Sports nutrition is still a new science, keeping everyone excited and guessing with emerging information. What hasn’t changed in decades is the fact that the recommended ranges for energy, carbs and protein are the same for every day of the week during a training cycle. However, it is unlikely that someone does the same amount of activity every single day. So, what should you eat on rest days vs. training days?
While an active individual’s intensity and duration of activity can vary widely across weeks, months and even years, it is also important to consider the variation in activity experienced day to day (i.e., moderate training day, hard training day, competition or rest day). Nutritional nuances should be taken into consideration to match an active individual’s nutrient intake with their activity goals on different days of the week. Read on so you can make the best decision in optimizing nutrition for every moment and create small goals for improving your nutrition in the new year, or any time of year!
Thanks to Clif Bar and Company for sponsoring this post! As always, all opinions are my own.
Focus on Less Counting and More Timing
Energy needs are generally higher in active individuals, and will vary from day to day throughout the year, relative to changes in activity frequency and duration. I may evaluate numbers behind the scenes for a client to ensure they’re eating enough of each nutrient. For dietitians, the Active Nutrition Guide is a great tool that provides evidence-based guidelines to create nutrition plans for your active clients based on day-to-day intensity, frequency and intensity of activity.
For athletes, given appropriate expert oversight, you shouldn’t have to crunch numbers every day and I typically do not recommend that my clients obsessively count calories and macronutrients. Instead, I’d rather you to listen to what your body is telling you that you need, while keeping the basic principles of sports nutrition in mind and making small tweaks to nutrient timing and balance at meals and snacks.
I find that in general, what athletes and active individuals miss the most is appropriate timing of nutrient intake. Often times, people skip breakfast or ignore the need for an energy boost during their workout, and then load up on energy with a big dinner at the end of the day. This inconsistent intake throughout the day impacts energy levels as well as recovery from training or exercise. On top of that, many people are not implementing best practices for pre- and post-workout nutrition, especially if the time that they workout varies day to day.
To make this all easier for your busy lifestyle, I’m covering some of the high-quality convenience products from Clif Bar and Company (CB&C) that you can have on hand to maximize your nutrition. While many are most familiar with the classic CLIF BAR® Energy Bar, the brand also makes delicious and nutritious foods that meet a wide range of energy needs for many different occasions, while keeping sustainability in mind. I often discuss ways to preserve our planet for future generations, and love that CB&C shares this value with me. I’m also excited they’re giving me the opportunity to answer: what should you eat on training vs. rest days?
What To Eat on Rest Days vs. Training Days
*Note to readers: I use “sports nutrition” and “fitness nutrition” interchangeably. Whether you are participating in an organized sport or simply performing a high level of fitness at the gym, you require more energy and nutrients.
Whether it’s a rest day or a training day, the two main nutrients to focus on are carbohydrate and protein. While mono and polyunsaturated fats play an important role in energy availability and inflammatory reactions, among other functions, they tend to easily make their way into our diets.
When eating a variety of whole plant foods, many vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals with be consumed to support the demands of training as well. Still, the convenient nutrients found in high quality packaged foods, like many CB&C products, can help boost intake to support the extra stress you take on due to the demands of training.
Carbohydrates for Energy
Despite what diet culture at the gym is telling you, carbs are not the enemy. They should actually be the body’s primary energy source! Carbohydrates are the preferred energy for the brain as well as your muscles, and support many other functions. Carbohydrates also serve a protein sparing function — this means having them available for energy on rest days ensures protein can be used for its most essential function rather than energy itself.
When we eat carbohydrates, some are immediately used for energy (fast-acting) and others work longer to maintain blood sugar. The extra carbohydrate is reserved as glycogen in muscles and the liver. Glycogen is broken down in the muscle for moderate to high-intensity contractions when you’re moving and, in the liver to maintain blood sugar between meals when you’re sleeping and during exercise. Without carbs, your brain and muscles won’t be very efficient!
