How to Refuel After a Hard Workout

What about recovery electrolytes?

After a hard workout, many athletes reach for a sports drink, thinking Gatorade or PowerAde is "loaded" with sodium (an electrically charged particle). Think again! Other "real foods" are actually better sources of electrolytes than most commercial sports products.

More: 10 Natural Race Food Alternatives

Electrolytes (also known as sodium and potassium) help enhance fluid retention and the restoration of normal fluid balance. Here's how some common recovery fluids compare:

Beverage (8 oz)    Sodium (mg)    Potassium (mg)    Protein (g)    Carbs (g)

Water                      --                       --                            --                    --
PowerAde               55                      45                           --                   19
Gatorade                110                    30                           --                   14
Low-fat milk            100                    400                         8                   12
Chocolate milk        150                    425                         8                    26
Orange juice           --                       450                         2                    26

After a hard workout, fluids such as chocolate milk, orange juice, or a latte offer more "good stuff" than you'd get in a sports drink. Sports drinks are dilute and designed to be consumed during extended exercise.

More: Recovery Nutrition Guidelines After Hard Exercise

To assess how much sodium you lose in sweat, weigh yourself naked pre-post an hour of exercise, accounting for any fluid consumed. A loss of one pound equates to loss of about 700 to 1,000 mg sodium.

If you sweat heavily and lose a significant amount of sodium, you can easily replace those losses with pretzels (300 mg sodium/10 twists), a bagel (500 mg) with peanut butter (200 mg/2 tbsp), Wheaties and milk (300 mg), or a spaghetti dinner with tomato sauce (1000 mg/cup Ragu sauce). Most athletes consume plenty of sodium.

More: Consume Electrolytes and Calories Separately

Recovery can start before you exercise

What you eat before you exercise impacts your recovery. According to research presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, consuming protein before lifting weights enhanced recovery better than consuming a protein drink afterwards. This is because your body digests pre-exercise protein into amino acids (yes, your body can digest food during exercise) and puts those amino acids right into action repairing damaged muscles.

What if you never recover well?

If you have to drag yourself through workouts, ask yourself:

1. Are you overtraining?

Rest is an essential part of a training program; muscles need time to refuel and repair. Take at least one, if not two, days off from exercise per week.

More: How to Fuel Your Body for Energy

2. Are you anemic?

Anemia is common, so have your MD monitor your serum ferritin (stored iron). If your iron stores are depleted, you'll feel needlessly tired during exercise. An estimated half of female athletes are iron-deficient, as indicated by low serum ferritin stores. (About 14% of all women are iron deficient.)

A survey with collegiate male runners suggested about 20% had low serum ferritin. Iron supplements help resolve the problem, alongside a good recovery diet.

More: 10 Post-Run Drinks to Fuel Fast Recovery

Eat wisely, recover well, and feel great.

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