Sara Hillring, MS, RDN, CD, SFP-MRC
Performance Dietitian, Running Coach, & Endurance Athlete
When you finish a workout, what do you hear most often from your trainer or coach? The typical advice is to stretch, roll out, and drink water. The goal is for your body to recover from the physical demands of exercise so that it can effectively absorb the benefits of solid training. This standard list of recovery to-dos is missing something essential: nutrition.
Sports nutrition for recovery is an indispensable tool that supports athletic performance, mitigates the risk of injury, improves energy levels, and builds strength. Our bodies need carbohydrate reserves to sustain energy during exercise. After an intense workout, our muscles temporarily break down. They need a rebuilding phase, aided by dietary protein, to get stronger. Additionally, exercise stresses the body and promotes inflammation. Antioxidants like vitamin C can help restore balance and rejuvenation.
To ensure casual and professional athletes alike properly support healthy recovery following rigorous exercise, they should follow the Four Rs – all of which are rooted in sports nutrition.
One of the first goals after completing a workout or training session is to rehydrate the body by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. The amount of hydration needed depends on factors such as the training environment, exercise intensity, and personal sweat rate.
To cover your bases, always bring a water bottle to the gym or field. Sip water as you exercise to keep your body as hydrated as possible. Rehydration post-exercise is also key. Pairing water with a salty snack such as crackers, cheese, nuts, or milk can return you to a hydrated state. Sodium helps the body retain water and improves the rate of rehydration.
If we don’t refuel by eating the right amounts and types of food to support the demands of exercise, we can experience decreased metabolism, depleted bone health, negative hormonal shifts, weakened immunity, and compromised heart health.
As an example, our muscles and liver store glycogen, which is a form of glucose. Glycogen is the body’s main source of energy. When we exercise, we tap our glycogen reserves, which means we need to replenish what we use by eating carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are key to post-exercise recovery. They are essential for active individuals and athletes in multiple situations including pre-workout, during exercise, and throughout the day. Keep a post-workout snack in your gym bag, especially if you expect a delay between the end of your workout and your next well-balanced meal. Pro tip: chocolate milk can be a convenient way to refuel as it contains fluid, carbs, sodium, and protein.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is activated by, for example, resistance exercise or the ingestion of dietary protein. When we consume high-quality protein after a workout, we experience a big nutritional boost that positively promotes MPS. This creates the environment for effective muscles to repair and grow.
Without sufficient protein, the body will enter a state called negative nitrogen balance, which leads to muscle loss, decreased performance, intolerance to training load, injury, and disease. By combining a carbohydrate with a protein in a meal or snack following exercise, you can improve muscle repair and build strength. Remember that you gain the most benefit when you pair protein with carbohydrates.
Each person’s protein needs are unique, but aiming for approximately 20 to 30 grams of protein post-workout is the rule of thumb. It is recommended to seek the guidance of a sports dietitian to maximize your training gains.
Try eating a snack with carbs and protein immediately after your workout followed by a well-balanced meal within two hours to gain the necessary protein. A smoothie, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, yogurt cup, or turkey roll-ups are easy snacks to stash and eat immediately after a workout.
4. Rest & Revive
Antioxidants are substances found in vitamin C-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. They are also found in herbs and spices. Antioxidants help reduce the stress that is produced during the body’s inflammatory response. They can reduce muscle soreness and tissue damage. Antioxidants can help the body bounce back easier from one training session to the next. Certain foods like cinnamon, pomegranate, beetroot, tart cherry juice, and turmeric have all been explored as recovery enhancers. Work antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory food sources into your meals and snacks throughout the rest of the day following a workout for the best results. Eat a balanced array of foods that vary in color like leafy greens, oranges, and red cherries to maximize your performance and recovery.
Additionally, the benefits of adequate, consistent, and restful sleep are massive. Pre-sleep nutrition strategies can help take your recovery to the next level. This includes a pre-bedtime snack rich in complex carbohydrates, quality proteins, antioxidant-dense fruits, micronutrient-laden veggies, and sources of melatonin. Consult a dietitian to make sure your regimen suits your needs and health status before making sweeping dietary and sleep routine changes.
By following the 4 Rs, you can positively impact your athletic performance and improve your overall health. Begin slowly and note what makes you feel your best. Take care of yourself to create a healthy, strong, and high-performing body.
Are you looking for sports/performance nutrition support? If you are unsure of how to elevate your performance and health goals, or manage exercise with a health condition, contact, Sara Hillring, a MOSH partner and performance dietitian, at firstname.lastname@example.org.