You can speed your recovery considerably and maximize your training gains after a long race or a hard training session if you eat (and drink) for recovery.
Your muscles are most receptive to reloading glycogen in a 15- to 30-minute window immediately following exercise. Blood flow to muscles is enhanced immediately following exercise.
Muscle cells can pick up more glucose and are more sensitive to the effects of insulin, a hormone that promotes the synthesis of glycogen by moving glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells.
It takes at least 20 to 24 hours of refueling with carbohydrate-rich foods to replenish your muscle stores fully, so daily workouts can leave you running on low fuel stores. Since the effects of dehydration and muscle glycogen depletion can be cumulative, inadequate refueling can contribute to overtraining syndrome.
Here are strategies you can use to improve your recovery eating habits and make sure that you are always running on a full tank.
Don't forget fluids. Your body cannot perform any of its metabolic jobs well if you are dehydrated. Weigh yourself periodically before and after a hard workout to estimate how much fluid you need to replace. Remember, "a pint's a pound" every one pound lost during a workout reflects two cups of water loss. Sports drinks are an efficient fluid replacement since they also provide carbohydrates and sodium.
Fruit juices, low-fat milkshakes, and smoothies are also good choices since you get both liquid and carbs. Avoid drinking copious amounts of plain water if your workout has been over an hour. You'll need to consume some electrolytes and sodium as well.
After exercise, you can eat or drink your carbs, but do it quickly. Aim for about half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (about 50 to 100 grams) within the first 15 to 30 minutes after a long race or workout. Most sports drinks contain only 14 to 20 grams per cup, while fruit juices contain about 25 to 40 grams per cup.
The best recovery plan also includes eating carb-rich foods as soon as you can tolerate them. Try yogurt, fresh fruit, an energy bar, or a bagel. You may be able to boost the rate at which your muscles store glycogen, as well as speed up the recovery and repair of muscle tissue, by ingesting protein in combination with carbohydrate at this time. The results of one study suggest using one gram of protein per three grams of carbohydrate.
Try to eat (or drink) an additional 50 to 100 grams of carbohydrates every two hours until your next full meal. Think of whole grains, fresh fruits, dried fruits, pretzels, whole-grain cereal and non-fat or low-fat dairy.
Don't wait for your appetite to return after a long race. The longer you wait to eat, the less glycogen you store and the longer it takes to recover. Intense or exhaustive exercise may depress your appetite. Anticipate that, and have palatable food ready to eat.
Make notes about your food choices in your running log to help you keep track of what worked well and what didn't.
(Adapted from "Endurance Sports Nutrition" by Suzanne Girard Eberle, M.S., R.D., 2000, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 287 pp. $18.95. Available from the American Running Store)
Running & FitNews, Volume 19, Number 12
Copyright, The American Running Association.