There’s little doubt that proper nutritional recovery is vital to your performance. There are three steps to recovery.
- The first is rehydration – full cellular recovery cannot take place until cells are hydrated
- The second is replenishment of fuel supplies – namely carbohydrates (glycogen) that supply energy to the muscles
- The third is adaptation in which the structure and metabolic processes of the muscles are rebuilt to be stronger and more efficient, and depends on an increase in protein manufacture.
Here’s how to promote full recovery after a hard workout:
Replacing lost fluid takes time and is best achieved by consuming small amounts of fluids at regular intervals during the hours following your workout. Drinking a large volume in one go stimulates urine formation, so much of the fluid is lost rather than retained.
The exact amount you need to drink depends on how dehydrated you are after exercise. For each 0.5 kg (1 lb approx) lost, drink 600 – 750 ml of fluid (e.g. water, diluted juice, sports drinks, milk, tea). If you have become very dehydrated, you may need 24 – 48 hours to totally rehydrate. Sip fluids throughout the day until your urine is very pale yellow.
Consuming a little sodium in food or drink will promote recovery because it helps retain the fluid you have drunk. It also stimulates thirst and encourages you to drink more.
Refuel within 30 minutes after working out
Your muscles are most receptive to reloading glycogen in a 30-60 minute window immediately following exercise. Blood flow to muscles is enhanced during this time, and the cell membranes more permeable to nutrients.
Muscle cells can pick up more glucose and are more sensitive to the effects of insulin, a hormone that promotes the synthesis of glycogen by moving glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells.
It is therefore vital to take in an adequate amount of carbohydrate as soon after exercise as possible.
Eat carbs and protein together
Previously, it was recommended to eat high GI (fast-absorbed) carbs immediately after exercise to refuel muscle glycogen stores. However, studies in the late 1990s onwards have found that that carbs combined with protein results in faster glycogen recovery and more muscle gain. A review of studies on protein needs by researchers at McMaster University, Canada, concluded that some protein should be consumed within the first hour after exercise, and combined with carbohydrate in a ratio of 1:4.
A study at the University of Texas at Austin found that a carbohydrate-protein drink increased glycogen storage by 38% compared with a carbohydrate-only drink. A study by researchers at the University of Bath and Loughborough University found that runners were able to keep going longer following a four-hour recovery period during which they consumed a carbohydrate-protein recovery drink compared with a carbohydrate-only drink.
Just why the addition of protein is so effective has to do with insulin, the hormone whose main job is to transport glucose and amino acids to the liver and the muscles. The more insulin is present in the bloodstream, the more glucose and amino acids can be carried to working muscles – thereby promoting glycogen and protein manufacture. Insulin also counteracts cortisol, which is produced during intense exercise, and minimises protein breakdown. When protein is consumed with carbohydrate, the insulin response can nearly double that invoked by carbs alone.
Consume 10 – 20g protein post-workout
After intense exercise, the rate of protein manufacture is low and protein breakdown high. However, you can shift this balance and kick-start muscle protein recovery by supplying your muscles with 10 – 20g protein. Studies suggest that this amount of protein ensures that enough amino acid building blocks are present to repair muscle tissue. This should be combined with 50 – 60g carbohydrate for optimum recovery.
You can achieve this either in the form of drink or food (see below). A Canadian study found that a protein-carbohydrate drink resulted in a greater protein uptake in the muscles compared with a carb-only drink following a weights workout. Consuming protein along with carbs may also reduce post-exercise muscle damage and muscle soreness, according to a 2007 study of cyclists at James Madison University.
Opt for a milk drink
The good news is you don’t need to spend a fortune on commercial recovery drinks. You can get all the nutrients needed to aid recovery from less expensive ‘real’ foods and drinks. Believe it or not, flavoured low fat milk and low fat milk shakes as well as straight skimmed milk are near-perfect recovery drinks. They all supply carbohydrate to restock muscle glycogen, as well as protein to rebuild muscle tissue, valuable minerals such as calcium and magnesium and vitamins, such as riboflavin.
Opt for ready-to-drink milk drinks – widely available in supermarkets – or make your own from milk shake powder and skimmed milk. The added sugar in these drinks boosts the carb to protein ratio to 4: 1, the ideal ratio for promoting rapid muscle recovery. A study at Indiana University study found that when chocolate milk was consumed immediately after exercise, volunteers were able to recover quicker and perform longer in a subsequent exercise session, compared with drinking a carb-only (sports) drink.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that footballers experienced less muscle damage and better muscle recovery after intense training when they drank chocolate skimmed milk compared with a sports drink.
Go for ‘real’ food
In general, engineered foods (such as commercial recovery drinks) lack fibre, phytochemicals and other health-protective nutrients of real foods. Also, foods such as milk, yoghurt, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and wholegrain toast, offer considerable money saving compared with engineered foods.
Here are some ideas for post-workout snacks supplying 50- 60g carbohydrate and 10 – 20 g protein
- One banana plus 500ml of milk
- 2 – 3 pots of fruit yoghurt
- One cereal bar plus 500 ml semi skimmed milk
- One slice of toast and honey plus a pot of fruit yoghurt
- A chocolate milk shake: Blend 1 cup water, 1 banana, 2 tbsp low fat vanilla yogurt, 1 tbsp chopped walnuts, 1 scoop chocolate milkshake powder and 6 to 8 ice cubes
- Banana yoghurt smoothie: whizz together a 150g pot of yoghurt, 1 banana and 150ml fruit juice in a blender
Recovery continues well past the immediate post-exercise period so you need to continue paying attention to your diet and fluid intake. Protein manufacture increases over the following 24 – 48 hours, generally peaking after about 24 hours. If you don’t supply your body with adequate nutrients you risk incomplete recovery and sub-par adaptation to training.
Eat regularly-spaced nutritious meals that deliver protein and carbohydrate along with fibre, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
In summary, a well-planned nutritional and rehydration strategy is vital for speedy recovery. First and foremost is rehydration: drink 600 – 750 ml of fluid for each 0.5 kg lost. A little sodium in food or drink will promote retention of fluid. Begin refuelling within 30 minutes after working out. Studies suggest a combination of protein and carbs in a 1 : 4 ratio accelerates recovery compared with carbs alone, e.g. 10 – 20g protein with 50 – 60g carbohydrate.
Commercial recovery drinks are fine but you can get all the nutrients needed to aid recovery from less expensive ‘real’ foods and drinks. Foods such as milk, milk shakes, yoghurt, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and wholegrain toast, offer considerable money saving compared with engineered foods.