Proper recovery nutrition is one of the most misunderstood aspects of any sport especially endurance. When it comes down to it, if you fail to recover properly then you have failed to make the proper gains from your training session. You will have also set yourself up for a domino effect of fatigue and injury risk and your ability to meet your goals in the next workout sessions. Not only is it about performance gains, but even more importantly immune system strength and overall health. Proper recovery from exercise is something that needs to be perfected and nailed every single time.
In this blog I am going to explain the simple process of how to tackle your recovery nutrition and to give it the correct focus it constantly needs.
To begin we need to understand that a recovery meal does not just consist of a meal post exercise with carbohydrates, proteins and fats. When it comes down to it there are many different opinions on where the focus should be. Strength athletes focus on protein, endurance athletes love their carbs and the weight conscious tend to go for the higher fat options. However to be pretty straightforward none of them are correct in their thinking. I will provide some clarity below.
Lets begin with the actual training session. In terms of duration and intensity each session will vary from the next. Some days are short recovery or low intensity sessions. Some days are longer duration, higher intensity or strength sessions. This means that each day the body will go through a different metabolic process of fuel tank usage and muscle engagement. There will be varying stresses placed on it and each will have different requirements when it comes to proper recovery.
Taking a look at the the human fuel tanks being primarily glycogen and fat each will have differing burn rates through a session. A higher intensity session will see a greater percentage depletion of glycogen than a shorter low intensity session. While the longer sessions even if a lower to medium intensity will tend to still dip into both fuel tanks due to cardiac drift of effort over time and higher calorie burn. A while back I created a nice little video explaining the fuel tank usage to make it simple to understand just click here for viewing.
In summary glycogen are your carbohydrate stores and are primarily used under higher intensity exercise while fat is mainly used as a source of fuel at lower intensity exercise. During exercise the body moves through varying rate of intensities and a combination of both fuel sources are used depending on the duration and intensity. There is another fuel tank which we would not want to use and that is protein. Yes protein can also be broken down into fuel but generally that is over very long hard endurance sessions. It is a fuel source we do not want to use and should be mitigated by proper fuelling during exercise. However for recovery it can help determine nutrition options post-exercise. As far as strength training goes, yes, more muscle damage is generally done in a strength session and mostly the energy system utilised for strength is ATP-PC ( adenosine triphosphate – phosphocreatine ) system, especially with explosiveness and this is combined with aerobic function. ATP-PC is short lived energy only lasting seconds but it can definitely equate to fatigue. So recovery from strength sessions is just as crucial as endurance exercise.
Now that we have an understanding of how the body is impacted from an energy system and stress perspective, it should make sense that in order to adapt properly and train again we would need to recover properly from that session.
The approach for proper recovery is quite simple and needs to broken into various steps. Once you understand this it will be easy to create your own personal recovery strategy day after day.
Step 1: How Long was your Training Session?
Keeping this simple I break it down into a short, medium or long session. Meaning the following
Short < 60 Minutes
Medium < 2.5 Hours
Long > 3 Hours
The duration of your session will ultimately determine the size and number of recovery meals to properly benefit from your training session. As a simple example consuming a large calorie meal after a short 60 minute session is an over kill, while under consuming after a long session will leave you feeling fatigued and hungry later on. Lets continue and I will fit the puzzle pieces together further down.
Step 2: How Intense was your Training Session?
Did you keep your heart rate low and steady for a short session or did you do an interval or tempo session creating a fair amount of effort. Remember that a low intensity session means a higher fat burn lower glycogen depletion session. While a high intensity session means higher glycogen depletion. The percentage of fuel tank usage will relate back to the composition of your meal. As a simple example; a recovery session will mean a low carb recovery meal, while a high intensity session means more glycogen (carbohydrate fuel) depletion, which would equate to a higher carbohydrate meal post-exercise to ensure replenishment of the glycogen fuel tank.
Step 3: How Muscularly Strenuous was my Session?
Protein intake in an athletes days can vary slightly. Generally I will set a target of around 1.4 grams – 1.7 grams of protein per a kilogram of body weight depending on whether the athlete is maintaining or aiming to gain more lean muscle mass. However in some cases for muscle gain and bouts of heavy strength training that amount of protein will go up to 2 grams / kilogram of body weight or more.
On a day where more muscle damage is done it would be wise to aim for a slightly higher protein intake through the day to be in a protein positive net balance to allow for proper recovery. Just remember the amount of protein per a single serving is limited in what the body can process and absorb, so its not a matter of loading protein in a single meal but more the frequency of protein intake through the day. I have written a previous blog on protein intake and it can be read by clicking here.
Now that we have those three thought steps in pace lets focus on Recovery. There are five main aspects to recovery in my mind.
