Rapid Recovery: Refueling the body after an intense workout
What athletes do nutrition-wise following a hard workout is just as important as the physical efforts they undertake. It can determine the quality of the next day’s training session. It also can affect their ability to avoid injures and burnout as the season progresses.Some poor training days are the result of poor eating days. Done right, a few minutes each day spent on post-workout nutrition can pay off in terms of faster recovery times and fewer injuries.
The science of recovery
During the 30 to 60 minutes after exercise, also known as the “carbohydrate window,” an athlete’s body is primed to restock muscle glycogen stores and begin repairing muscle tissue. After exercising, particularly after a long session of 90 or more continuous minutes, blood flow to the muscles is increased. The body also is more sensitive to insulin at this time. Insulin, a powerful hormone made by the pancreas, shuttles glucose into muscles, where it’s converted into and stored as glycogen until it’s needed for fuel. Along with glucose, insulin also cues muscle cells to pick up protein (amino acids).
If athletes wait too long, the body doesn’t absorb glucose and other key nutrients nearly as readily. Athletes end up feeling tired and less motivated. They may not feel it right away, but the cumulative effect of weeks and months of hard training without proper refueling wears down even the strongest or most gifted athletes. That can lead to longer recovery times, more training time lost to nagging injuries and illnesses, including colds and other upper respiratory infections.
Basics to refueling the body
In terms of refueling, athletes should aim to consume at least 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, preferably within 30 minutes after exercise. If feasible, consuming some protein at the same time makes sense. It’s not necessary, however, to heavily focus on a specific recovery ratio or formula. The key is to consume 3 to 4 grams of carbohydrate for every 1 gram of protein. For a 150-pound athlete, this means refueling with a snack delivering about 75 grams of carbohydrates and 18 to 25 grams of protein.
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It can be challenging to keep appropriate sources of protein at hand. A simple solution is to encourage athletes to eat a balanced meal that includes lean quality protein-rich foods, ideally within an hour. That includes: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, cooked beans, and soy foods like tofu and tempeh.
Tough workouts leave some athletes feeling queasy or without an appetite. In this case, it’s smart to refuel with an appropriate sports drink or energy bar. Another excellent option is chocolate milk. A “liquid food,” chocolate milk naturally supplies the desired recovery ratio of 4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein. Chocolate milk is inexpensive, readily available, helps with rehydration, and most athletes enjoy its familiar taste.
It goes without saying that rehydration is a key component of the recovery process. Water supports a multitude of the body’s critical functions. For instance, through the blood it brings nutrients and oxygen to the cells, and it flushes waste products out of the muscles. When dehydrated, the body works that much harder to perform these functions. As a result, athletes feel fatigued and recovery is delayed.
The optimal amount to drink after exercise varies widely among athletes. It depends on an athlete’s fitness level, their individual sweat rate and environmental conditions — temperature, humidity level, wind. It also depends on sport-specific factors, like the type and amount of equipment worn by the athlete.
A sound working estimate can be determined by having athletes undertake a simple sweat test. Instruct athletes to weigh themselves (preferably without clothes or shoes) before and immediately after exercise. For each pound of body weight lost during a workout, the athlete needs to drink at least 20 ounces of fluid to fully rehydrate. Older guidelines called for drinking 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during exercise. However, some of the fluid consumed will always be eliminated, so the higher recommended amount combats obligatory urine losses.
When adequately hydrated, urine will be pale yellow, like the color of lemonade. Darker-colored urine, or if the athlete hasn’t gone for a few hours after exercising, is an indication of the need to drink more. Frequent bathroom breaks and urine that appears clear like water, on the other hand, indicates an athlete is over-hydrated.
The bottom line
Recovery nutrition involves adequately replacing what the body has lost or used during exercise. All athletes will benefit from fully rehydrating with appropriate beverages. Prompt refueling is most important following intense efforts or prolonged training sessions, as these efforts tax muscles and drain the body’s muscle glycogen stores.
Prompt refueling isn’t going to be as critical following easier efforts (for example, performed at less than 60% of max heart rate). Tying workouts into mealtimes, however, is a worthy habit for athletes. It’s especially important for those who must make their calories count in order to maintain their leanest, healthiest physique.
Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD, CSSD, is a board-certified sports dietitian and the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition (third edition, 2014).