The New Science of Recovery Nutrition
Not long ago, guidelines for what to eat and drink following rigorous exercise or competition consisted of vague suggestions like, “Be sure to drink lots of fluids,” or “Eat a banana.” Few people were certain about which types of fluids or foods were best for recovery, not to mention how much or how often they should be consumed.
Recovery nutrition has evolved into a science that combines carbohydrates, proteins, fluids, and electrolytes to ensure the body is refueled, re-hydrated, and has the raw ingredients necessary to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution. The amount and ratio of nutrients varies with the athlete, and recommendations should take into consideration age, gender, body size, physical condition, duration, nature of events, and environmental factors such as temperature and altitude. Although it's essential to consider all these variables, we now have enough research to propose simple guidelines that you can apply to your training and competition.
Recovery Nutrition by the Numbers
The amount of time during which you should begin your recovery nutrition routine following training or competition
The amount of fluid you want to take in per pound lost during exercise
The minimal carbohydrate to protein ratio you want to consume after activity to jump-start recovery (the literature supports 2:1 to 4:1, depending upon intensity and duration)
How Recovery Nutrition Works
An easy way to keep recovery nutrition as simple as possible is by remembering the three R's:
After training, practice, or competition, the body is left dehydrated, drained of fuel, and broken down. The body is in a stressed state, and the proper blend of nutrients can jump-start the body’s recovery process to help you come back stronger and healthier.
The First “R” of Recovery: Refuel
The first "R" of recovery stands for “Refuel,” and it starts with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide our bodies and brains with the fuel needed to perform. Our body stores carbohydrates as glycogen to be used during activity. As we exercise, we burn through our glycogen stores. The longer and the more intense the session, the more we use. Glycogen recovery is most important for those athletes who are training multiple times per day, have back-to-back events, and for those athletes who may not be getting the carbohydrates they need throughout the day.
Clyde Williams, Ph.D., of Loughborough University in England, has studied the body’s recovery needs and finds that athletes who train twice a day or compete in sports that involve two or more games, matches, or events during the same day have to recover quickly or risk poor performance.
Recovery strategies depend on the specific sport or type of exercise, but whatever the activity, the three essential requirements for successful short-term recovery are:
- Resynthesis of the body’s carbohydrate stores
So how many carbohydrates does it take to recover your fuel stores? Consume between 0.8 and 1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight as quickly as possible after your training session. Take your body weight in pounds and divide by 2.2. This gives your weight in kilograms. If you had a lighter session, then figure you can aim for the lower end (0.8). If you had an extremely hard or long session, go for a higher factor (1.2). Carbohydrates are only one part of the recovery equation, but this is the key component that recovers your fuel stores.
The Second “R” of Recovery: Rebuild
The second "R" in Recovery stands for “Rebuild” and it begins with protein. Protein is the nutrient that drives your body to create and repair damaged muscle tissue. Protein helps you recover following training sessions and competition by aiding the synthesis of muscle protein, a key process for building muscle.
Consuming protein with carbohydrates during recovery from endurance exercise appears to promote recovery best. This is because you're replacing glycogen with the carbs while providing the body with amino acids (building blocks of protein) on signaling pathways that control muscle protein synthesis (process of muscle building). It is now generally accepted that protein needs to be included in the post-workout meal or shake.
The amount of protein needed in the post-workout period is often overestimated. There are certain levels of protein that are needed to aid in the rebuilding of the muscle. More protein in the post-workout protein shake does not always equal more muscle building. You should include about 0.3 to 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in your post-workout shake, meal or snack.
This protein can come in the form of whole foods, but certain types of proteins have been found to have more beneficial properties than others. Athletes' Performance uses a blend of whey and casein protein. If you're lactose intolerant or have an aversion to dairy products, soy protein seems to work well.
It's important to switch up your proteins on a regular basis in order to prevent any potential intolerance from developing. There is a lot of promising research on protein synthesis with essential amino acids, in addition to carbohydrate. Six to 9 grams of EAA with about 35 grams of carbohydrates has been shown to significantly stimulate protein synthesis.
