One of the questions I get asked most often from our athletes is “How do I adjust my nutrition recommendations for rest days?” I can see why they ask. It makes sense that if you expend less energy in the form of exercise that you would need to take in less energy in the form of food.
Or does it?
The short answer that I tell our athletes is that the only thing that needs to change on a rest day is to eliminate your post workout recovery drink. No workout. No need for a recovery drink. Everything else, however, stays the same.
If you’re reading this thinking “Wait. What did she just say? I don’t need fewer carbs, or more protein, or less food in general on my rest days? Surely that’s a typo.” Then don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you hanging without a little more information to back up my recommendations.
Rest days encourage lean tissue to grow
When we exercise, we stimulate tissue growth. When we rest, we allow our tissues to repair and grow. So, from now on, instead of calling your days off “rest days,” I encourage you to call them “growth” days.
How does it work?
The hormone insulin does a great job of helping our muscles grow. Specifically:
Insulin turns on the mTOR protein which activates protein synthesis in our body. We first introduced you to mTOR in our 3 Meals a Day blog.
Insulin increases the amount of glycogen (storage form of glucose) stored in muscle cells which increases the size of our muscles.
As a bonus, insulin also prevents the catabolism, or breakdown, of muscle tissue so you can keep all your hard earned muscles intact.
For insulin to do it’s job, you have to follow two guidelines on your rest days. The first is to actually rest. If your body exercises on rest days, you’re using up the valuable resources that your muscles need to grow. That doesn’t mean you can’t do some light activity or mobility. But, a WOD on your “rest” day is not in your best interest.
The second is to eat. Insulin is released in response to carbohydrate intake. If you don’t eat enough carbs, fat, and protein on rest days, you won’t release insulin for growth and you won’t give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs for muscle repair.
Your rest day diet can make or break your next WOD
While your rest days allow for time to repair from the workout before, you body is also preparing for the workout tomorrow. Have you ever taken a vacation and then come back and dominated your first post vacation WOD? Aside from time away from the box allowing you to rest, you probably ate like you were on vacation too, and had plenty of time to refill the tanks that were sitting on empty for weeks prior.
When you only have a day or two to refuel, you’ve got to eat.
For starters, your body can only synthesis glycogen at 5% an hour, so it takes a good 24 hours to get your muscles ready for your next workout. That’s just to replace what you lost during your last workout. Use your rest days to top those tanks off so you’re not always in a near exhausted state.
You’re working hard and getting stronger every day. Those muscles you’re building don’t stop eating their own fuel just because you’re resting. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “muscles weigh more than fat.” Well, that’s not true. A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat. However a pound of muscle burns more energy than a pound of fat. One hundred pounds of muscle burns 500 calories a day. The equivalent amount of fat burns only 200. The difference is easily a meal or snack depending on your energy needs. So, if you skip out on that meal or snack on your rest day, your lean tissue suffers and you get weaker.
Healthy foods for your rest day fuel
Hopefully you’re convinced by now that you need to eat on your rest days. That said, what you eat is just as important. Carbohydrate rich foods fire up insulin and help replace and replenish your glycogen stores, but we don’t recommend you fill up on pretzels and corn chips on your day off. Instead your carbohydrate should come from fruits, beans, starchy, and non starchy vegetables. We are ok with whole grains too, but they shouldn’t be the focus of your rest day. You’ll get the most bang for your bite with nutrient dense fruit and vegetables.
High quality protein is also essential to an optimized rest day nutrition plan. Lean meats and poultry, wild caught fish and shellfish are your best bets for refueling. Save the protein powders and drinks for post WOD. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are also loaded with anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids which can help soothe a stressed system.
Finally, you can’t have a solid rest day menu without some healthy fats. We prefer the chewable fats like nuts and seeds over the oils and butters. Fats help to better absorb some of the vitamins and minerals from those non-starchy vegetables. Fat also help to cushion our joints and keep our skin and nails in top notch condition….so that rope burn scar doesn’t look quite so bad ;-) Ahhh, badges of honor.
A Dietitian’s Take
It’s time to look at rest days differently. They are a unique opportunity to repair from your workout yesterday and prepare for your workout tomorrow. In order to do so, you have to rest (mobility and light activity allowed) and eat. Rest days are not the time to cut calories. The only calories that need to go are those directly related to your workouts like a recovery drink.
Your best bet is to focus on eating a variety of real foods. Keep your macros balanced because you need them all...carbs, fat, and protein, to get the job done. Pick from the best sources including dark leafy greens, seafood, seeds, and berries to maximize the nutrition in every bite you take. Enjoy your time off knowing that you are going to be back on top of that leaderboard tomorrow with energy to spare.