Adequate recovery is essential to not only everyday health but also to improve athletic performance. After a training session or event, you should replenish all the things that were lost during activity: glycogen, fluid, and electrolytes. You also want to build and repair lean tissue, make new red blood cells, and promote healthy immune function.
The benefits and how-tos of recovery nutrition are largely influenced by the intensity and duration of activity, age, level of training, and individual goals such as desired changes to body composition. Although recovery nutrition is hardly black and white, here are the basic principles to promote athletic recovery and help you execute an appropriate recovery plan to optimize your training.
The Five Rs of Recovery Nutrition
It's well known that carbohydrate is the primary and preferred fuel for high-intensity training, so it would make sense that if you used your glycogen (carbohydrate stores) you would want to eat carbohydrates following a training session or event to fill those stores back up. You should eat carbohydrates to replace what was utilized; however, don't stress out about consuming them right away. If you have 24 hours or more between periods of activity, you don't need to worry about being too speedy putting carbohydrates back if you eat them adequately throughout the day.
If you have less time or if you engage in two-a-day training sessions, you'll likely benefit from consuming carbohydrates relatively quickly following exercise to maximize glycogen resynthesis and help maintain stores for additional training sessions.
Furthermore, including some protein along with carbohydrates right after activity might enhance benefits when glycogen replacement in a timely fashion is important. Aim for 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per hour immediately post-exercise for four hours. Then continue with meals as normal.
If you wait more than four hours to eat following activity, you're really missing out on an eating occasion and, for some athletes, it might be hard enough to get in adequate calories throughout the day to meet needs without eating often. If your goal is to lose body fat, then prioritize a post-activity meal and adjust the composition and volume of other meals throughout the day. If you skipped your pre-exercise fuel, then your post-exercise fuel might be even more important.
Although there are mixed opinions on the "anabolic window," there is research to support a beneficial role for protein post-activity to help repair damaged tissue and stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Aim for 20-25 grams of high-quality protein post-exercise to help optimize the effects.
Specifically, the amino acid leucine has been singled out for its ability to promote muscle protein synthesis and current research suggests aiming for 2.5-2.8 grams of leucine per meal. Animal sources of protein provide more leucine per calorie compared to plant-based sources. For example, one scoop of whey protein powder or approximately 4 ounces of chicken breast provides 2.5 grams of leucine—you would have to consume 10 tablespoons of peanut butter to obtain the same amount of leucine.
Research also supports spreading protein intake throughout the day to enhance the benefits for recovery, so aim to include 20-35 grams of high-quality protein at each eating occasion. As previously mentioned, protein intake post-exercise may enhance glycogen repletion especially when carbohydrate availability is low or when energy is restricted.
In nearly every scenario you'll want to replace fluids lost during activity. Ideally, you should drink enough during activity to minimize losses; however, sweat losses continue and urine production increases post-exercise, so losses should be replaced by 125 percent to 150 percent. For every pound lost during training, it's recommended to drink approximately 20 ounces of fluid. To better understand your fluid losses, you can simply weigh yourself before activity and then again after activity or consult with a sports or performance dietitian to help you to determine your sweat rate.
To maintain adequate hydration throughout the day, you can observe the color of your urine. It should be light yellow to nearly clear. In addition, sodium and other electrolytes should be replaced post-activity and this can usually be accomplished by consuming foods that contain sodium, such as tomato or vegetable juice, packaged soups, etc., and adding salt to meals. When alcohol makes an appearance post-exercise, prioritize water intake first as alcohol can not only have dehydrating effects, it can delay the rehydration process.
Revitalize, rejuvenate, revive, restore; ultimately, we mean eat vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Vitamins and minerals are essential for overall health. Although we might place more emphasis on some nutrients over others for an athlete, the body requires all of them in sufficient quantities. It's important to consume a variety of foods to ensure an adequate intake of all vitamins and minerals, including these few that are frequently under-consumed:
When vitamins and minerals cannot be consumed in sufficient quantities from food, you may consider a multivitamin and mineral supplement to help fill nutrient gaps.
Exercise places a physical stress on the body that can produce damage-causing free radicals. Include a variety of foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, to provide the body with sufficient antioxidants to help protect cells from damage and scavenge free radicals in the body.
Sleep is an important time for the entire body to recover. When we sleep, we allow the body to build and repair muscle as well as develop new skills. With adequate sleep, the body and brain have an opportunity to rest and recharge. Without adequate sleep, you might experience poor reaction time and lack of attention, which can increase the risk for injury. Lack of sleep can also weaken your immune system, increasing your risk for illness or infection, and can cause alterations in hormones that regulate hunger and body fat, which can decrease your metabolic rate, increase hunger, and promote unwanted changes to body composition.
Recovery nutrition should be unique to the individual, but everyone needs to do it. The next time you need to recover, try one of these easy meal or snack ideas.
- Baked sweet potato loaded with black beans, salsa, broccoli, and avocado
- Egg and cheese on a whole grain English muffin with canned mandarin oranges in juice
- Graham crackers and peanut butter with chocolate milk and fresh fruit
- Greek yogurt mixed with honey, almond slices, and sliced banana
- Grilled chicken with brown rice and mixed vegetables
- Peanut butter and jelly (or fruit preserves) on whole grain bread with apple slices and milk
- Pancakes topped with almond butter and blueberries with a side of cottage cheese
- Pasta mixed with sautéed ground turkey, broccoli, bell pepper, spinach, and onion sprinkled with shredded cheese
- Smoothie made with chocolate-flavored whey protein, plain yogurt, frozen strawberries, and oats
- Veggie pizza with a garden salad and vinaigrette dressing
- Wrap made with a whole grain tortilla, lunch meat, cheese, veggies, and hummus with unsweetened applesauce