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Top nutritional tips to get rapid post-workout recovery

Why do we need to pay attention to using nutrition to recover properly from our workouts? The benefits of recovering properly from your hard training are clear: the athlete who recovers quickly can train hard again with shorter recovery time, more quality training in his or her schedule, fewer injuries and an enhanced immune system. In fact, when you consider that the human body is not designed for the extended, high-intensity workouts we put ourselves through, it’s a wonder we don’t break down more often.

The strategies you use to speed up your post-exercise recovery are rehydration, glycogen resynthesis and protein and antioxidant supplementation. These techniques replenish your muscle fuel supplies, hasten the repair of muscle damage and combat free-radical formation in your cells.

The goals of nutritional recovery

  • Replace fluids and electrolytes
  • Replenish energy stores (glycogen, ATP etc)
  • Hasten muscle, tendon and ligament tissue repair
  • Reduce residual delayed onset muscle soreness and pain (DOMS)
  • Return immune system to healthy status

The devil, however, is in the details. You can pop vitamin pills, drink protein powder shakes, guzzle sports drinks and eat all the carbohydrates you can stomach but, if you don’t eat and drink the right kinds of food, drink and supplements at the right times, you’ll be wasting your time and money. It’s not just what you eat but when you eat it that counts in your recovery. Here’s how to use recovery nutrition to get the most out of yourself after your hard training efforts.


Your first priority is to fully replace fluid and electrolyte losses in muscle and blood immediately after exercise. Weigh yourself before and after your workout and make sure you drink your lost weight back on within an hour or two. In fact, aim to drink 125 per cent of the weight you lost from sweating because you still continue to sweat while you’re rehydrating.

Recent research shows we absorb more fluid when electrolytes are added to water, thus achieving better restoration of body water. Sodium in particular helps retain water, stimulates thirst and prevents low plasma sodium.

Replenish glycogen

Glycogen is the main storage form for carbohydrates in your body and exists mainly in muscles and the liver. Glycogen is burned during intense exercise and carbohydrates consumed immediately after and from two to five hours after exercise enhance muscle glycogen restoration. This is most effective if ingested from fluid because fluid absorption is faster than digestion of solid foods.

Reading the labels of sports drinks is important because many of them are simply soft drinks in disguise with excess amounts of sugar and caffeine.

Edward Coyle PhD, exercise physiologist at the University of Texas in Austin, says the more glycogen you can get into your system within the first two hours of stopping are the most crucial. “The muscles absorb glycogen like a sponge,” he says, “[but] four to six hours after the race the absorption rate starts to decline.”

Choose carbohydrate-rich fluids to replace your water losses, electrolytes and muscle glycogen. Reading the labels of sports drinks is important because many of them are simply soft drinks in disguise with excess amounts of sugar and caffeine. Select fruit juices or reputable sports drinks according to your preference — and there’s no rule that says you can’t drink both.

You’ll know you’re rehydrating adequately when you start urinating again, which can be an hour or more after working out. Urine should be clear and pale. Despite the refreshing taste, beer (or any alcohol) is counterproductive to good recovery because its diuretic effect prevents you from rehydrating properly at a critical time.

Researchers have discovered that carbohydrate solutions, when mixed with protein, have an important benefit. They have found that a mix of protein and carbohydrate taken immediately after exercise tops up your glycogen and amino acid stores much faster than a carbohydrate solution only.

The general consensus is that carbohydrate/protein mixes double the insulin response and increase the rate of glycogen synthesis by 30 per cent. Why are these insulin responses desirable? Insulin is the hormone that takes up sugar and deposits it into our muscle cells, so it follows that a solution that creates a high insulin response will build high intramuscular glycogen levels and do this quickly.

I recommend that runners ingest 0.4g/kg of bodyweight of protein immediately after training and again two hours later. The protein is best absorbed in the form of whey or casein powder.

Choosing your carbs

What carbohydrates should we be ingesting after hard training? Some carbohydrates cause rapid rises in blood-sugar levels (high glycaemic index) while others promote a slower release of sugars into the bloodstream (low glycaemic index). You should aim to eat and drink high glycaemic index foods immediately after exercising to boost your blood glucose levels quickly, thus causing a fast release of insulin, which in turn drives more glycogen into the muscle cells. Note that this is an exercise for after high-intensity exercise only, not a general health recommendation.

The recommended amount is 0.5 to 0.75 grams of carbohydrate for every 450g of bodyweight. And a second dose of high glycaemic index carbohydrates is recommended from one to four hours post-exercise.

