Recovery nutrition in sport:

You have finished a really hard training session or intense competition and you are now completely exhausted and need to recover well for the next bout of exercise. But what is the best way to optimise this recovery process for the best results?

Exercise, especially intense and prolonged exercise, can lead to a significant depletion in bodily stores including electrolytes, carbohydrates and water. Therefore, a major goal of recovery is to replace these stores and address the break down of tissue in the body. Recovery is an extremely complex process and requires the body to move from a catabolic to an anabolic state, making it essential to consume the right nutrients at the right times. Post-exercise recovery is something that you should pay great attention to in order to heal your body sufficiently to be able to perform at at same high intensity on a regular basis. Here are our 7 key points to enhance your exercise recovery.

  1. Protein intake: During exercise, the proteins that formulate our muscle fibres become damaged which is one factor that contributes to muscle pain and soreness. Protein, in its right quantities and at the correct timings is often neglected by athletes, with the majority of individuals consuming one intake or protein straight after exercising, believing this to be sufficient. However, this is far from optimal. The absence of sufficient protein in the diet can lead to a net negative protein balance, meaning tissue cannot be repaired adequately.

The optimal dose of protein to stimulate the greatest muscle protein synthesis is 0.3g/kg BW ensuing this dose contains at least 2.5g leucine. So, if an individual weighed 65kg, their optimal dose of protein would be 19.5g. Therefore, it’s clear to see a standard ‘one size fits all’ protein bar or shake would not be suitable for all individuals. Furthermore, it’s important to note that for the highest muscle synthesis, this protein intake should be take every 3 hours after the exercise period, ideally for a 24 hour period (minus the time spent sleeping).

 2. Hydration: It is well known that individuals lose a lot of bodily fluids during exercise which should be replaced, but maintaining good levels of hydration after the completion of exercise is a major tool for recovery. It is common, especially during long endurance events, for athletes to not consume enough fluids to compensate for the loss, which carries over a state of dehydration during the stage of recovery. So a major start to recovery is ensuring you consume all the fluids required to compensate for this loss in sweat as quickly as possible post-exercise, then consume water and electrolytes regularly over the next day. The amount of fluid you loose through sweat is very individual and can be calculated through a sweat rate test.

3. Electrolytes: Following on from sufficient hydration is ensuing the intake of adequate electrolytes. The main electrolytes lost through sweat are sodium, potassium, and magnesium and replacing these also depends vastly on your sweat rate, duration of the event, intensity of the event and the environmental conditions. However, sodium is lost in much greater quantities than the other main electrolytes and is the one which requires the most focus. The other electrolytes can often be covered and replaced well with a sufficient diet. On average, an individual looses ~805mg per litre of fluid loss via sweat. Therefore, an individual with a sweat rate of 15ml/minute, who exercised for 2 hours would lose 1449mg sodium which would need to be replaced during or immediately after exercise. Being aware of your estimated sodium loss is one way to aid recovery.

4. Carbohydrate intake: One of the most important parts of recovery is replacement of muscle and liver glycogen lost during exercise, especially important if you have little time to recover between events. The body can store roughly 600g of glycogen, enough for a few hours of intense exercise. Thus, when these have been depleted, it’s vital to replenish them for any exercise sessions in the future as performance is closely linked to the size of the glycogen stores prior to the beginning of the exercise. An intake of 1.2g/kg body weight is an optimal amount to consume every 4 hours for the next 24 hours, with the first dose within 2 hours of exercise completion. Its essential to consume sufficient carbohydrates post-exercise as it will ensure an optimal level of glycogen re-synthesis. After this, returning to normal daily carbohydrate intake will be sufficient to fully restore the lost body glycogen. Foods with a high or moderate glycemic index have been shown to be more beneficial for replacing glycogen stores than lower glycemic index foods within the first 24 hours post-exercise. Therefore, white bread, cereals, white rice and sugary sweets would be more beneficial compared to foods such as vegetables and oats. However, past research has demonstrated that the use of fructose as the primary carbohydrate source promotes glycogen re-snythesis at a lower rate in athletes due to its poor absorption in the intestines (Maughan et al., 1989). So, a choice of carbohydrates such as glucose or maltodextrin may be a better option.

5. Antioxidants: One thing you feel after intense exercise is the inner desire to eat everything and anything, but choosing the right foods is vital for recovery. Some foods, such as french fries, cheeseburgers, high sugar drinks or even chocolate may actually hinder the recovery process. During exercise, the increasing demand of oxygen in the body can lead to an increased production of free radicals which can promote cell damage. One nutrient which can fight this effect is antioxidants due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Safe and effective antioxidants to use after exercise include vitamin C (one dose of 400-500mg), vitamin E (one dose of 100-200mg) or tart cherry extract (one dose of 400-500mg).

6. Sleep: Sleeping sufficiently is essential if you want to recovery fast and effectively. Sleep is divided into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep, and it is this non-REM sleep that is responsible for the muscle recovery. Non-REM sleep encompasses the ability to secrete growth hormones which aids muscle repair, so the more time spent in non-REM sleep through more overall sleep, the greater the body ability to recover. Normal active individuals should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but for athletes training for a long duration and/or at a high intensity on a regular basis would require 9-11 hours of sleep. For more information on the relationship between sleep and exercise see here

7. Active recovery: Although after intense exercise all you may do is want to sit down and watch Netflix for a day, that may actually be less beneficial than performing some aspect of active recovery. Active recovery involves performing some form of low-intensity cardio such as walking, a light jog, swimming or a light cycle. Active recovery, compared to being sedentary, has additional benefits in its ability to help reduce lactic acid build up, improve oxygenated blood flow around the body, reduce muscle soreness and help flush out nasty toxins from the body which build up during intense exercise. A simple 30 minute session at a nice easy pace can help significantly improve your recovery, making you feel fresher and ready to exercise again a lot faster.

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