Is Real Food Better Than Sports Nutrition Options for Recovery?

Recovering from a hard workout is the best excuse to chow down, but figuring out how to do it can be a challenge for triathletes looking to dial in their performance. Is it better to fuel up quickly with a prepackaged (potentially pricey) bar or recovery shake? Or hit the kitchen to spend time and effort cooking up a real meal?

To understand the answer, it helps to know a little bit about what happens inside your body after a hard training session. When you eat post-workout, you’re providing your aching legs and weary lungs with three basic building blocks they need to recover, says Melissa Wdowik, director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center at Colorado State University. First are carbs, which break down and store as glycogen in muscle tissue, giving you the fuel you need for your next long run or ride. Second is protein—critical for rebuilding worn-out muscles. Third, and “arguably most important,” says Wdowik, is water, which regulates both temperature and blood volume, allowing nutrients to circulate freely throughout the body.

So is cooking better for you than scarfing down bars? It depends. “From a nutritional standpoint, either strategy can work,” Wdowik says. It all depends on how much time you have—and how much effort you want to put into feeding yourself.

According to Bob Seebohar, founder of eNRG Nutrition and a USAT Level III triathlon coach, the human body only needs about 16 to 24 hours to refill its stores of carbohydrate. So if you don’t have another high-intensity workout planned within that time period, you can easily recover and refuel with whole-food meals.

On the other hand, if you’re planning on a double or triple workout day (like many triathletes), you may want to mix up an energy shake instead. “This is where the sports nutrition products come in handy, since it is difficult sometimes to digest real food in a short amount of time before a training session,” Seebohar says.

If you do decide to go the performance-food route, think simple: Seebohar tells his athletes to avoid artificial flavorings and dyes, and recommends that they stay away from products with high sugar content—unless they have another intense workout planned within the next 8-12 hours. For her part, Wdowik recommends skipping products with “ergogenic” ingredients like l-carnosine and chromium polynicotinate, which add cost without providing any proven benefit.

Ultimately, the best fueling strategy is the one you can stick with. “It doesn’t do any good to recommend the optimal fluid, carbohydrate, and protein combination in the form of whole food if the athlete can’t take it along for the exercise, can’t eat it without getting an upset stomach, or doesn’t like it,” Wdowik says. So find out what tickles your taste buds and tank up.

Seebohar’s Real Food Recovery Faves

Plain Greek yogurt with nut butter and cocoa nibs

Banana rolled in a whole grain tortilla with nut butter

Smoothie (made with blueberries and protein–enriched nut milk, a spoonful of dark cocoa powder, and ice)

White rice with scrambled egg and bacon/ham mixed in