To create the perfect post-workout blend, go for your carbs and protein in the form of food, a shake with whey, casein, and/or soy, or in the pure elemental form of essential amino acids. Many experts agree that the protein needs of an athlete are higher than the average person and ensuring protein as a part of the post-workout meal/snack/supplement will help to meet those needs. Martin Gibala, Ph.D., writing for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, says, “The added protein acts to 1) repair damage to muscle fibers, 2) promote training-induced adaptations in muscle fibers, and 3) replenish depleted stores of energy.”
Combination Foods and Drinks
A surprising low-tech drink—chocolate milk—might be a recovery food option for those who want to combine carbohydrates and protein. The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported that athletes who drank chocolate milk after an intense bout of exercise were able to work out longer and with more power during a second workout compared to athletes who drank sports drinks.
"Our study indicates that chocolate milk is a strong alternative to other commercial sports drinks in helping athletes recover from strenuous, energy-depleting exercise," says Joel M. Stager, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Indiana University. "Chocolate milk contains an optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio, which is critical for helping refuel tired muscles after strenuous exercise and can enable athletes to exercise at a high intensity during subsequent workouts."
In addition to its ideal combination of carbohydrates and protein, flavored milk contains seven other essential nutrients that are important for an athlete's health, including calcium. Another recent study, this one published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, concluded that cereal and non-fat milk is as good as a commercially-available sports drink in initiating post-exercise muscle recovery.
Keep in mind what recovery means: in addition to glycogen synthesis and performance benefits, a reduction in soreness, promoting quick adaptations to training, and enhancing muscle repair. Most of us spend our time training, not competing. The goal of recovery is to replace our fuel while rebuilding our muscle. So, in regard to recovery nutrition, a small amount of protein in addition to carbs may enhance the body’s adaptation to long-term training. This great combo can come from foods, supplements, and chocolate milk.
The Third "R" of Recovery: Rehydrate
The purpose of fluids is simple: restore the fluids (and electrolytes) lost in sweat. How do you know if your fluid tank is low? One way is to monitor the amount and color of your urine. If you are excreting a large amount of light-colored urine, you’re probably hydrated. If it is dark and being produced in smaller amounts, you are probably dehydrated.
The second way is to keep track of what you weigh before and after exercise sessions. If you weigh less than you did before exercise, you did not meet your fluid need during that session. The goal is to try to match your pre-training weight or to try to prevent a fluid loss greater than two percent of your body weight.
So, if you weigh 150 pounds, losing three pounds of fluid or more is going to lead to a decrease in your performance. If you weigh more than you did before your workout (after drinking fluids), you may be drinking more than you need. If you do lose weight during your session, it is really important to replace the fluid lost before your next session.
What to Drink When
To stay hydrated, drink about 20 ounces of fluid in the hour or so before training, take four to six gulps of fluid (6 ounces) every 15 minutes, and then drink about 20 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during activity.
Keep in mind that there are factors that can increase the amount of fluids lost. They include exercising at high altitude, working out in hot weather, clothing choice, the amount of sweating (some people sweat more than others), and the nature of your exercise. Athletes who participate in endurance and high-intensity sports may lose more sweat and need to drink more to offset the loss of fluids.
Fluid needs should be thought of in two separate categories:
- Everyday needs
- Performance needs
Everyday needs are often overlooked, but are incredibly important. Many athletes enter their training sessions dehydrated. Making sure you enter your session hydrated will help to improve overall performance. For everyday needs, aim to drink 0.5 to 1 ounce of fluid for each pound that you weigh. If you weigh 150 pounds, you should be consuming 75 to 100 ounces of fluid per day. (33 ounces = 1 liter) Here are some choices for meeting your everyday fluid requirements:
- Water (should be your #1 choice)
- Naturally non-caloric drinks such as brewed unsweetened green, black, and white teas
- 100 percent fruit juices in moderation (6 ounces = 1 serving)
- Watery foods (watermelons, grapes, soups, vitamins, potassium)
If you are out in the heat and participating in heavy exercise longer than 60 minutes, or are engaged in high-intensity exercise for a shorter period, and if you feel underfueled or dehydrated to start with, choose a sports drink that will provide you with not only fluid, but also electrolytes and carbohydrates.