Carbohydrate needs for the active population range from 6-10 grams per kilogram of body weight. (Note: for those training for and competing in ultra-endurance events, needs may rise to 12 g/kg.) While the previously mentioned Active Nutrition Guide was designed for nutrition professionals working with athletes, you too can use the resource to help you estimate your energy and nutrient needs (note that actual needs may be higher or lower – this is why it’s helpful to work 1-on-1 with a dietitian and listen to your body). The moral of this carb story is we need carbohydrates to optimally fuel muscles so we can perform at a high intensity and move for a longer duration efficiently.
Protein for Recovery
Protein is a structural and metabolic nutrient. Its primary role is to build and maintain all of our organs and tissues, make the framework of our bones and create compounds like immune proteins, hormones and enzymes to protect the body and regulate metabolism. However, most people think of protein only for muscle repair and growth!
Even though most people eat enough total protein in a day, it’s still relevant to mention that athletes do have higher needs (1.2-2.0g/kg or .54-/.91 g/lb). The problem is, eating a lot of protein all at once at lunch and dinner won’t maximize use of the nutrient. It’s important to eat moderate amounts of protein with all meals and snacks throughout the day (except for snacks immediately prior to exercise as this may lead to GI distress).
For athletes and highly active individuals, aim to eat 10-20g of high-quality protein within 30 minutes of exercise to maximize muscle recovery. Then, eat regularly throughout the rest of the day to continue recovery. The recommendation is 0.25-0.3g/kg post-workout. For me, this is only 15 grams minimum, but for others it may be much higher. Still, 20 grams is a good frame of reference.
This can be challenging immediately post-workout if you don’t have access to a fridge or time to prep. And having just a protein powder and water means you won’t replenish that glycogen you lost. Items like CLIF BUILDERS® are a staple for me, providing some carbs and 20 grams of high-quality, complete plant-based protein.
What To Eat on Moderate Training Days
Even if you think it’s an “easy day”, eating less than your body requires can result in poor performance. Whether you’re training for a big race or just looking to have a productive workout with your personal trainer, you want to ensure you’re fueling for it every day!
Focusing on everyday nutrition means eating adequate and balanced meals and snacks. When it comes to meals, my formula is to include a starch, protein source(s), fruit or vegetable, fat and flavor. This means you’ll not only get the balance of nutrients your body needs for every day functions and exercise, but you’ll also feel satisfied, keeping you from constantly thinking about food or grazing all day long.
For snacking, you should include carbs, fiber, protein and fat in some way. Veggies with hummus, a fruit and yogurt smoothie, or a bowl of granola like CLIF® Energy Granola topped with plant-based milk, nuts and fruit, or a CLIF® Nut Butter Filled (which combines a whole grain snack bar with a delicious and satisfying nut butter filling) are all great options to keep you going when you’re off the field or away from the gym.
On the flip side, when you’re ready to hit the gym, the classic CLIF BAR® Energy Bars are great pre-workout fuel. They contain a unique blend of fast-acting and longer-lasting carbohydrates and deliver a good source of plant-based protein for moderate-intensity active occasions. All of this in a portable and tasty bar.
What To Eat on Hard Training Days
When it comes to how sports nutrition changes day to day, these are the most significant days. If it’s a higher volume day where you’re training for a lot longer or have two workouts on the agenda, this is where attention to detail is crucial. Recommendations mimic what you’d need on the day of a competition; this is not only to fuel and recover, but also to help you train your digestive tract to tolerate enough energy during activity.
Recommended carbohydrate intake in advance of the training session is 1-4g/kg, 1-4 hours prior in order to obtain adequate energy for endurance benefits as well as intensity. For longer workouts lasting over 60 minutes, you should eat a meal 3-4 hours prior (this can provide 3g/kg) along with a snack closer to when you train (for the additional 1g/kg). With these carbohydrates, you can still include moderate fat, protein and fiber at meals and snacks, but avoid foods that have caused you digestive upset in the past.
