Recovery Day? Here’s How to Optimize Your Nutrition

First do the math and then learn to trust your instincts when it comes to recovery day nutrition.

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Triathletes are no stranger to long training days. And they’re often familiar with the calculations required for complicated workouts and race-day fueling. But what about days where you could hardly classify your activity as “training?” What should recovery day nutrition look like when you don’t even get off the couch? What if all you do on your rest day is spend 14 hours at the office? Do you need to fuel for a social coffee shop ride? 

When it comes to recovery days, should I eat like a “normal” person? What does normal even look like?

The Basics of Recovery Day Nutrition

Your intuition is probably right.  You don’t need to be slamming hundreds of grams of high glycemic index carbs when your total workout output consists of 200 kcal on the bike or a walk with your dog. But there are a few recovery day nutritional strategies you can use to make sure you’re meeting your overall performance goals—after all recovery is an important part of training:

  1. Meet your kcal intake needs for your current goal, be it weight gain, weight loss, or weight maintenance, and, of course, fueling your performance and quality of life.
  2. Recover from and reap the adaptations to the training you did in the preceding days.
  3. Set yourself up for whatever training is looming tomorrow or in the next few days.

RELATED: How to Trim Weight While Still Crushing Training

There’s the quantitative side to these factors and the qualitative side. Both matter.

No, you don’t need to be a math whiz—or spend too much time crunching numbers just to eat food on recovery days. This doesn’t have to be a homework assignment! (Because that does not sound like relaxing recovery.)

You might be surprised that if you spend a few days really thinking about the numbers side of things, you can quite easily naturally fall into the ideal ranges needed to reap all the benefits of your training and you can probably eventually do it without ever letting a number cross your mind. But you do have to do some quick math first.

The Recovery Day Nutrition Math

For recovery days, you should be in the ballpark of ideal macronutrient composition.  That is, your protein, carbs, and fats should be in alignment with your goals. That doesn’t mean you need to hit exact numbers, but rather ranges—and they’re pretty big ranges at that.

Protein intake doesn’t need to vary from training days to recovery or rest days. It should probably be in the ballpark of 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day, regardless of if you’re going on a five-hour ride or if you’re at the office from 7 a.m. to midnight. Just spread your protein consumption out throughout the day, and you’re good to go.

If you’re 150 pounds, that means you need 90-120g of protein per day. But let’s be real here. If you consume 78 grams one day and 112 grams the next day, that’s fine. In fact, you’re probably exactly as optimized in your nutrition as someone who did precisely 95 grams per day, not to mention a whole lot happier.  The human body is expert at making rough averages out of everything over time. Don’t sweat the small stuff!

Fat intake probably doesn’t need to vary much between training and non-training days either. Getting about 0.3-0.6 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day will work great. On a training day you might want to concern yourself with making sure that you’re not consuming a high-fat meal either pre- or post-training (assuming you’re not doing a low-carb high-fat diet), but on a recovery day, it doesn’t matter. Spread it out, or enjoy something delectable for brunch (fats are tasty, you know!), and you’ll be just fine.

Most concerning to most athletes is: carbs! Surely I don’t need the same amount of carbs on days I do three hours of training as on days I wear sweats and deep clean the kitchen, right? 

Your intuition is correct again here. You can burn through literally pounds of carbohydrates on your biggest training days; you have to fuel well to optimize performance and it is quite common to consume 500-1,000g of carbs on days with training sessions over four hours. But on rest days, you should not be scarfing down several hundred grams of carbohydrate unless you are OK with a slight calorie surplus over time (if you employ this strategy weekly) or in exchange for a temporary carb-load for a major workout or event. There is definitely a time and a place for this, but it’s probably wise to limit serious carb-loading to not more than 10-12 times per year or it can get a little challenging to maintain a calorie balance. 

However, that doesn’t mean you should be low-carb on your recovery days. Just lower carb than you are on your biggest training days. Carbs are still good. Fear not.

RELATED: When and How to Use High-Carb Fueling

Rest day carb recommendations:

  • If you train 1-7 hours per week, then rest day carb intake should probably fall in the 0.5-1.0 grams per pound of body weight range.
  • If you train 8-11 hours per week, then rest day carb intake should probably fall in the 1.0-1.5 grams per pound of body weight range.
  • If you train 12-15 hours per week, then rest day carb intake should probably fall in the 1.5-2.0 grams per pound of body weight range.
  • If you’re training an obscene 16+ hours per week, then rest day carb intake (and yes, you should still take rest days) should probably be in the 2.0-2.5 grams per pound of body weight range.

What if your recovery day isn’t really complete rest. What if it’s like 45-90 minutes of Zone 1 riding?

Light training recovery day carb recommendations:

  1. First, don’t go lower than the complete rest day carb recommendations above. 
  2. Second, consider consuming at least a small amount of intra-workout carbs (sugar!) during your light training. It’s the best opportunity you have to keep glycogen high and restock it post-training.
  3. Third, listen to your hunger cues. If you’re absolutely ravenous and you’re not in a well-thought-out fat loss phase of your diet, then you should definitely consider moving quickly to the top end of the recommended rest day ranges or a bit above.

Once you have crunched the numbers and been well-organized and planned for a few recovery days, then go through a recovery day and just write down what you eat, with no second thought about it. Then, at the end of the day, add up your totals, and I’ll bet you’re getting pretty close to the ideal ranges.

If there are any adjustments to be made, they can probably be made with simple thoughts like “maybe I’ll just add an extra bite of lean protein here, and have a lower fat, higher-carb option for my nighttime snack” rather than “I need to add 14 grams of protein which is exactly 19% of a chicken breast, plus have a half-Tbsp. less peanut butter, and add in ¾ cup of oats and half a banana.”

I can assure you you’ll be happier and more rested and, as a result, perform better, if you take the first approach and not the second.  It’s worth being quantitative initially, but eventually your resting intuition will be totally sufficient.

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