Balancing the stress response to high intensity exercise is a central strategy to ensure adequate exercise recovery and to reach new heights of performance.
As I’ve discussed previously, keeping your stress hormones in balance will help prevent exercise-induced hormone imbalances, lean muscle wasting, and poor healing of muscles and connective tissues.
So how can we actually keep our stress hormones in balance?
Can it really be achieved by a few changes in the foods we eat and when we eat them?
With my one-on-one patients, I add personalized supplement regimens to the list, focusing on botanicals and products that yield wide-reaching performance support. I choose those that most closely address the deeper imbalances in stress, inflammation, and hormones. I stay way from overly targeted aims until the larger pieces are in place.
And, what are those larger pieces?
In this last part of the series, I am going to give you some of those larger guidelines to take to your pre and post-workout regimen. The first set of guidelines addresses lifestyle recommendations to level out general spikes in stress hormones. The second set detail how to time certain types of food at set periods to level out spikes of hormones as it applies to your workout schedule.
Lifestyle Recommendations to Reduce Stress:
- Consume caffeine carefully. Your body builds a tolerance to caffeine rather quickly. The latest research on caffeine and exercise supports a 7-10 day fast from all caffeine and consuming only 1-2 cups on the day of your athletic event.Chronic consumption greater than 6-8oz/day can drive hidden stress hormone imbalances that can account for disturbances you may be having in your training & overall health. Be mindful of caffeinated gels and sports drinks.
- Try guided meditation and/or deep breathing exercises 1-2 times per day:Deep breathing and meditation have some of the strongest research support of any other modality known to man, but can sometimes be the least practical to implement. I would love to see these techniques tested among the most advanced drugs or nutritional supplements on the market.But instead of waiting to see the results of that research, it doesn’t hurt to take some time to practice deep breathing, guided meditation, or just 10 minutes of quiet time that you give yourself during the time of the day that your brain has the most difficulty concentrating. For me, that time period is “siesta time” around 1pm-3pm,Sometimes the most effective approaches are the simplest.
- You must eat to fuel metabolism.Think of your metabolism like a fireplace. In order to keep a fire burning strongly you need to keep adding fuel. The more complex the fuel, the longer it will burn and vice versa.When you exercise at a high intensity or at excessive duration, timing of your snacks and meals is just as important as the composition of your snacks and meals.Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking, and then eat a small snack at least every 2-3 hours to keep your blood sugar stable, giving your adrenals a break from your blood sugar dropping too low.
- Eat within Carbohydrate Tolerance:If you feel tired after eating, or are still hungry or craving dessert 20 minutes after eating, it is likely that you have exceeded your ability to process carbohydrates.Triathletes and endurance athletes (events lasting more than 1.5 hours) have much more carbohydrate needs than others, but save your most carbohydrate-laden meals for following your workout and build a self-awareness as to how many carbohydrates your body needs to maintain its glycogen stores.
Matching Meal Composition with Time of Exercise
Once you’ve established an eating program that meets the criteria listed above, it’s time to worry about meal composition and timing together. For athletes, meal timing is just as important as meal composition.
Because more complex foods will sit in your gut and take longer to digest, the last thing you want is for them to be sitting there when you’re lining up at the starting line for your race.
Your meals can be more complex the further away from racetime you are, and must be more simple the closer you are to the starting gun. You will also find that the periods immediately before and after a race are the most critical.
Here are some general guidelines as to the types of foods to eat as categorized by pre/post workout timing. These will vary somewhat considerably depending body size so recognize that these are general rules of thumb.
It is also important to note that at higher intensities and more elite performance levels, your ability to digest tough foods can be suppressed. This is where commercial products can be of some use for you, particularly when you get to a half-marathon distance and above.
3 Hours Before:
Regular size meal, complex carbs, broccoli, leafy greens, cauliflower, beef/pork/chicken/lamb, etc (up to 600 calories)
2 Hours Before:
Smaller meal, moderate protein (size of palm serving), choose fish and chicken over beef, pork, and lamb as they are slightly easier to digest. Choose soft vegetables, berries, lower fiber foods. (up to 400 calories)
1.5 Hours Before (150-200 calories):
Keep carbs to more fibrous fruit like berries, apples, carrots, and avocados. Some nuts or a protein bar may be sufficient, but some brands and formulations are more difficult to digest than others, so it is important not to try anything dramatically new on the day of an important race.
You can also eat easy-to-digest root vegetables like parsnips, carrots & rutabagas but you want to keep them to moderate servings.
1 Hour Before (100 calories):
Stick to medium & higher glycemic foods that are easy to digest and absorb quickly. Some examples are 1/2 banana, a small serving of pineapple, peeled apples, a small sweet potato, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, 1/4th of an avocado. Also stay away from heavy foods, especially those containing butter or dairy.
20-30 minutes Before:
No carbohydrates – this is a window you want to be extremely careful about what you eat. If you eat carbohydrates, you get a spike of insulin release right when you’re getting ready to start your race!
Instead, sometimes 1/4 of a protein shake (5-10g/protein) can be squeezed in here.
10 minutes or less:
Stick to extremely easy-to-digest foods and commercial gels. For example, liquid carbohydrates such as some sips of Gatorade, Accelerade gel, a tablespoon of honey, or agave are good options.
When you time these carbohydrates appropriately, your body will not get a chance to spike an insulin response. This is because you will blow through your muscle and glycogen reserves and be able to use the extra carbohydrate before your body is triggered to store it. You will be burning glucose rather than storing it.
Post Workout Nutrition
Within 20-30 minutes After (MOST IMPORTANT):
Focus on high glycemic index fruits such as kiwi, banana, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, additionally dates, pineapples, and apples. You do not necessarily need to turn to commercial recovery shakes and gels, but for marathons and half-ironman races, you may need to consider commercial options.
In addition to the carbohydrates, add an easy-to-digest protein, you want to have a ratio of 4-5g carbs per 1 g protein (Accelerade powder is one of the few recovery shakes that fits this). There are also companies out there that will custom design a powder for you with the array of nutrients you want.
1-2 hours After (extended recovery):
This is typically your largest meal of the day. May not be needed for short intense workouts, but this is where the beef, chicken, fish, (as well as beans, nuts, and legumes for vegetarian athletes) and some harder to digest and high fiber sources of carbs like raisins and starchy vegetables like carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, sweet potatoes and turnips, and salad greens can be eaten to ensure carbohydrate recovery is achieved.
Don’t be afraid to eat, your body is primed for repair!
3+ hours After:
Transition to normal “slow-carb” eating. For me, this is liberal quantities of vegetables, moderate fruit intake, and focusing on low glycemic foods – those foods that are less likely to spike your sugar levels to unnecessary levels.
For breakfast, I might eat a spinach omelet, for lunch a large salad with some grilled chicken mixed in, and for dinner, a plate full of sauteed vegetables and a piece of fish or chicken. For snacks, I’ll choose a handful of nuts with a few raisins, a piece of fruit like an apple, or celery with almond butter, and generally, save the majority of my richer carb sources for that 2-hour window of time after my workouts.