Jan 29, 2015The Recovery Window: How to replenish after workouts
After workouts, only the right mix of macronutrients, electrolytes, and hydration will refuel and replenish the body efficiently.
It’s Friday night at 9:30 p.m. A basketball team begins its 90-minute bus ride home after an exciting double-overtime win, and the players are exhausted — eager to get some rest before they leave again at 7 a.m. for the second game of the weekend tournament.
Most players drain a couple of water bottles on the ride home, a few eat candy from their bags, and others snack on brownies baked by a player’s mom. Some wait until they get home to see if they’re hungry. Back at school, a few parents are waiting with fast food bags in hand. In all, only a handful of players eat a meal before going to sleep.
You might guess how the tournament’s second game turns out. The players are fatigued by halftime, their legs feel impossibly heavy, and they struggle to execute the precise motor movements needed for shooting. They also have trouble maintaining mental focus. One player misses the last quarter due to muscle cramping.
Afterward, players may blame the early morning wake-up or the strain of a long game the night before, or simply say they had an “off day.” They’ll probably never think about the real reason they did so poorly: They completely ignored recovery nutrition.
Most athletes know the value of a healthy breakfast and a balanced pre-game meal. But all too often, they don’t know about arguably the most important time to provide their bodies with fuel to replenish and reload. Post-activity eating and drinking is an essential component of athletic success, and improving recovery nutrition is one of the easiest ways athletes can measurably boost their performance.
Recovery nutrition is best thought of as a window of opportunity. Research has found that in the approximately 30 minutes after intense exercise, the body optimizes its ability to replenish energy stores — particularly muscle and liver glycogen. This is also a critical time because the body instigates muscle protein synthesis for muscle tissue recovery and repair, replenishes fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat, and adapts to the stresses encountered in the workout.
The quantity and quality of nutrients and fluids consumed in the post-exercise period greatly affect recovery. And the longer and more intense a workout, the more important it is to kick-start the body’s recovery and replenishment mechanisms with adequate fueling. The three most important components of recovery nutrition are carbohydrates, protein and fluids/electrolytes.
→ Carbohydrates. Hard exercise dramatically decreases the body’s carbohydrate stores. One recent estimate suggests that a 150-pound athlete may utilize 200 grams of muscle glycogen and 50 grams of liver glycogen in a typical rigorous training session or competition–that’s a total of 1,000 calories worth of carbs!
Athletes should consume 0.5 to 0.7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight within the first 30 minutes after exercise. For someone weighing 150 pounds, that means roughly 75 to 100 grams. The foods and beverages in the “Carbs” box below each contain about 50 grams of carbohydrates — but you should encourage athletes to read product labels and broaden their horizons with a wide selection of carb-containing foods and drinks.
Beyond the 30-minute “immediate” recovery window, it’s also important for athletes to consume more carbs–at least another 50 grams — about two hours after exercise. This helps complete the restoration of glycogen levels and ensure that muscle tissue will be ready to perform again at the next workout, practice, or competition.
To make matters slightly more complicated, some carbohydrates are better for recovery than others. High-glycemic carb sources are absorbed more quickly by the body, helping restore glycogen levels more efficiently after workouts than low-glycemic sources.
High-glycemic foods are generally those with refined flours and added sugars, such as bagels, low-fiber/high-sugar cereals, granola bars or sports bars, pretzels, and flavored milks.
→ Protein. Protein consumed within the recovery window provides amino acid building blocks for muscle tissue synthesis and repair. It also helps ensure a net positive protein balance, which means protein synthesis exceeds protein degradation (breakdown) in muscle tissue. Protein degradation is elevated after exercise, so failing to consume protein can actually result in muscle loss.
Researchers generally suggest that athletes need 10 to 20 grams of protein in the 30-minute recovery window to provide adequate amino acids for synthesis and repair. The foods in the “Protein” box below each contain roughly 10 grams, but again athletes should be encouraged to use nutrition labels and make their own choices.
There is limited evidence to suggest that one protein source is superior to another for promoting muscle recovery. Some researchers have reported that whey protein is most favorable because of its unique amino acid composition and absorption rate, but most recommendations do not distinguish between protein sources. With so many protein-rich options, from meat, dairy, and eggs to nuts, seeds, and legumes, athletes should choose the ones they like best, and perhaps even experiment with different combinations to see if they notice a difference in recovery with certain foods as compared to others.
→ Fluids/electrolytes. The total amount of fluid and electrolytes needed after physical activity varies by individual based on body chemistry, sweat rate and salt content, and other factors. The simplest guide for replenishment is weight loss during workouts: Athletes should weigh themselves before and after activity, and consume 16 to 24 fluid ounces for every pound they lose. For example, someone who drops three pounds during practice needs 48 to 72 ounces of fluid during the recovery window.
