Recovery Nutrition for Athletes

Student-athletes often neglect recovery nutrition. Immediately after intense training or competition, the temptation to eat without considering the nutritional value of the food becomes overwhelming. Conversely, some student-athletes, consumed by their busy schedules or other commitments, completely skip refuelling after their workout. Nevertheless, how an athlete consumes food after training could potentially be even more crucial than their pre-activity meal.

Understanding how to optimize recovery nutrition for athletes will provide better preparation for their next training session, competition, and adaptation to the demands of training. Overall performance can be improved by providing the body with adequate energy through specific nutrients at the appropriate time.

What do athletes need to recover?

  • Carbohydrates and protein are the macronutrients most needed. Even though carbohydrates are emphasized more before training to provide you with energy for activity, they are just as important in recovery nutrition for athletes. During exercise over an hour, blood sugar may also drop, so ingesting carbohydrates helps regulate blood glucose at normal levels. This allows the protein to more optimally repair and rebuild muscle, versus be relied on as an energy source. 
  • On top of carbohydrates and protein, replacing fluid and electrolytes lost during exercise is also critical to support physical and mental energy levels as well as recovery and heart health.

Why does food matter for muscle recovery? 

To ensure optimal performance, it is essential to provide your body with adequate fuel. Equally important is assisting your body in regenerating muscle tissue after exercise. When you engage in physical activity, muscle tissue is damaged, and to enhance its strength during the rebuilding process, your body requires essential nutrients. If you fail to provide these nutrients, your body will lack the necessary resources to sustain the desired level of performance and hinder your progress in achieving strength and fitness goals.

The timing of your meals is just as important as the content. If you delay consuming your recovery meal after exercising (usually beyond two hours), you miss the opportunity to maximize the crucial post-workout period. During this time, your body is primed to absorb nutrients more effectively due to metabolism and the muscle-rebuilding process.

What should I eat for muscle recovery? 

When considering the best choice for refuelling, it is important to prioritize protein. Protein serves as the foundation for muscle development. Once consumed, protein is broken down into amino acids, which are essential for muscle repair and immune system regulation. Therefore, to effectively rebuild muscle tissue, it is advisable to incorporate lean protein into your recovery meal, such as chicken, fish, or eggs, as they are abundant in amino acids. Alternatively, individuals following a plant-based diet can opt for various vegetarian and vegan-friendly protein powders available in the market. Additionally, soy-based products, tofu, and edamame are also viable plant-based alternatives. Regardless of the protein source chosen post-workout, it is crucial to provide the body with the recommended amount of 20-40 grams of protein.

Eating carbohydrates is also a crucial aspect of refuelling. Although certain diets eliminate carbs completely, they are actually required by the body as an energy source, particularly after exercising. When engaging in vigorous workouts, the body relies on glycogen as fuel. Carbohydrates aid in replenishing the glycogen that was depleted during the workout. Individuals participating in high-endurance activities such as long-distance running or swimming necessitate a greater carbohydrate intake compared to those who focus on weightlifting or yoga. This is because the higher the workout intensity, the more glycogen the body utilizes and needs to restore.

A suggested post-workout meal for a morning exercise session could consist of avocado toast topped with a fried egg. The egg provides lean protein, the bread supplies carbohydrates, and the avocado contributes healthy fats. For added taste, you may consider sprinkling Everything But the Bagel seasoning on top. Consuming these nutrients will aid in your body’s recovery post-exertion and provide the necessary energy for the rest of your day’s activities.

After your workout, here are additional illustrations of beneficial carbohydrates, proteins, and nutritious fats to consume.

  • Carbs: whole grains, fruits, rice, oatmeal, potatoes, chocolate milk 
  • Proteins: cottage cheese, tuna, protein bar, Greek yoghurt 
  • Fats: nuts, seeds, trail mix, olive oil

How to optimize recovery nutrition for athletes

After every training session and competition, you can focus on the 3 R’s of Recovery to make it easier to remember. This will better prepare you for the demands of training, academics, and competitions as a student-athlete. By doing so, you can enhance overall performance and reduce the chances of getting injured.

  • Refuel Your Energy Stores: Carbohydrates are the most efficient and preferred source of fuel for the muscles and brain, especially during the higher-intensity activity that student-athletes engage in. After the activity, the body’s energy stores (glycogen) have been depleted and need to be refuelled for the next activity, as well as to stabilize blood sugar levels. There are a lot of misconceptions about carbohydrates in the media and social media, but these claims are not rooted in science and this important energy source is not the enemy!

