Saturday Smarts: Recovery Nutrition

I’m lucky to have a mom who’s a Registered Dietitian for lots of reasons, one of which is access to lots of great research on sports nutrition. Unfortunately, this week’s article on optimal recovery nutrition comes from a subscription only publication, so I can’t share the link here. However, the information is so important, I chose to share a synopsis anyway.

The article was Physiologic and Metabolic Responses During Vigorous Exercise: Why Recovery Nutrition is Indispensible by Ashely K. Swanson, MPH and Liza Makowski, PhD in Scan’s Pulse.

The bottom line: Proper recovery nutrition is the difference between mediocre and excellent performance. You need to fuel within 30 to 60 minutes immediately following exercise, then again two hours later. High glycemic index carbohydrates seem to better replenish muscle glycogen stores.

The science: Strenuous exercise causes the release of a number of hormones including cortisol, which is significant to this discussion. As blood glucose gets lower (because the body is using it for energy), cortisol is secreted to stimulate release of liver glucose (which is stored as glycogen). It is also a key hormone in the use of fat and muscle for energy, which occurs after glycogen stores are depleted. Levels of cortisol have been observed to remain high in the immediate period after exercise, which indicates that the body is still in a catabolic (breaking down) state. It is this temporary catabolic state post-exercise that is a critical time for refueling.

The “metabolic window” for refueling is between 30 and 60 minutes after exercise. Refueling during this time helps to halt catabolism and promote muscle repair. A balanced snack with protein and carbohydrate is necessary; carbohydrates stimulate a rise in insulin levels which is an anabolic hormone (building up) while protein helps to stimulate amino acid uptake by muscles. The authors recommend a 4:1 ratio for long distance running and offer examples such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Greek yogurt with granola or fruit with a cheese stick.

The practical: My mom always explains recovery nutrition as follows: “You wouldn’t start off on a road trip with half a tank of gas. If you don’t eat after a hard workout, it’s the same as starting the next day’s run on half a tank.” I manage my post-run recovery nutrition by always packing a snack in my gym bag for immediately after my run while I’m stretching and doing core. We follow a similar routine on the cross country team that I coach; because we are a large district, not everyone will be home within 30 minutes to have a snack. Thus, the rule is “no snack, no practice.”

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