Recovery Nutrition

By Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC

Refueling after training is like putting money in the bank--it's the body's safe deposit box for muscle sugars called glycogen. This investment for muscles ensures adequate energy for daily training and overall health. Without food or fluid after exercise, the body is unable to completely recover from workouts and improve performance.

The post workout snack, beverage or meal also helps tendons and ligaments to heal, builds and maintains a healthy hormonal & immune system, and keeps electrolytes in balance--minerals that helps muscles to contract and relax on every run and for each hit, kick or tackle. Post-training recovery nutrition is especially important for athletes who workout twice daily; compete in all day, multiple- day and/or in events where morning prelims are wedged between afternoon finals.

Furthermore, recovery nutrition covers all the bases when life steals the body's best and destroys it with stress, work responsibilities and sleepless nights. Recovery nutrition catches us before we fall into overtraining syndrome--a potentially serious condition when the mind and body collapse-- motivation, muscle mass, and health decline and take months to heal. Without proper foods and fluids, even the best athletes self-destruct.

Recovery Nutrition Science 101
The body continues to burn calories after a workout, called exercise post oxygen consumption (EPOC), which lasts 15 minutes to 48 hours after training. EPOC causes an additional calorie burn and higher metabolism beyond the workout--a benefit for weight and fat management--a drawback when calories are needed for building the performance athlete. The amount of EPOC calories burned depends on gender, training status, training intensity and duration, and fitness level-- accounting for a few to several hundred calories. Why are extra calories burned? EPOC calories are burned because:

• The body replenishes sugar in muscles and replaces the simplest energy form called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) at the cellular level;

• Lactate--responsible for post exercise muscle soreness needs removal.

• Normal breathing, heart rate and body temperature needs restoration to pre-exercise levels

• Blood needs re-oxygenation after muscles cease working out.

Recovery Fuel
The post workout food formula can consist of fluids or solid food as long as the athlete can stomach it, literally. Since the gut shuts down after exercise, not all foods will work for everyone. Depending on training type and timing of the next workout, the composition and amount can vary while keeping in mind the golden recovery rule; getting something--anything as long as it's within the window of refueling opportunity, about 15 minutes to two hours after training for adequate replenishment.

The best foods to eat are those high in carbohydrates. Planning ahead by storing a sports drink, bar, or snack in the gym bag or stopping for a smoothie on the way home is one way to ensure adequate replenishment within the recovery window. Meals/ snacks with 65% carbohydrates or more, about 0.8g to 1 gram/kg bodyweight / hour have been shown to replenish muscle stores best. For the 150 pound athlete (68 kg) (kg=pounds / 2.2), a snack or beverage with about 54 grams -68 grams carbohydrates. Visit the Recovery Fuel Chart for snacks that meet this requirement.

It's just as important to refuel after shorter high intensity workouts as it is for longer workouts. The difference between the recommended foods depends on whether or not it is the last workout of the day. If athletes have a second workout--lower fat, lower fiber and bland foods are best over high fiber, fat and spicy foods to prevent gut distress. For example, the two-a-day athlete would do better with a plain turkey sub with lettuce and tomato after the first workout instead of a Mexican Taco salad with cheese, refried beans, ground beef, guacamole, salsa and the shell.

As for hydration, replacing fluids at a rate of 1-1½ times, about 16-24 oz for every pound lost in sweat. Weighing before and after a training session can provide a good guestimate of fluids lost during exercise. And while it's not necessary to weigh daily, seasonal weightings are recommended since ambient temperature affects fluid losses.

Urine color is the simplest and one of the most accurate measures of hydration. If the urine is pale yellow, that's good, while dark urine means dehydration. Completely clear urine is a concern since it suggests overhydration--the overconsumption of water and potential loss of electrolytes. Therefore, recovery fluids should include water, electrolyte rich sport drinks, and recovery fuels with sugar and protein (depending on the intensity of the workout) to cover all bases and replace all losses. When food doesn't work, a sport shake is an easy, portable way to replace carbohydrates and protein needed for maintaining muscle gains and strength accomplished during workouts.

The Extras--Supplements for Recovery
No need to look far-- whether roaming on the Internet, in magazines or at the vitamin store, you'll find a plethora of products promoted to target recovery nutrition. What works, what doesn't?

Most formulas provide too much fuel for most athletes, some with additional substances such as herbs, which can be illegal to use in collegiate or professional sports--many include just enough to meet the athlete's needs. Reading the labels is key to meeting your personal needs. Here's a quick summary of the top three of what's hot, what's not, what's promising. Keep in mind, whole foods are always best since nutrients in food work synergistically with recovery compounds such as antioxidants, omega 3s, vitamins and minerals. The bottom line is to get something in the body after workouts and if you can't eat whole foods, look for a shake, bar or sport drinks company that is recommended by reputable sports organizations, teams and athletes. Most important, recovery fuel is a 24/7 job for athletes. Don't wait until after workouts to try and catch up with a good overall diet.


Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, is Director of Sports Nutrition and Performance and an adjunct professor at the University of Miami. A former pro triathlete, she has completed more than 30 marathons, and can be reached through her Web site at: www.foodfitness.com.



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