Of course, athletes must also be encouraged to focus on hydration during activity, so ideally, their pre- and post-workout weight shouldn’t be much different. If the prospect of downing 72 ounces of fluid after a workout is unappealing, that’s one more reason to hit the water and sports drink bottles early and often while working out.
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Because sweat contains electrolytes like sodium and potassium, the best recovery hydration options are sports drinks, fruit juice, and flavored milk as opposed to plain water. Chocolate milk in particular is an excellent choice, because it rehydrates and provides electrolytes while also supplying the body with carbs and protein.
Beyond those three key areas, fat is another component that athletes sometimes ask about regarding recovery nutrition. Conventional wisdom is that low-fat foods and beverages are the best options, because a high fat content slows digestion and thus delays nutrient absorption.
However, some researchers note that significant depletion of fat stores within muscles (intramuscular triglycerides) occurs during training. As much as 900 calories worth of fat may be oxidized during a hard workout or competition. Some recent studies have also found that “healthy fats,” such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil help regulate the inflammatory response after workouts. For those reasons, athletes shouldn’t be afraid to consume moderate amounts of fat in post-workout meals. However, the broader warnings against trans fats and foods high in saturated fat still apply.
Meal or snack?
Athletes crave simplicity in nutrition advice. One of their most frequently asked questions is whether they are better off consuming a meal or simply a snack after workouts and games. Some ask this question because they have so little appetite after hard work that a snack is all they can stomach.
In most cases, my answer is both — or more specifically, first one, then the other. It’s fine if they only consume a snack in the 30-minute window, as long as it meets the criteria outlined above. A large glass of chocolate milk and a few handfuls of pretzels may be all they need to get enough carbs, protein, and electrolytes to begin optimal recovery.
If they go that route, they should plan on consuming a full meal about two hours later, complete with at least 50 grams of carbs and 15 grams of protein, and a larger quantity of whole food overall. This will ensure that muscle glycogen replacement continues and the body’s longer-term recovery processes receive adequate fuel. It will also allow replacement of the broader spectrum of micronutrients and amino acids that the snack didn’t provide.
For those who can eat a full meal within the 30-minute window, the advice basically flip-flops. They should consume a snack about two hours after their meal, again with at least 50 grams of carbs and 15 grams of protein. The overall goal is to kick-start recovery with immediate refueling, and then to follow up with further nutritional support after a couple of hours.
Making it happen
In my work with athletes, I develop individualized nutrition plans that cover daily intake before, during, and after exercise. With recommendations in hand, we work on realistic strategies to make sure the plan is followed.
For the struggling basketball players described at the beginning of this article (yes, they really existed), I worked with coaches, parents, and the team’s athletic trainer to institute team-wide recovery nutrition after every game. Team personnel started packing post-game snacks that were waiting for players on the bus. In addition, I created easy-to-follow late-night meal suggestions for the players’ parents to prepare at home.
Sometimes, we got creative to meet the players’ needs. An assistant coach worked with concessions stands at home and on the road to purchase salted soft pretzels with mustard at a group discount for the team to eat after games. A parent provided either individual servings of chocolate milk or low-fat milkshakes from a fast food restaurant, and the athletic trainer got into the habit of bringing bananas and a cooler of sports drinks. Simple steps like those meant that players had easy access to quality protein, carbohydrates, fluids, and electrolytes during the critical 30-minute recovery window.
Once I began working with the team, game and practice performance improved–particularly in settings where quick recovery was most important, like weekend tournaments. The incidence of muscle cramping decreased, and players had an easier time maintaining their body weight throughout the season.
Of course, there are many ways to improve players’ recovery nutrition habits. I asked professionals at several athletic programs for their tips, and here’s what they shared:
→ Practice makes perfect. Chris Morland, MS, CSCS, strength and conditioning coordinator at North Carolina State University, has implemented post-workout recovery nutrition with his athletes and observed several benefits. “During the competition phase of the year, when intensity and energy expenditure are very high, I look to make quality calories directly available to athletes right after workouts,” he says. “We also provide athletes with an explanation of why recovery nutrition is important, so they connect recovery to personal choices.”
Morland offers NCAA-permissible nutritional bars and shakes along with sports drinks, nuts, and fruit to his athletes immediately after workouts. He believes that recovery nutrition habits acquired in the weight room translate into better post-game and post-competition nutrition practices.
