Nutrition For Optimal Recovery

September 23, 2019
Of course the type of fuel matters as well. There is a big trend in sports nutrition right now to eat real food for all occasions.
Dr. Stephanie Howe

By Stephanie Howe Violett

As athletes, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get the most out of our training. One area that frequently seems to be underemphasized is nutrition, especially post-workout fueling. If I could offer ONE piece of advice to endurance athletes, it would be to make post-workout nutrition a priority. The reason this time window is so important is because your body is best able to absorb energy and use it for recovery and repair. Let me explain this a bit more.

Normally when we eat something, we digest and absorb the nutrients across our gut into the blood stream. In the case of glucose, our cells are not able to take in glucose until insulin is released from the pancreas and binds to the cells. It sort of works like a lock and key, and allows the cells to take up glucose. 

When we exercise, the muscle contractions themselves stimulate the muscle cells to take up glucose. This is important because glucose is the energy our bodies use to keep working. Immediately post-exercise, and for the nest 30 minutes, those glucose receptors stay on the surface of the muscle cells and can take up glucose. Meaning, anything you eat within the 30 minutes of finishing activity will go directly to the muscles to kick start recovery and repair. This time window is important, because if you wait for an hour after activity, the muscles receptors are not active anymore and the fuel will go to the entire body, requiring insulin. Translation: if you eat within 30 minutes of a workout you “fill up your gas tank” immediately, and this will prepare you for the next session later in the day or the following day. 

Of course the type of fuel matters as well. There is a big trend in sports nutrition right now to eat real food for all occasions. While that sounds healthy and ideal, the time before, during, and after activity is not the time to prioritize complex, whole, fiber-rich foods. Why? Because it takes much longer to digest these foods and delays uptake. The whole reason we fuel surrounding exercise is to get energy in- and we want that energy quickly! Post-exercise is no different. The sooner we can get in fuel, the quicker we start the recovery process. 

Ideally you want to eat simple carbohydrate with a little bit of protein (4:1 ratio to be exact). The carbohydrate is the main source for recovery- it resupplies the muscles with glycogen (glucose) to be used for the next session. Protein helps to repair any muscle damage that occurred during activity. 

So what does this look like? Some great sources of fuel post-workout include:
Chocolate milk (real milk, not plant based milk)
Recovery drink mixes (Clif Bar makes one of the best)
Yogurt or keifir
Banana with 1 Tablespoon nut butter
Smoothie (see below)
Latte made with real milk

But honestly, something is better than nothing. If it’s a really hot day and all you crave is salty chips and salsa- EAT THAT. Don’t force something down that you can’t stomach. The best-formulated recovery drink is no good if you don’t like it. Especially post- high intensity session, appetite is suppressed and you are much less likely to eat something that doesn’t sound good. The most important thing is to hit the time window of ~30 min of finishing a workout.

Stephanie’s Recovery Smoothie
½ frozen banana 
1 cup milk*
1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon peanut or almond butter
ice, if desired
Add to blender and turn on. It’s that simple…. Add a full banana for more sweetness or a dash of honey. 
*If you can’t drink milk, use coconut or almond milk as a substitute, but the nutrition quality is much lower.

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