Recovery Nutrition 101

If you’ve been working out for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard about recovery drinks and snacks. But why do we need them? And who needs them? And most importantly, what are they?

For most athletes, it’s not hard to see why we need recovery nutrition. After all, if you’ve ever hobbled around the day after a hard workout because your muscles and joints were stiff and sore, you know that you depleted your body of something. And that depletion can really wreck your plans for a PR if you don’t do something about it.

First, replace the fluids you lost during your workout with water. The harder and longer you worked out, the more water you lost in sweat. Drink plenty of water or diluted sports drink after a hard workout, especially if you plan to work out again the next day (or later that same day).

Second, replace the carbs you lost during your workout. During long workouts or high intensity workouts, you can use up almost all of our glycogen stores. These are easy to replace but many athletes don’t do a great job of it, especially if they believe that carbs are bad for them. Drink and/or eat a high carb meal or snack within 30 minutes of completing a hard workout (not necessary after a shorter, low-intensity workouts) and then again in two hours. Try to make most of your post-workout meals high in carbs to refuel your glycogen stores. Your muscles might still be sore, but at least you’ll have energy to burn.

Third, add a little protein to that recovery meal or drink. Research shows that a small amount of protein right after a hard workout helps to repair the inevitable muscle damage that occurs during exercise. The key is to not overdo it; protein will not replace glycogen stores, only carbohydrate can do that. In fact, most sports scientists recommend a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein as the best strategy for maximizing muscle recovery and glycogen replacement.

The good news is that you don’t have to buy expensive bars, shakes, or pre-formulated products to get what you need. Regular food can do the trick. For example:

  • 8-10 oz milk with graham crackers
  • 8 – 10 oz chocolate milk with a few cookies or crackers and fresh fruit
  • Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and cookies
  • Fresh fruit, cheese, crackers and milk (soymilk is fine)
  • 1 cup of cereal with milk and fresh fruit
  • Bagel sandwich with peanut butter and honey
  • Sub sandwich with turkey, ham, or roast beef (and all the veggie fixins)
  • Pankcakes with skim/1% milk, fresh fruit
  • Powerbar with chocolate milk, fresh fruit
  • Pizza and non-alcoholic beer (more on that one later!)

There are lots of real-food options for recovery meals and snacks but the most important thing is to make them higher in carbohydrate, moderate in protein and to have them soon after a hard workout, along with a full glass of water.

Lastly, who needs recovery nutrition?  Anyone who plans to workout hard several days in a row, or anyone who plans on more than one workout per day, e.g., brick workouts for triathletes.  Glycogen stores can be depleted in one hard and/or intense workout so if you expect your body to go hard again later in the day or the next day, you have to replace the glycogen before that second bout of exercise.

Recovery nutrition isn’t rocket science but you have to make time for it and plan ahead. Keep high carb/protein snacks and drinks on hand and ready to go during your training season. Pop a sports bar in your gym bag or purse for those times when you don’t have access to real food. Just remember, a well-nourished athlete is a smart athlete!

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