • For what it’s worth, I was commenting to my wife last night that the recovery window seems for me to create a “black hole” for nutrients of all kinds. Here’s what I mean:

          Normally, if I eat fat/starch combo foods (like McDonald’s, but normal-crust pizza is by far the worst), I go through a blood sugar roller coaster for HOURS afterward. I’ve learned not to eat pizza at night unless I want to be up all night fighting both highs and lows. You’ll think you have a meal like those covered (three hours after eating it, blood sugars will be back to normal), and then it’ll spike inexplicably. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to chaos. Totally and completely unpredictable, for like 8 hours sometimes.

          But if I eat those foods during a recovery window, it’s like everything in them gets “sucked down” — hence my black hole analogy. For two hours after a 2-hour run or bike session, I can eat McDonald’s, pizza, a huge-ass pot pie, etc… and it just vanishes. My blood sugars remain flat (not even a big post-eating spike, which is the LEAST you’d expect) and I don’t get that unpredictability.

          I don’t understand the full scientific explanation, but that’s what I’ve observed.

  16. Read a little book called, “Nutrient Timing”. It goes into this in depth. It’s great.

    -matt

    • Couldn’t agree more. Johnny has given a great breakdown of that general theory. Dr. John Berardi from Precision Nutrition has famously said that there isn’t necessarily good and bad foods, just good and bad times to eat them.

      I would also suggest that recovery and workout nutrition isn’t solely about the duration of the workout. More importantly is the intensity. If you’re walking for 90 minutes you won’t need any recovery nutrition. But if you exercise at 180% of your VO2 max (yes, it’s possible to exercise at intensities way beyond your max for short periods of time) then you may only need to clock 5 minutes of exercise to warrant sufficient recovery nutrition. It’s all about what your body uses for fuel. The higher the intensity, the greater the reliance on glycogen.

      Well written, Johnny, I liked the self experiments you’ve gone through.

      • Thanks Collin; I hadn’t heard that quote from Berardi, but it makes total sense and JB is the man.

        As to intensity, the assumption I made and the assumption that I believe the authors of The Paleo Diet for Athletes make is that we’re talking about the “sweet spot” for cardio endurance, which seems to be 70-80% of your max HR or thereabouts. Sustained 80-90% efforts in a distance event/workout are probably going to put you into an anaerobic physiology and a whole new set of refueling rules apply. Low intensities like the kind Stu Mittleman talks about for pure fat burning (i.e. no sugar-related refueling) are closer to 50%.

        So yeah, lower intensities don’t need this kind of refuel even if they’re long… but what you said about short, very hard efforts was interesting too, because I noticed that a particularly brutal CrossFit workout seemed to deplete me pretty heavily — even though it had only lasted 10 minutes. I’m still wary of a full, super-carb refuel after a 10-minute workout, but I did carb up some… and hell, who knows? Maybe I should have carbed up more.

        • Ahh true, the article was more generated to the endurance athlete and you’re spot on for those numbers.

          I’ll tell you, the short-duration, high-intensity workouts are something else! I was involved in the exercise and nutrition research lab at my university, the same one where JB earned his PhD, and we were doing a lot of testing on SIT (sprint interval training).

          One study I was involved in compared endurance exercise (30 – 60 min; ~70% VO2 max) to SIT (30s all-out sprint followed by 4 min rest; repeat 4 – 6 times). Over the course of 6 weeks of training, the endurance group exercised for 13.5 hours and the SIT group for a total of 45 minutes (not including rest).
          At the end of the study, our VO2, body composition, 2km time trial, and anaerobic capacity was measured. This is the interesting part: the SIT group had better body composition improvements and similar improvements in all other categories!

          Follow-up studies were starting to be done to study the blood work during SIT but I graduated and didn’t see the results of those.

          So I know what you mean: it’s hard to stuff yourself full of carbs after only 5 minutes of exercise, but hey, clearly there’s some major physiological disturbances happening there!

          • Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me at all. (Although it’s funny to see “SIT,” because it tells me someone has a copyright. We called the exact same thing “HIIT,” for “high-intensity interval training, with the intervals pretty much always being sprints.

