Eat Right for Optimal Recovery

There are two main types of recovery for athletes. Firstly, the immediate recovery between

There are two main types of recovery for athletes. Firstly, the immediate recovery between training sessions; secondly, the recovery reserve that gives you resilience and allows you to build on your training week after week, month after month.

Eating the right kind of food, and at the right time, is essential for your recovery. It helps you to bounce back and it keeps your body replenished with the proper nutrients so that you can keep getting stronger and going for longer.

Recovery eating begins immediately after exercise. This is when your muscles are hungry for their preferred fuel: carbohydrates. The ideal time for eating your recovery meal is within the first 30 minutes, or at least within 2 hours of exercise.

What should you eat for optimal recovery?

The optimal recovery fuels are simple and high glycemic carbohydrates. These are sugars that enter your blood stream quickly and are easily taken up by your muscles and other tissues. Although high GI sugars can create a lot of negative effects in the health of the general population, it’s the athlete’s friend for endurance training and recovery.

These include: sweets, sodas and cordials, fresh and dried fruit, fruit juice, white bread, crackers, muffins, pancakes, waffles, white rice, instant noodles, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), pumpkin, corn. They’re also typically found in sports drinks, gels, chews, sports bars and the like.

How much simple carbohydrate you should have for recovery will depend on the exercise effort. Here are some basic guidelines.

LIGHT: Up to 60 minutes

For training sessions up to 60 minutes with easy intensity it’s not essential to take in carbohydrates straight afterwards. However, if you’re not going to be eating a proper meal for a few hours then I’d recommend having a light snack, otherwise the munchies may arise before your meal.

Examples: 250ml sports drink, banana, 3-4 medjool dates, small muesli/granola bar

 MODERATE: 60 to 120 minutes

After 90 minutes your muscle glycogen stores need replenishing, so typically you should be consuming some liquid carbohydrates during your session after 60 minutes. The recovery meal should be primarily carbohydrate-based, and it can be a good idea to add a small amount of protein to assist in muscle repair.

Aim: 1.0gm of carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight PLUS 10gm-20gm protein (optional)

Examples:

  • Large blueberry muffin and yogurt pot
  • 3 pieces of white toast with almond butter and jam
  • Smoothie made with almond milk, banana, blueberries, avocado, peanut butter, coconut nectar
  • Sports nutrition bar and an orange

HEAVY: More than 2 hours and/or more than 1 session per day

As for moderate exercise, the recovery meal should be primarily carbohydrate based with some added protein. Even though you will have been taking in carbohydrates during your training, your muscle glycogen stores will have become depleted and they need to be refilled. For this reason, you can take in more carbohydrates at this meal. Avoid fatty foods as they will slow down digestion of the carbohydrates and may cause stomach upset which will impair proper recovery eating.

Aim: 1.0gm – 1.5gm of carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight PLUS 10-20gm protein (optional)

Examples:

  • Bagel with chicken, 2-3 chocolate chip cookies, fruit juice
  • Smoothie made with almond milk, banana, blueberries, avocado, peanut butter, coconut nectar plus a plain crumpet/English muffin
  • Sports nutrition bar, yogurt pot, 1 cup fresh fruit salad with granola sprinkled on top
  • Baked potato with grated parmesan, 1 cup creamed corn, boiled egg, hot chocolate drink

Don’t get hung about eating according to the gram amounts I’ve specified above. These are here as a guide so that you can get an idea of what the best kind of recovery meals are after light, moderate and heavy training. If you’re in high volume training for an ultra-event like an Ironman, your day can sometimes feel like a buffet, as you’ll be hungry and eating often, both in training as well as at rest. 

If you need to quickly replenish your glycogen stores for another training session (within 4 hours) then aim for a carbohydrate heavy post exercise meal – at least 1.2gm per kilogram bodyweight is recommended for rapid glycogen recovery.

What about protein?

If you’re trying to limit your carbohydrate intake (eg. followers of Paelo and Keto diets) then the research suggests that you can get good muscle glycogen recovery from a combination of carbohydrate and protein – the recommended ratio is 0.8gm carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight with 0.2 – 0.4gm protein per kilogram. However, if you have a high carbohydrate recovery snack then adding extra protein won’t make a difference to your glycogen levels.

Protein is important for muscle repair but if you’re eating protein several times a day then you don’t need to add it to your post exercise snack. Having protein more often than every 3-4 hours has no beneficial effect on muscle repair. In ultra-distance training it becomes more important to add protein to a recovery meal because then you’ll be doing many training sessions longer than 3 hours, and generally protein isn’t well digested during training. In these situations add at least 20gm of good quality protein to your meal.

If you want to know more about the role of protein for performance and recovery, check out my article ‘Protein and peak performance’ here.

Fluids are important for recovery too

Remember to drink enough fluids during and after training sessions – especially in colder weather when your thirst response may be dull. The best advice is learn how to listen to your innate thirst mechanism, and monitor your urine colour post exercise to make sure that it returns to a pale yellow, which indicates healthy hydration.

What about other meals?

In your daily eating, outside of recovery meals, its important to keep your plate filled with the best nutrient dense foods you can find. You want to eat foods that are nourishing and satisfying. These foods will provide your organs, tissues, muscles and bones with the right building blocks for repair, energy and immunity. A healthy body is a resilient body.

If you crave a coke and a pie at the 90 kilometre mark on your five hour cycle, that’s the time to enjoy it – but not as a mid-week lunch choice when you’re sitting at your desk all day.

When you’re not training, focus on fresh vegetables, free range/organic animal proteins, wild fish, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains and cereals. Keep highly refined foods, fast foods and sugary drinks as treats.

Interestingly, the timing of your recovery meal appears to be less important than the overall quality and quantity of foods eaten in a 24-hour time period. Optimum muscle glycogen levels can be restored if your diet contains at least 8 – 10gm carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight.

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