What's best to eat for recovery after a hard workout?
That's what marathoners, body builders, and fitness exercisers alike repeatedly ask. They read ads for commercial recovery foods that demand a three to one ratio of carbs to protein, tout the benefits of a proprietary formula, or emphasize immediate consumption the minute you stop exercising.
While these ads offer an element of truth, consumers beware: engineered recovery foods are not more effective than standard foods. The purpose of this article is to educate you, a hungry athlete, about how to choose an optimal recovery diet.
More: Nutrition Recovery for Endurance Athletes
Which athletes need to worry about a recovery diet?
Too many athletes are obsessed with rapidly refueling the minute they stop exercising. They are afraid they will miss the one-hour “window of opportunity” when glycogen replacement is fastest. They fail to understand that refueling still occurs for several hours, just at a slowing rate.
Given a steady influx of adequate carb-based meals and snacks, muscles can refuel within 24 hours. If you have a full day to recover before your next training session, or if you have done an easy (non-depleting) workout, you need not obsess about refueling immediately afterwards.
More: 4 Delicious Recovery Smoothies
Refueling immediately is most important for serious athletes doing a second bout of intense, depleting exercise within six hours of the first workout. This includes:
• Triathletes doing double workouts
• Soccer players in tournaments
• People who ski hard in the morning and again in the afternoon
The sooner you consume carbs to replace depleted muscle glycogen and protein to repair damaged muscle, the sooner you'll be able to exercise hard again.
More: Are You Eating Enough Carbs?
Over the course of the next 24 hours, your muscles have lots of time to replenish glycogen stores. Just be sure to repeatedly consume a foundation of carbohydrates with each meal/snack, along with some protein to build and repair the muscles. For example, a fruit smoothie is an excellent choice.
How many carbs do I need?
According to the International Olympic Committee’s Nutrition Recommendations, adequate carbs means:
Amount of exercise Gram carb/lb Gram carb/kg
Moderate exercise (~1 hour/day) 2.5 to 3 5-7
Endurance exercise (1-3 h/day) 2.5 to 4.5 6-10
Extreme exercise (>4-5 h/day) 3.5 to 5.5 8-12
More: Why Are Carbs Important?
For example, a 150-lb triathlete doing extreme exercise should target approximately 500 to 800 g carb/day (2,000 to 3,200 carb-calories). That’s about 500 to 800 g of carbs every four hours during the daytime.