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Everyone is training hard, but the winners are recovering better. Athletes at the highest levels of competition—the Tour de France, Ironmans, and the Olympics—understand that the ability to recover quickly and completely often makes the difference between peak performance and poor performance.
What happens if you recovery poorly? Your body remains in a depleted state, tissue damage continues, immune system activity becomes suppressed, and injury sets in. The first and most obvious way to enhance recovery is by simply replacing what you’ve lost during exercise. Secondly, by preventing the downward spiral of continuing tissue damage and immune suppression, you can coax the body’s physiology out of a “catabolic” state (marked by tissue breakdown) and into an “anabolic” state (characterized by tissue repair and rebuilding). Finally, the athletes who recover more fully from one intense workout to the next can train at a higher level without illness and injury or risk of overtraining. The instructions for high-level endurance performance are not rocket science: Train hard, recover fully, and repeat.
The adaptations to exercise training (stronger muscles, improved endurance, and higher oxygen consumption) occur during the recovery phase of training. Workouts provide the stimulus for change, but it is during the post-exercise period that the actual physiological and biochemical changes take place to help us become faster and stronger for the next effort. Without adequate recovery, not only do we place ourselves at risk for illness and injury, but we also hamper these post-exercise adaptations (and our performance). Why would you punish yourself through a hard set of intervals (setting in motion the stimulus for adaptation), but then effectively “shut down” the physiological and biochemical adaptation phase with inadequate recovery?
Grabbing a banana and a glass of water after your workout is certainly a step in the right direction — but while this might be OK for the occasional fitness jogger, it’s simply not enough for avid endurance enthusiasts who push themselves on a regular basis.
There are three major aspects to optimal post-exercise recovery: Hydration, glycogen replacement, and biochemical balance (encompassing inflammation and oxidation, repair of tissue damage, and restoration of normal immune function). Attention to any one of these areas will aid post-exercise recovery, but attention to two or three areas will optimize recovery and set you up for better training and performance down the road.
The research is quite clear on a couple of important points with regards to hydration during and after exercise. The first is that you will become dehydrated—even with a short workout. Count on it and plan for it. The second is that electrolyte beverages with low sugar concentrations are clearly superior to water in absorption and retention in the body.
The most important effect of your post-exercise snack is to rapidly stimulate glycogen resynthesis. Almost any combination of carbs and protein will do the job: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a glass of chocolate milk, one of the commercial post-exercise recovery drinks, etc. Endurance athletes should shoot for about 300-500 carbohydrate calories consumed as soon as possible following exercise.
The biochemical changes that occur during exercise encompass a wide range of systemic disruptions such as increased inflammation and oxidation, tissue damage (mostly to the skeletal muscles and lungs), and temporary suppression of immune system activity. If not adequately addressed, these biochemical derangements can increase your risk of illness (colds, flu, and other respiratory tract infections), injury (tendonitis, fasciitis, and stress fractures), and overtraining (lethargy, depression, and irritability).
Getting inflammation and oxidation under control is as easy as getting some more antioxidants into your diet. Brightly colored berries (blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries), most fruit juices (orange, grape, and apple), and even dietary supplements that contain flavonoids (antioxidant) and proteolytic enzymes (anti-inflammatory) are an easy approach to combating these biochemical compounds that can delay tissue repair.
Enhancing the tissue reparative process is also fairly simple. The protein that you may already be consuming with your post-exercise carb-based snack will provide the amino acid building blocks that the body will use to rebuild damaged muscle tissue.
Finally, one of the most overlooked aspects of post-exercise recovery is restoring immune system function. Intense bouts of training and competition can suppress immune function for a full day or more, with a marathon-distance run suppressing immune system activity for about two weeks. Restoring immune function back to normal levels is partially accomplished by consuming antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, but also by providing specific amino acids (glutamine and the three branched-chain amino acids–valine, leucine, and isoleucine) that immune cells use as a fuel source when fighting infection and repairing tissue damage.
Most of us have no need to become Tour de France adept at post-exercise recovery (so we can ride 100 miles a day for three weeks). However, the majority of us maintain our endurance training as just one part of our complicated lives. Enhancing your ability to recover quickly and fully can help you to enjoy that other “stuff” in your life, while at the same time helping you reach that “next level” in your training and competition.
Shawn Talbott holds a PhD in nutritional biochemistry (Rutgers) and MS in Exercise Science (Massachusetts) and is an avid endurance athlete competing in Ironman triathlons and ultra-marathons.