Once it is snack time, top off glycogen stores. You can opt for dried fruit or even 4-6 ounces of 100% juice 5-15 minutes before exercise, but easy-to-chew sources of quick carbohydrates like CLIF® BLOKS™ Energy Chews and CLIF® SHOT® Energy Gels work, too. These same products can be consumed during high-intensity exercise lasting longer than an hour to maintain blood sugar levels while offering additional energy. Glycogen depletion and low blood sugar can mean a bad workout, a poor kickstart to recovery, and even overeating later.
After a harder workout, get carbs and protein quickly, especially if you’ll be training again later. Aim for 1-2g/kg of carbohydrate as well as your 0.25-0.3g/kg of protein in right away! Choose milk, soy milk, yogurt, or CLIF® Recovery Protein Drink Mix if you don’t have much of an appetite. If you are hungry, grab a CLIF BUILDERS® bar. Be sure to keep ingesting carbohydrates at meals and snacks to support your next workout. Your body will be working to recover from training session one, but you need to have energy for two!
What to Eat on Competition Days
When it comes to race or competition day, you want to ensure you’re getting in 6-10g/kg of carbs 24 hours prior (remember, more hours of competing means more energy needed – check out the Active Nutrition Guide modules for nutrition recommendations around specific sports). For endurance races, maximize intake for 72 hours ahead, not just 24. During this time, you can have less of an emphasis on protein. Your muscles should have recovered from intense training, and your protein intake isn’t a huge deal these lighter days before you compete.
When it comes to race day, rule number one is don’t try anything new! Go with a balanced carbohydrate-rich breakfast that you enjoy. Snack prior to exercise as you would on your hardest training days. And, as mentioned above, if you’ve been incorporating products such as CLIF® BLOKS™ Energy Chews or CLIF® SHOT® Energy Gels during exercise in your training, make sure you’re using them today too.
What To Eat on Rest Days
You may feel like you’re resting on days you don’t exercise, but your body is doing a LOT of work to recover. While a lot of emphasis is put on nutrition immediately post-workout, since that is when the recovery process begins, your body also needs energy and nutrients to recover when you’re sleeping and on days you aren’t training. So even though you’re resting, listen to your body and make balanced, nutritious food choices that help you recover, and be sure you’re still consuming plenty of carbohydrates and protein on rest days.
While more research is warranted on the topic of nutrition for rest days across different sports, we do know that individuals with a higher muscle mass expend more energy at rest due to muscle cells being more metabolically active than fat cells. Additionally, most people engaging in endurance exercise have a small energy deficit from the harder training days. A rest day can help make up for that, ensuring you aren’t dealing with low energy availability in the future.
On rest days, you don’t need to focus as much on meal- and snack-timing since there are no pre-workout, intra-workout, or post-workout considerations. Just ensure you’re eating every 3-4 hours to supply the body with adequate energy and recovery nutrients. Start your day off strong with a balanced breakfast like oatmeal with fruit, a veggie-rich omelet or yogurt topped with CLIF® Energy Granola which has 26 of whole grains, 8g of plant-based protein and a good source of fiber. And while you’re resting your body, it’s okay to treat yourself! With 7-8g of plant-based protein, the crave-worthy flavors of LUNA® Bar offer a balanced way to satisfy your sweet tooth.
While general sports nutrition principles always apply, more detailed and personalized nutrition recommendations should be considered in order to match the activity goals associated with each individual day (i.e., moderate training, hard training, competition or rest days). When determining what to eat on rest days versus training days, individual preferences and genetics matter too, as do personal tolerance to specific foods, and taste!
Whole foods are an excellent foundation to everyone’s diet, but those who are active and frequently on-the-go may benefit from high-quality packaged foods, like CB&C products, to meet energy and nutrient needs. In fact, restricting energy intake too much on easy days and rest days may mean poor recovery as well as poor performance on harder days and competition days. Build balanced meals that satisfy your hunger and nutrient needs, and turn to CB&C products, which are crafted with purpose to energize any moment.
Need a quick reference guide to recap all of these options for your everyday nutrition and nutrition to support training? Print this graphic so you remember what works best when!