By PCG Nutritionist Jannette Rho
As an athlete, you make the time to train. You train hard and you race hard at your events. This deserves major kudos to you for your accomplishments this season, as well as for all of your accomplishments as an athlete. You may be aware of how your nutrition affects your training, performance, and recovery, which then, in turn, affects your training and performance, but how much attention are you really giving to your diet? It’s an ongoing process, and there are many aspects of nutrition, but today we will focus just on recovery. The goal of recovery nutrition: To optimize your next training session or race so that you can work at your best and keep getting faster and stronger.
Why is recovery nutrition important?
This will vary according to the specific nature, intensity, and duration of your workout. Let’s break it down for practical use. Recovery nutrition is always important but timing of the recovery nutrition is most important when:
- Efforts (training or racing) are less than 24 hours apart
- Intensity of efforts is high
- Duration is more than 90 minutes
- And, the importance is amplified when any combination of the above applies
Okay, so how does timing work for recovery?
Timing is very important. The optimal timeframe for recovery nutrition is within 2 hours of the effort. During this timeframe, your cells are most accepting to taking in nutrients to replenish glycogen, prevent muscle catabolism, and promote muscle restoration. The sooner within this timeframe, the better. Early intervention (~30 minutes) of recovery nutrition shows improved recovery results.
To all of my female athletes out there – it’s official: recovery nutrition timing is more important for women than for men. A woman’s metabolism returns to baseline quicker than men so the optimal timeframe is more important and generally intake must be within 2 hours for it to make a difference. Again, the sooner the better, so plan to get in recovery nutrition within 30 minutes of the effort especially during high training times and races.
Recovery nutrition is important for all athletes, but for women, timing is especially important.
Now that we know when to take in recovery nutrition, what should we be taking in?
We definitely need carbohydrates (aka carbs). One of the main goals of recovery is to replenish glycogen stores, and carbs are the major player for this process. Why? It’s simple. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose, and glucose comes from carbs. An important note for women: it’s been found that women use more fat during endurance efforts, which spares glycogen, so overall carb intake can be in the lesser range to avoid unnecessary energy intake. That being said, it is also important for women to shift carb intake to the post-workout snack or meal to take advantage of the shorter recovery window. An important note for all athletes: the body can’t effectively use more than 1-1.2 g/kg/hr of carbs so don’t go over this ratio. A good rule of thumb is to aim for about 50g, more or less depending on your size.
Protein is necessary for our muscles, cell structure, function, and signaling. Its value is extensive, so how can we make sure we are getting enough to balance our macronutrient intake and getting the right type to ensure proper protein balance? According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, if you are involved in a general fitness program, you can generally meet protein needs by ingesting 0.8 - 1.0 grams/kg/day. Older individuals may benefit from a higher protein intake with 1.0 - 1.2 grams/kg/day. If you are involved in moderate amounts of intense training, aim for 1 - 1.5 grams/kg/day. If you are involved in high volume intense training, you should aim for 1.5 - 2.0 grams/kg/day. Generally, this can be met through a normal and well planned diet but supplementation can come in handy for larger athletes with higher calorie needs. Protein supplements are also useful for convenience.
When it comes to recovery, including protein along with carbs can improve restoration of muscle glycogen, as well as promote muscle synthesis. It has been shown that the 3 (carbs):1 (protein) ratio is most beneficial. Women need to be more diligent about protein intake during the high hormone phase of the menstrual cycle, when protein is naturally used up more. Daily intake and recovery nutrition should address this increased need.
Lastly, we shouldn’t ignore the fats. Women particularly depend on intramuscular fat, so proper intake is important. Moderate intake of 30% of daily calories is recommended and can go up to about 50% during high volume training. Most fat intake should be Omega-3 fats and unsaturated fats, from fatty fish, nuts, etc. Fats should be spread throughout the day and can be included around workouts as tolerated.
To wrap it up, recovery becomes more important as efforts become longer and more intense. As time between efforts decrease, as with two or more-days or multi-day races, recovery should be a priority. The ideal window of opportunity for your cells to take in recovery nutrition is within two hours. This window is even more important for women, and the sooner is always better. If adequate nutrition is taken in before and during the effort, recovery nutrition should focus on adequate carbs and protein with at least a 3:1 ratio. Real food is always ideal, but supplements can be used for convenience and for those with higher calorie needs. In addition to the macronutrients, be sure to rehydrate and address fluid and electrolyte losses.
If you don’t have a meal planned within the recovery window, some easy recovery snack ideas are below:
- Nut butter and fruit wrap
- Pro tip: Opt for a combination of different fruits for a nutrition bonus. Try banana for added potassium, and berries for their antioxidants.
- Yogurt w/granola and fruit
- Pro tip: Choose Greek yogurt for extra protein.
- Homemade smoothie
- Pro tips: Including 2 fruits + 1 veg is a good rule of thumb for best taste. Frozen fruits will eliminate your need for added ice, reducing volume. Add protein powder and milk of your choice to complete the recipe.
If you prefer a savory meal post-effort as I sometimes do, eggs and quinoa are a simple and quick way to get your recovery. Here’s a recipe for a quick egg scramble:
2 large eggs
1/2 cup chopped or sliced tomatoes
2 cups spinach (or other greens such as kale)
1/2 cup chopped red bell or sweet peppers
1 cup quinoa, cooked
1. Get quinoa cooking or reheat from previous batch. For cooking quinoa, use a 1:2 ratio (quinoa: water or broth), bring to boil and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Let it sit for ~5 minutes covered, then fluff with fork. I recommend making in bulk batches, portioning, and storing in fridge or freezer. 1 cup uncooked quinoa will yield about 3 cups cooked so plan accordingly.
2. Heat saute pan on medium heat with non stick spray or oil
3. Add chopped vegetables (except greens) to pan and saute until starting to soften - ~3-5min. Add spinach/greens when other vegetables are starting to soften.
4. While vegetables are cooking, mix eggs in bowl then add to pan when vegetables are softened. Cook until set to desired firmness. Be sure to move the eggs and veg around in the pan.
5. Serve egg veg mix atop quinoa.