- Muscle Protein Synthesis
- Glycogen Replenishment
- Immune System Strength
Probably the most crucial aspect of longevity and health is sleep. An amateur athlete is very often sleep deprived due to the early waking hours and cutting short of sleep in order to train. Throw work stress and family stress into the mix and you are heading for disaster. Do not underestimate the power of sleep. The human body repairs and restores itself during the sleep cycles. Critical hormonal release states are triggered and failure to cycle through them is damaging. It’s not just about the duration of sleep but also the quality of sleep meaning few wake cycles and some nice deep sleep cycles. I have been analysing sleeping patterns now for around 14 years and it is as clear as day that a bad nights sleep impacts performance, ability to recover as well as weakens the immune system. Give it some focus and ensure you get at least a minimum of 7 hours of good quality sleep a night, preferably 8.
The human body is comprised mainly of water and during exercise there is a fair amount lost in the form of sweat. The longer the session the more fluid lost. It is absolutely crucial to rehydrate during and post session to replenish lost fluid in the form of sweat. During exercise its only possible to replenish around 80% of lost fluid however post exercise its important to get right back up to a proper hydrated state. Best is to consume a hypotonic drink to maximize fluid absorption and this can be done with a product such as 32Gi Hydrate. If you want a more in-depth look at hydration then check out my blog simply hydrate.
Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS)
Endurance as well as strength require major muscle usage to perform any given activity. Protein are the building blocks and are critical in ensuring proper muscle recovery. I come across so many athletes who under eat protein. This only leads to injury, illness and fatigue as well as failure to achieve proper training adaptations in the form of strength and fitness gains. Let me break this down a little further.
White blood cells which of course fight infections, are comprised of protein. So lack of protein equates to lower immunity. Post-exercise an athletes immune system is lowered and the risk of infection higher. Don’t under estimate this. As far as muscle protein synthesis goes protein is crucial. Especially adequate branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) consumed of course with a complete protein. Another thing that many athletes fail to understand is there are proteins and proteins. It is important to find a complete healthy protein to get proper intake. L-Leucine is the most crucial branch chain to trigger MPS and there we would look at an intake of 2.5-3grams of L-Leucine to ensure the MPS trigger. Some protein serving sizes do not contain the correct amount and then supplementation would be advised.
Remember its not about the front label its about the actual content of the product. A protein portion post-exercise should be in the region of 20-35g depending on the weight of an individual, kind of exercise and overall protein goal for the day. Over-consumption of protein does not work due to the body not being able to process all of it, and in short it can lead to a rise in blood sugar and potential weight gain. Ensure you know your protein targets and stick to them.
Glycogen – which is our carbohydrate stores – will mostly be depleted during exercise at a rate which is dependent on the duration and intensity of the session. A long hard session warrants a higher carbohydrate meal post-exercise which should be proportional to the glycogen depleted. Carbohydrates are what’s required to replenish glycogen stores. A short lower intensity session means a low carb meal. Over eat the carbs post a session which does not warrant it, and be assured you will mitigate fat burn and tend towards the gaining weight population.
Immune System Strength
Post-exercise susceptibility to illness is higher. Especially if in a contained environment like a gym where sick people sweat, train and touch everything opening endless possibilities of contact. Immunity is so crucial to any athlete especially during bouts of hard big volume sessions where the body undergoes way more stress. How does one strengthen their immune system? Well firstly a blood test to determine any insufficiency is worth it as if you are for example anaemic or have low vitamin D levels it will certainly play a role in weak immune system. That is the first step. Know your status and fortify accordingly. There is no point in dosing with vitamins and minerals if you have no idea where you are weak.
Hydrate properly and focus on gut bacteria strength as it’s another crucial aspect of immune system strength so pre and probiotics are worth it. Cutting refined foods and focusing on nutrient dense foods will help boost immunity. A supplement like glutamine is excellent for immune system strength as well as providing alkalinity to the gut. Vitamin D not Vitamin C is the wow factor in immune system strength. Most athletes I have had blood tested tend to be low on Vitamin D levels which is the one vitamin known to provide immunity. Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant with other properties, but it has nothing on Vitamin D as far as immunity goes.
Those are just a few examples, however its so vast and I wont go into too much detail on this as its a blog on its own for the future. But as a starting point get bloods and if you are not sure then check out my blog on bloods don’t lie.
The above is pretty self explanatory in terms of importance and focus. But I bet you are now asking for examples of post-exercise recovery meals and a little more insight on supplementation to ensure proper fast recovery and health. That is coming in my next blog :-).
However don’t despair, in the mean time together with the 32Gi and the Rapid Recover team we put together a recovery cheat sheet which I will email to you with pleasure – all you need to do is sign up to our newsletter by subscribing to my blog – and it will be emailed off to you.
all the best
Mark Wolff is a certified exercise & sports nutritionist, endurance nutrition and physiology expert with over 20 years experience. An endurance multi-sport athlete with a running, triathlon, mountain biking and weight lifting background, he works extensively with professional and amateur athletes in a variety of sports disciplines as well as those just wanting to change their lifestyles. He firmly believes that a person can only reach their full potential when their health and nutrition is given the proper focus. Mark’s focus on nutrition and physiology is not just on training and racing, but he places major emphasis on recovery, immune system health, emotional stability, stress management and performance. Mark is co-founder of 32Gi, a sports nutrition company, focused mainly on health and endurance nutrition. He is also co-founder of Rapid Recover focused on pneumatic compression equipment to improve circulation for recovery and health