Fluid is not the only thing lost in sweat. Minerals (electrolytes) such as potassium and sodium are needed to help the body function normally, and they can be easily replaced by the foods and fluids you eat after a workout or an event. Many people link muscle cramping with potassium or may have heard to eat a banana if they are having cramping issues. Recent studies have shown that cramping is often linked to sodium loss. A pound of sweat also contains 400 to 700 milligrams of sodium, although those who have adapted to hot conditions lose less than those who are not acclimated. Regardless, you should take note to see if you are a salty sweater.
If after exercise your skin tastes salty, your clothes have a white salt rim to them, or if you seem to be prone to cramping, you need to ensure that you get the sodium you need in the foods you eat and in the sports drink that you consume. During activity, you want a sports drink that has at least 110 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces. However, specialized formulas with additional sodium, like Gatorade Endurance, may be a better fit for you. Sodium-heavy foods include yogurt, muffins, pizza, spaghetti, pretzels, crackers, and soup, but sprinkling extra salt on your food might achieve the same goal. Even though potassium may not be involved in cramping, the body still loses quite a bit of potassium, which is involved in many bodily functions.
“A pound of sweat contains about 80 to 100 milligrams of potassium,” says Nancy Clark, author of the Nancy Clark Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “During two or three hours of hard exercise (expending 1,200 to 1,800 or more calories), a person might lose 300 to 800 milligrams of potassium.” Recovery foods containing potassium include potatoes, yogurt, orange juice, bananas, raisins, pineapple juice, and sports drinks, to name a few.
SCAN, a dietetic practice group of the American Dietetic Association, summarizes the goals of recovery nutrition:
- Restore fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. Weigh before and after exercise, then replenish what was lost.
- Replace muscle fuel (carbs) utilized during practice or competition.
- Provide protein to aid in the repair of damaged muscle tissue and to promote the growth of new tissue.
- Begin your recovery nutrition program with a snack or meal within 15 to 60 minutes following practice or competition.
In the real world, we may not be able to get the exact ratio, but you want to make sure you eat and drink something, and as quickly as you can after your workout or game. A little planning goes a long way—try packing a recovery snack cooler with any of the following:
- Yogurt with fruit and cereal
- Juice with a scoop of whey protein
- Turkey sandwich with 20 ounces of juice or sports drink
- Pasta dish with at least a cup of cooked pasta and 3 ounces of your favorite protein
Recovery Nutrition Shake Recipes
At EXOS, we use a variety of products to help our athletes recover. Below are some of the recipes that we use to ensure that recovery is not only optimized, but also tasty.
Each recipe below contains approximately 390 calories, 22 grams of protein, 55 grams of carbohydrates, and 10 grams of fat.
- 1 cup skim milk
- 1 cup ice
- 1/2 cup pineapple chunks (canned in own juice)
- 1 cup frozen strawberries
- 1 tsp Berry Burst Metamucil
- 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese
Orange Cream Smoothie
- 1 cup vanilla soy milk
- 1 cup ice
- 1 packet orange flavored Metamucil
- 1 scoop EXOS Performance Nutrition Whey Protein Isolate (vanilla)
- 1 medium peeled orange
- 8 oz 100% Orange Juice
Pumpkin Pie Smoothie
- 1 cup skim milk
- 1 cup ice
- 1/2 cup pumpkin pie filling
- 4 oz low-fat cottage cheese
- 1 tsp Metamucil (unflavored)
- 1/8 tsp cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg
Chocolate Covered Strawberry Shake
- 1/2 cup chocolate skim milk
- 1 cup frozen strawberries
- 1 tsp Metamucil (unflavored)
- 1 scoop EXOS Performance Nutrition Whey Protein Isolate (chocolate)
Blueberry Banana Smoothie
- 10 oz vanilla soy milk
- 1 cup low-fat blueberry yogurt
- 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
- 1/2 banana
- 1 tsp Metamucil (unflavored)
Originally published October 19, 2009. Updated August 5, 2015.
- American College of Sports Medicine
- Gatorade Sports Science Exchange
- International Journal of Sport and Exercise Metabolism
- Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition
- Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook
- Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (American Dietetic Association)
- Mark Verstegen, author, Core Performance