If you consistently lack enough carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores, you might experience fatigue and a decrease in performance. Some athletes who have been undernourished for a long period might not even realize that their energy levels are below optimal during training. If this applies to you, you can determine how energized you can truly feel by experimenting with your eating habits. For instance, if you weigh 150 pounds, a suitable post-recovery meal could consist of a turkey and cheese sandwich accompanied by a fruit smoothie with 1-2 cups of fruit. On the other hand, if you weigh 250 pounds, a suitable post-recovery meal could include a turkey and cheese sandwich, a high carbohydrate bar like a Nature Valley bar, whole grain or baked chips, and a fruit smoothie with 2 cups of fruit. Additionally, a low-protein liquid and a third-party tested protein powder can also be included in the meal.

When planning your recovery nutrition, remember that selecting easily digestible and low-fibre carbohydrate sources like bread, potatoes, and rice will enhance absorption speed, enabling your muscles to receive energy more rapidly and preparing you for your next training session. Muscle tissue is most receptive to carbohydrate refuelling within the initial 30 minutes after exercise as it is stimulated to accept nutrients. Delaying carbohydrate consumption by 2 or more hours reduces your muscle tissue’s ability to absorb nutrients by 50%. It is advisable to consume carbohydrates with protein as soon as possible after training sessions. If you struggle with reduced appetite following competitions or training, it is ideal to consult with a sports dietitian who can suggest creative approaches to ensure you receive the necessary nutrients for proper recovery.

  • Repair Your Muscles: You likely know that muscle tissue is made up structurally of protein and may have heard of “amino acids” before. Amino acids are essentially the building blocks of protein, and they fit together in a variety of combinations to produce many proteins in the body from muscle to skin, to the structure of your bones and more. Training and competition offer stress that creates tiny micro-tears in the muscle tissue. To effectively adapt to this stress, and become stronger and better for the next stress, adequate nutrition is important. 

Muscle cells rely on muscle protein synthesis (MPS) for recovery and repair, also known as muscle repair and growth. When MPS exceeds muscle protein breakdown caused by exercise, damaged muscle cells are repaired and new ones are formed. By consuming sufficient calories and protein after a workout and throughout the day, muscle cells can rebuild and repair effectively. This leads to a reduction in muscle soreness and stiffness and improves muscle strength, mass, endurance, and/or power gained from training sessions or competitions.

It is appropriate for most athletes to consume 20-40g of high-quality protein at a time, depending on their weight, in addition to carbohydrates, to optimize muscle protein synthesis. However, to continue the repair process, it is important to have this amount of protein 4-5 times throughout the day, rather than relying on a single post-workout meal or snack. Protein sources such as dairy, soy, eggs, chicken, fish, meat, and concentrated pea protein should be chosen. The meal suggestions in the “refuel” section provide sufficient protein. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is beneficial to consult a sports dietitian who can assist you in selecting the appropriate protein combinations from plant foods to ensure optimal repair for your body.

  • Rehydrate: Adequate fluid intake is an essential component of recovery nutrition for athletes. Hydration status impacts blood pressure management and therefore oxygen delivery to muscles during exercise, body temperature regulation, transport of energy and nutrients throughout the body, and protection and lubrication of joints and tissues. Without adequate fluid intake – and enough of other nutrients that regulate fluids –  the recovery process can be compromised. 

After completing physical activity, most athletes become dehydrated and must consciously consume additional fluids to meet their recovery nutrition objectives. To effectively rehydrate, it is essential to include water and electrolytes in the rehydration plan, as insufficient sodium levels can result in the loss of excess water through urine. While measuring fluid losses may not be practical, it is beneficial to acknowledge that even a mild 1-2% fluid loss can negatively impact both physical and cognitive performance. Since thirst is quenched before optimal hydration is achieved, it is advisable to consume specified quantities of fluids after exercise. Furthermore, in addition to their usual fluid intake, student-athletes should consume an extra 20-24 ounces of fluid for every pound they lose during exercise.

The initial effects of dehydration consist of headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps, and diminished mental and physical capabilities, which can also heighten the likelihood of injury. As dehydration continues, the well-being of the heart and kidneys becomes jeopardized. To ensure sufficient hydration, it is advisable to opt for sports drinks or supplement water with electrolyte products and carbohydrates during training and competitions.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button