High glycaemic index foods & drinks

  • Bagels
  • Baked potatoes
  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Raisins
  • White rice
  • Sports drinks (with sugar)
  • Jelly beans
  • Dates (dried)
  • Pineapple
  • Apricot (tinned)

There’s an important dosage requirement for this carbohydrate/protein mix to be effective. The ratio of carbohydrate to protein is most effective at 4:1. This new research on carbohydrate/protein synergy has great implications for people who work out or do sports training strenuously every day. You should be taking on board a mixture of protein and carbohydrates (preferably in fluid form) in a 4:1 ratio, immediately after training.

The need for protein

The need for extra protein for people who work out strenuously is well documented. You need to compensate for the physiological demands that rigorous exercise places on your body: increased breakdown of muscle contractile proteins, increased production of red blood cells, increased mitochondrial protein content, faster replacement of glycogen stores and increased oxidation and use of amino acids as fuel when muscle glycogen is low.

Antioxidants for muscle repair

The downside to strenuous aerobic activity and weight training is the increased stress on your body’s cells caused by the huge amount of oxygen you process while exercising. This process, called oxidation, damages the membrane, internal structure and organelles of muscle cells, impairing their function. The result: muscle soreness and inflammation, and fatigue — all done by nasty little molecules called free radicals.

Some antioxidant vitamins assist in growth, repair of tissue damage and disarming free radical damage from stressful environments such as pollution and extreme cold. A strong case can be presented in favour of taking antioxidant vitamins to hasten recovery of damaged muscle and connective tissue, free radical damage, immune system suppression and oxidative stress caused by exercising.

A strong case can be presented in favour of taking antioxidant vitamins to hasten recovery of damaged muscle and connective tissue.

Antioxidants, produced naturally in the body or obtained from our food, block most free radical reactions. Evidence exists that certain antioxidant supplements reduce free radical damage in athletes. One study found that five months of vitamin E supplementation in racing cyclists reduced markers of oxidative stress induced by extreme endurance exercise.

Some studies show that vitamin E can reduce leakage of cell membranes to result in less creatine kinase (an inflammatory enzyme) and several other indicators of oxidative stress. Another study found that three grams/day of vitamin C administered for two weeks before and two weeks after damaging eccentric resistance training exercise significantly reduced delayed onset muscle soreness in their subjects.

Monique Ryan, in her excellent book Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, summarises: “For endurance athletes, [supplements] are crucially important. Because of your training and the stress it imposes on your body, you may need higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than sedentary people. And, as an athlete, you have a highly vested interest in keeping your immune system healthy so that illness does not put a halt to your training.”

She continues, “Vitamins and minerals are essential for metabolising energy, building body tissue, maintaining fluid balance and carrying oxygen in the body. Vitamins and minerals also play a role in reducing the oxidative stress that is brought on by endurance training.”

Guidelines for vitamin supplementation

  • Take your multivitamin supplement with a meal to enhance absorption.
  • Choose a supplement in which the majority of vitamin A is actually beta-carotene. Vitamin A, or retinol, should not exceed 3000 IU daily.
  • Look for a mix of vitamin E from tocopherols and tocotrienols.
  • Choose a multivitamin in which the vitamin D source is D3, or cholecalciferol, the type that is best absorbed.

Immune system recovery

A balanced training program of exercise and rest leads to better performance of your immune system. Studies have shown improved immune function and fewer colds and flus in athletes as compared to their more sedentary counterparts. This is especially true in older athletes and it appears that regular exercise can help reduce the age-related decline in immune function. On the other hand, too much exercise can lead to a dramatically increased risk of infections and the stress of strenuous exercise does transiently suppress immune function.

Only one nutritional substance has been shown to restore the immune system after exercising: drinking a carbohydrate solution during and after exercise. Drinking one litre per hour has been shown to lower blood cortisol and epinephrine levels, reduce adverse changes in blood immune cells and lower anti-inflammatory cytokine levels.

Vitamin C administered for two weeks before and two weeks after damaging eccentric resistance training exercise significantly reduced delayed onset muscle soreness.

Proteins also play an important role in helping your body fight off infection, especially in the two hours or so after exercise when you’re particularly susceptible to catching upper respiratory tract infections. As proteins make up the infection-fighting agents like macrophages, Natural Killer Cells, immunoglobulins and white blood cells, ingesting proteins after strenuous exercise will, in all probability, help you fight any intruding infections and bacteria.

It’s a good idea to adopt a holistic approach when devising your nutritional recovery program. Attempt to take carbohydrate/protein sports drinks, fluids with adequate electrolytes and antioxidant supplements as indicated in this article. If you persist with this program, you will find that your health will improve and your workouts will also significantly improve after a few months.

Roy Stevenson

Roy Stevenson

Roy Stevenson has a Masters degree in exercise physiology from Ohio University. He has taught exercise science, health and nutrition at community college and university levels. As a freelance writer, Roy has more than 300 articles on health, fitness and sports conditioning published in over 60 regional, national and international magazines.

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