The women’s cross country and track and field teams at St. John’s University have enjoyed improved workout recovery through nutrition recommendations from Sports Dietitian Mary Ellen Bingham, MS, RD, CSSD. After noticing that the team traveled up to 45 minutes each way to run in Central Park or the New York Armory, Bingham recommended bringing fuel and fluids for the ride back to campus. Low-fat chocolate milk and trail mix are some of the athletes’ favorites, and they’ve carried the lessons from these practices to meet days and to other teams as well.
→ Change the culture. Some teams have a well-defined routine they follow religiously after practices and games. The athletes might get treatment in the training room, meet with coaches, hit the showers, hang out with friends, and talk to the media, and before they know it, an hour or two has passed and the immediate recovery window has closed.
For these teams, you must find ways to build recovery nutrition into their post-game culture. This can happen through simple steps, such as passing out recovery shakes for consumption as athletes wait for treatment in the training room, or making sure they have a sports drink in hand before they meet with family and friends after a game.
At Texas Christian University, Sport Dietitian Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, has made the “box meal” a post-competition staple. She typically provides a turkey or ham and cheese sub sandwich (two for athletes seeking weight gain) along with baked chips and fruit or a cookie. Because the athletes know a box will be waiting for them after every game, they’ve made it part of their routine and expect to swap game notes and observations over a shared meal.
“It’s a great mix of carbohydrate and protein, and almost everyone loves sandwiches,” Goodson says. “The box meals are easy to eat on a bus and very affordable to put together, making them a great choice for our athletes.”
→ Account for low appetites. Since exercise can suppress appetite, many athletes struggle with a lack of hunger after working out. As Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells her athletes, “You need it the most when you want it the least.”
Athletes who don’t feel hungry after workouts often do better with recovery beverages. Flavored milk, drinkable yogurts, and fruit smoothies can provide everything they need without requiring an appetite. Ice-cold sports drinks, fruit juice, and low-fat milkshakes can be especially appealing because of their cooling effect. Once athletes get in the habit of consuming something after workouts, even if it’s just liquid, they’ll usually end up looking forward to it.
→ Talk about the impact. There’s no doubt athletes will experience benefits from focusing on recovery nutrition if they’ve ignored it in the past. But if they aren’t paying attention, they might not realize where the boost in performance and delay in fatigue is coming from.
Rob Skinner, MS, RD, CSSD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Virginia, recently helped a cross country runner improve his race performances. The athlete was running daily, with runs progressing from harder to easier throughout the week. He also did strength and medicine ball workouts on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
When Skinner started him on recovery meals with the right mix of carbohydrates and protein, his race times got better and better. Because of the athlete’s intense training regimen, he might have attributed his improvement to tweaks in his running schedule or strength workouts. But when Skinner explained the mechanisms of muscle recovery and pointed out that the performance gains coincided with a new emphasis on post-exercise nutrition, the runner was sold on the value of recovery meals following each workout. As a result, he understood that sticking with his new nutrition strategy was a vital part of optimizing his race performance.
→ Don’t ignore weight goals. Athletes trying to lose weight often resist recovery nutrition because they feel it is a source of unnecessary calories. Some even feel that eating a meal after physical activity “cancels out” the benefits of their hard work by replacing calories they just burned.
Athletes looking to change their body weight require special attention. Even when they do eat, they often don’t make wise choices from a recovery standpoint.
Recently, Bonci worked with a University of Pittsburgh swimmer who had altered her diet to lose weight. The athlete had lost 16 pounds in a short time, but her performance had dropped off significantly. When Bonci asked about her recovery fueling habits, she reported that she was eating lunch or dinner within 30 minutes of finishing practices and meets, but the meal usually consisted of a grilled chicken salad–in other words, almost no carbohydrates.
Bonci recommended adding pasta, a roll, and some fruit juice, or switching to a grilled chicken wrap to provide enough carbohydrates for optimal recovery. She explained why carbs are so important and thus why an entrée salad wasn’t the best choice right after a workout. The athlete took this advice, and was pleased to see her performance improve. She was also happy to notice that she didn’t gain any weight in the process.
Many athletes who restrict calories for weight loss find that a post-competition or post-workout recovery snack or small meal takes the edge off their appetite, allowing them to better control their portions at subsequent meals. It’s essential to stress that the critical recovery window post-exercise is the worst time to shortchange the body’s fueling needs.
Every athlete interested in optimizing performance should understand the importance of recovery nutrition. If they haven’t been paying attention to their post-workout fueling and you can get them to change their habits, you won’t need to spend hours lecturing them and coaxing them to stick with it. They’ll soon notice the difference for themselves, and wonder why they didn’t start paying attention to recovery nutrition a lot sooner.