            I’m not really in endurance for my health or body comp, to be honest. I fully believe that that can be done with far less hours and sustained effort. I’m in it because I currently enjoy it.

            But you know the adage, right? The body comp guys (lifters and specifically bodybuilders) say to look at the bodies of sprinters vs. distance runners… and for the muscle guys, they always say they’d rather look like the sprinters. :)

          • The thing about that last part though is that it’s muddied by the fact that many sprinters are sprinters because their body composition dictated that, not the other way around. Same with marathoners. And lots of people swim because they want “a swimmer’s body,” which is sort of flawed logic.

          • True, and I remember Ferriss mentioning that in 4HB, and it makes sense. But like anything, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Sustained cardio is catabolic by nature, whereas sprints trigger anabolic hormones. So I guess the middleground is that sprints don’t tend to make muscular folks break down, and endurance doesn’t tend to cause marathoners to bulk up.

    • Thanks Matt, I’ll check that out. Never heard of it before but I like the way you approach things scientifically so I bet I’ll like this book.

  17. This was an amazing insight.

  18. Thank you for this post. I’ve been struggling so much ever since I went from happy-go-lucky runs to setting goals and feeling frustrated whenever I hit another bump (usually in the form of injury). It’s great to read about your experiments/conclusions and it motivates me to do some trial and error myself.

  19. Thanks for writing this. As a fellow Type I diabetic, it’s good to see that my body isn’t the only one that sometimes does weird things after a workout. A couple of questions:

    1. Do you adjust your insulin levels before or after a workout? I use an insulin pump, and my routine is usually to lower my basal rate by about 30% before I go on a bike ride (my main form of exercise), as well as eat a bunch of carbs to raise my blood sugar. I purposely don’t correct for the carbs, as my blood sugar is typically back in the normal range by the time I’m done. Is this a good idea?

    2. As a diabetic, are you aware of any reason why it would be a bad idea to use a whey protein supplement post-workout to aid in recovery? My current post-workout routine is pretty terrible, I think. I generally go for a bike ride around 5 p.m. after work, and when I’m done (a little after 6), all I do is drink some water, stretch, and take a shower. I then eat dinner around 7. I’m wary of using a protein supplement afterwards to aid in recovery because I don’t know if it could negatively affect me in some way (liver function, etc.). I keep tight control of my blood sugar, and my A1C is usually pretty good, but I don’t know if a protein supplement could be detrimental. I plan on asking my endocrinologist next time I have an appointment since everyone is different, but I’d like to hear another diabetic’s view as well. And for reference, if it makes a difference, I’m a male, 5’11”, about 160 lbs.

    Thanks again for the insight.

    • Hey Brian,

      So, first of all, let’s be clear that I’m not a doctor. I can speak from my experience but don’t go taking anything I say as gospel.

      1. If I’m going to do a moderately hard workout, I’ll usually lower my basal TO (not BY) 30-40% of normal for the duration of the workout and typically a bit before and after. I consume carbs during workouts (Gatorade) if the workout is over 1.5 hours or so but nothing during if it’s less, unless my blood sugar goes low and I need it. For after, I do what’s in the article. What you’re doing sounds acceptable to me.

      2. Ask your doctor, but I vote you should definitely have protein afterward. After a workout, if you don’t have some protein (and some carbs), your body will repair itself by robbing from your muscle mass. It needs the protein, so if you don’t give it protein, it’ll come from your lean mass.

      Hope that helps!

  20. Wish I’d read this at the beginning of this year when I started training! I can only imagine how much more I could have gotten out of some of those workouts. I’ve definitely improved my nutrition regime over the course of a year of intense training, though!

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  2. [...] Meat Athlete featured a guest post from Johnny B Truant that really digs into the physiology of exercise science and how it affects your body chemistry – I learned [...]

  3. [...] For recovery meals after endurance-based exercise, this was ideal with a high carb content. As is, this has a 1:5 protein:carb ratio, but enjoy it with a glass of soy milk for an overall [...]

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