May 28, 2020
Combatting Stress with Nutrition in Post-Workout Recovery
Meagan Nielsen, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN

Practice makes perfect, right? But how do you make your practice…perfect? 

Every athlete participates in workouts that prepare them for their next game/competition/tournament/etc. They run plays, work on skills, and spend time in the gym building their muscles. All of these things are very important for performance, but it can be easy to forget that what is done after a workout is just as important. Athletes put their bodies under a lot of stress, so recovery is key when it comes to preparing for the next workout or game.

vegetablesStress is necessary to produce a hormonal response leading to adaptation. However, when stress is chronically in excess it can lead to negative effects in the human body. The inability to down-regulate inflammation, decreased recruitment of muscle fibers, and a suppressed immune system are just some of the negative effects that stress can have on athletes. Proper recovery practices can help to mitigate these negative aspects. While the specific needs of athletes depend on many variables, there are some general recommendations that will be important to incorporate after each workout. The four things to focus on when it comes to post-workout recovery are carbohydrate, protein, hydration, and sleep. 


Carbohydrates play an important role in performance and adaptation to training. It is the primary fuel that is used by the brain and central nervous system for both anaerobic and aerobic activity. Therefore, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy for moderate to high-intensity training. When carbohydrate stores (referred to as glycogen stores) are depleted in the body, individuals often experience feelings of fatigue, lack of concentration, and even impaired sport skills. This not only impacts performance but also activities of daily life. Just think about student-athletes depleting their carbohydrate stores from practice and then trying to study without proper recovery habits. 

The amount of carbohydrates needed post-workout is dependent on many factors: when the next practice or competition will be, specific goals for the athlete, in-season versus off-season, and the type of workout the athlete just participated in to name a few. In general, endurance-based athletes may need 1-1.2 gram carbohydrate/kg body weight in their post-workout meal or snack, while team sport and strength-training workouts may only need 0.8 gram carbohydrate/kg body weight. For example, an endurance athlete weighing 150 pounds (68 kilograms) would need 68-82 grams of carbohydrate post-workout. This is equivalent to one medium baked potato and two slices of bread on the lower end, adding a third slice of bread to equate to the higher end of the range. Rather than focusing on the exact amount, encourage players to consume foods with carbohydrates as soon as possible after a workout to get them started on the right path. This will help glycogen stores to be replenished so that they can continue with their daily activity and have enough stores available for their next workout session. 


Protein is often the first nutrient that comes to mind for people when asked about post-workout recovery. It plays a role both in the maintenance and building of lean body mass. However, this does not mean that consuming a large amount of protein in one sitting will prevent muscle protein breakdown or stimulate large amounts of muscle protein synthesis. The body responds to and utilizes the amount of protein it needs, and then excretes a large amount of the excess via urine. So rather than consuming an abundance of protein that could not only be wasted but also take up space in the post-workout meal/snack from carbohydrate, athletes should focus on consuming protein regularly throughout the day. 

Amazingly, muscle protein synthesis is responsive to just one bout of exercise for up to 24 hours post-workout.  With this in mind, consuming 0.25-0.30 grams protein/kg body weight (or ~20 grams) post-workout can give the athlete the amount of protein they need to start the recovery process. The same athlete mentioned previously (weighing 68kg) would need about 20 grams of protein post-workout, which can be found in three ounces of chicken, 20 ounces of milk, three large eggs, or six ounces of firm tofu. It is also recommended to encourage athletes to choose a complete protein, which contains all of the amino acids that the body cannot make itself. One great option is whey protein because not only is it complete, but it is also digested quickly and is high in leucine, which has been shown to initiate muscle protein synthesis quickly. Of course, this protein can be found in powder form, but it is recommended to encourage food first so that the athletes can get other nutrients from whole foods. Whey is a milk protein, so it can be found in dairy products, such as milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, and ricotta cheese.


Sweating during a workout is how the body cools itself, so the loss of fluid during a workout is normal. However, when athletes lose two percent or more of their body weight in fluids, that is when performance can become impaired via altered metabolic and central nervous function, increased glycogen use, cardiovascular strain, and increased risk of heat illness. Even if an athlete is consuming fluids throughout their workout, it is necessary to focus on rehydration afterward as well. The quickest and easiest way to monitor hydration is by using pre- and post-weights. For every pound (or ~0.5kg) lost during the workout, encourage the athlete to drink 24 ounces of fluid. This can help to make up for any additional fluids lost in sweat and urine post-workout. This is a strategy that can be helpful when the weather is hot and humid, or in very strenuous exercise where athletes may be sweating profusely. This strategy is not something that needs to be done daily, but rather only when the circumstances may warrant it and/or when athletes experience cramping or other dehydration issues.

Simply drinking a bunch of water at once will not cut it though. In order to retain the fluids for hydration, sodium needs to also be consumed in addition to the fluids. This can be done by adding salty foods such as pretzels or crackers (which also provide carbohydrates), foods cooked with salt, or a sports drink. After the initial rehydration with sodium, encourage athletes to carry around a water bottle so that they can continuously sip fluids throughout the day to stay hydrated. 


Although sleep is not a nutritional strategy, it is still important for adequate recovery. Proper sleep aids in athletic and academic performance, body composition changes/maintenance, and both physical and mental health. When sleep is compromised, it can cause athletic ability to decline, impair memory and learning, decrease immunity, increase inflammation, and alter both carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis. Proper sleep hygiene can utilize small changes to bedtime routines to aid inadequate sleep. Encourage athletes to keep their bedroom cool, dark, and quiet; establish consistent sleep schedules, even on the weekend to acclimate the body to a routine; and to try limiting screen time about one hour prior to bedtime. Better sleep can help players to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to work hard in practices or games.


Recovery habits are essential for athletes. Specific needs will vary with each individual. Sports Dietitians can educate and guide athletes to find what works best for them. Overall, help athletes to focus on these post-workout practices:

  • Carbohydrate-rich foods as soon as possible 
  • Around 20 grams of complete protein
  • Fluids to rehydrate
  • Sodium for water retention via salty food or drink
  • Adequate sleep at night utilizing sleep hygiene tactics


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  • Halson S. Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Med, 2014; 44(1): 13-23. 
  • Halson S. Sleep and athletes. Published July 2017. Accessed March 30, 2020.
  • Franklin C. et al. Relationship of sleep hygiene awareness, sleep hygiene practices, and sleep quality in university students. Behavioral Medicine, 2002;28(1): 33-38.

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