The quality of recovery after training will determine how well you adapt and achieve fitness gains, but perhaps more importantly, your recovery will have a direct impact on how you get through your next training session. Poor recovery can mean arriving at a race or the next workout depleted, sore, tired, fatigued, and with poor focus—reducing your ability to race well or to get the full training benefit of the session. Plan your recovery well (both in the acute post-exercise phase, and with your daily food intake), and you will find improved sleep (more recovery!), better training adaptations, and, of course, better race outcomes.
The importance of recovery nutrition depends on the type and duration of exercise, body composition goals, and personal preferences. The goals of recovery are to:
- Appropriately refuel and rehydrate the body
- Promote muscle repair and growth
- Boost adaptation from the training session
- Support immune function
Nutritional components of recovery include carbohydrates to replenish depleted fuel stores, protein to help repair damaged muscle and develop new muscle tissue, and fluids and electrolytes to rehydrate.
Following a prolonged endurance exercise bout, replenishing muscle glycogen stores is a top priority. The first 30 minutes or so after exercise provide an important opportunity for nutritional recovery, due to factors like increased blood flow and insulin sensitivity—which boosts cellular glucose uptake and glycogen restoration.
In women, the capacity to restore muscle glycogen stores fluctuates over the course of the menstrual cycle with the highest capacity occurring in the follicular phase (the time between the first day of the period and ovulation). In an ideal situation, women should focus on getting at least 0.75g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, immediately following prolonged sessions in order to maximize muscle glycogen restoration. For men, the window is a bit longer (up to two hours post-exercise), with a bit more carbohydrate needed: 1-1.2 g/kg body weight. The difference in carbohydrate needs is primarily due to sex differences in fueling: women rely more on plasma glucose and free fatty acids, whereas men rely more on muscle and liver glycogen.
Protein is a hot topic for recovery: some research indicates that there is no specific anabolic window, whereas other research suggests the co-ingestion of protein with carbohydrate is necessary to maximize muscle glycogen recovery and protein synthesis. The discrepancy between ideologies is that it depends on the type of exercise.
Endurance exercise is fuel depleting and catabolic (breaks down muscle tissue). Since we are talking about endurance recovery nutrition, the co-ingestion of protein becomes a critical component of rapid recovery. We have all heard the chocolate milk campaign of “20 grams of protein for rapid recovery with a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.” This is the bare minimum for male athletes, post-exercise, to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. But for women, it is different. When testing women in the low and high hormone phases, it was found that a ratio of 1.5:1 carbohydrate to protein significantly increased responses to muscle protein synthesis and may have benefits to body composition. Further, the menstrual cycle phase also influences the amount of protein needed post-exercise. Why? Not only does progesterone increase protein needs at rest, protein use during exercise is also greater during the luteal (high hormone) phase.
In short, an effective nutrition recovery plan supplies not only the right nutrients, but also at the right time. Recovery is the body’s process of adapting to the previous workload and strengthening itself for the next physical challenge. Get it right and your body will reward you for it.