Nutrition for Recovery
I believe recovery is probably as – if not more – important than training, but few athletes (and coaches) seem to recognise this. The idea still prevails that training more and harder produces better athletes. However, athletes often realise during these sessions that they should perhaps reconsider their training load, as inadequate recovery can result in them feeling tired and fatigued, not making any progress, or even experiencing a decline in performance, and feeling constantly sore.
Nutrition is a crucial part of an athlete’s recovery, alongside proper sleep. A nice and easy way to explain the importance of nutrition for recovery to your athletes is by remembering the three R’s: Refuel, Rebuild, Rehydrate. I first came across this concept a few years ago during a conference presentation given by Prof. Graeme Close. Each of these R’s relate to the four most components of recovery nutrition: carbohydrates for Refuel, protein for Rebuild, fluids and electrolytes for Rehydrate.
An athlete’s glycogen stores are used to fuel their training. The longer and more intense a training session is, the more glycogen is used. It is therefore important to restore glycogen stores to fuel the next training session. Even more so for those athletes who train multiple times a day or have back-to-back events at competitions. The standardised amount of carbohydrates for recovery is between 0.8 and 1.2 g/kg body weight, and guidelines suggest that these should be consumed within the first hour after the training session[1,2]. However, this depends on the athlete’s training session as well as their goals, food preferences and tolerances. Some athletes might prefer a periodised approach to carbohydrate intake, while others may actually thrive on a lower carbohydrate intake as they are more metabolically fat-adapted.
Protein helps recovery by stimulating muscle protein synthesis and repairing damaged muscle. Recommendations for optimal amount of protein intake are mixed and depend on age and training stimulus. In general, guidelines suggest that athletes (both endurance and resistance) will benefit from consuming 0.25g/kg or an absolute dose of 20 to 40g of good-quality protein that is rich in essential amino acids, particularly leucine (3g). Typically, protein is consumed within the first hour of exercise, yet this timing may be extended due to the transient anabolic effect of what an athlete has consumed before training. The protein can come from good-quality whole foods or in the form of protein supplements/powder such as whey, casein or vegan powders for vegetarian/vegan athletes. A great food source that has been well-researched is chocolate milk. It has the optimal ratio of protein and carbohydrates and provides some essential micronutrients such as calcium, B-vitamins and vitamin D.
The purpose of rehydration is to restore fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat during training. Sweat rates are highly variable among individuals, and also depend on the duration and intensity of the training session, as well as the environmental conditions. Research has shown that a >2% fluid loss in body weight can lead to a decrease in performance and it is therefore recommended that athletes develop an individualised plan during training to offset fluid losses. Although drinking to thirst is a reasonable starting point, there are athletes or situations that could benefit from a quantitative plan.
There are practical ways for your athletes to monitor fluid losses: both qualitative and quantitative in nature. The qualitative approach involves checking the colour and amount of their urine. If it is dark and produced in small amounts, it is likely that the athlete is dehydrated. The quantitative approach is to monitor their weight before and after the training session to try and prevent a fluid loss of greater than 2% of their body weight.
It is crucially important to restore fluid and electrolyte balance before the next training session. Guidelines suggest that athletes should aim to drink 125-150% or 1.5L per kg of their estimated fluid losses in the 4-6 hours after their training session[1,6]. In addition, fluid should be consumed with meals containing sodium in order to enhance fluid balance.
In the real world, it can be hard to get the exact amounts and ratios right, but I always advise my athletes to get something in their body within the first hour after a training session. I also advise them to get their food from the best sources available (local and organic) and not to rely on their standard supermarket. There is no best option for what to eat but here are some quick and tasty examples of meals that embrace the three R’s. I have not included exact quantities but you can use your intuition:
Smoothie with yoghurt, nut milk, blueberries, banana and a scoop of good-quality protein powder
DIY chocolate milk: milk, raw cocoa, raw honey or pure maple syrup, pinch of salt and vanilla extract (optional)
Scrambled eggs, any form of leafy greens/vegetables, sourdough toast and a piece of fruit
Oats made with milk (or nut milk), scoop of good-quality protein powder, fruit/nuts/seeds and cinnamon/honey to taste
Egg and banana pancakes, good-quality protein powder (optional), with any toppings (e.g. dollop of Greek yoghurt, berries, and honey)
Home-made burrito bowl: chicken/beef, some brown rice/sweet potato, beans and any salad/vegetables.
Beck, K. (2015). Role of nutrition in performance enhancement and postexercise recovery. Open Access J Sports Med, 6:259-267.
Potgieter, S. (2013). Sports nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. S Afr J Clin Nutr, 26(1):6-16.
Jäger, R., et al (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 14:20.
Aragon, A. & Schoenfeld, B. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 10:5.
Pritchett K. & Pritchett R. (2012). Chocolate milk: a post-exercise recovery beverage for endurance sports. Med Sport Sci, 59:127-134.
Recovery Nutrition (2009). Australian Institute of Sport. Available online: https://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/sports_nutrition/fact_sheets/recovery_nutrition. [Accessed 5 July 2017].