Recovery nutrition is one of most common topics I get asked as a sports dietitian. Proper recovery is an important part of an athlete’s training which can impact their performance if not done adequately. However, the minute you finish a workout do you really need to down a protein shake or bar. Is this really necessary? It all depends on the type and duration of your workout and when your next hard workout session will take place.
Shorter and less intense workouts:
Exercising less than 60 minutes at a low to moderate intensity like going for a walk or run, a leisure bike ride, or an easy swim do not deplete your muscle glycogen stores or require immediate repletion. Eat a snack or meal when you are hungry, but the timing of eating does not need to be right after finishing your exercise.
Longer and more intense workouts:
Exercising more intensely for a longer duration (60 minutes or more) like a long run, intense weight training, or team sports practice, results in burning energy and breaking down muscle fibers. Eating a recovery snack or meal containing carbs for quick fuel and protein within 30-60 minutes of finishing your workout is the right balance of both to help your muscles replenish, rebuild, and grow.
If your training includes two-a-day workouts, especially less than 8 hours apart, eating a recovery snack right after your first workout is important to start the recovery process and prepare your body for the second workout. Not fueling adequately after your initial workout can leave you feeling flat and unable to complete your later training.
Eating extra calories after completing a workout can result in unwanted weight gain if not planned properly. Timing your exercise before a regularly scheduled meal helps avoid extra snacking. For example, after your morning workout eat breakfast for your recovery meal, or exercise an hour before dinner.
Recovery Snack Guidelines:
Too often athletes are focused on eating protein-rich snacks and avoid eating carbs. Your body requires carbs to help refill muscle glycogen and stimulate insulin release to increase amino acids into muscle cells faster. Failing to eat enough carbs after a hard workout will negatively impact your recovery, and has also been linked to negative impacts on immune health .
Choose a snack or mini recovery meal after an intense and/or longer workout that contains both protein and carbs at a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio respectively. This combination is key to maximize muscle recovery and growth.
Many athletes rely on protein bars and shakes. While this may be convenient if you are not heading home after your workout, try not to rely too heavily on these processed foods and choose more whole food options instead, such as:
· 6 ounces Greek or Icelandic yogurt with 1 cup berries and 1/3 cup granola (15 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrate)
· 2 cups (16 ounces) chocolate milk (16 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrate)
· ½ cup cottage cheese with 1 cup berries, 1 small banana, 2 tsp honey (14 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrate)
· Egg wrap sandwich- 2 scrambled eggs in whole grain tortilla wrap with medium banana (14 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrate)
· Protein smoothie- 1 cup milk or nut milk with added pea protein with 1 small banana, ½ cup berries, ½ cup Greek or Icelandic yogurt or plant based yogurt (16 grams protein, 45-50 grams carbohydrate)
Remember, easy day workouts don’t require recovery snacks. Eat when you are hungry and balance your meals and snacks throughout the day to maintain energy levels and muscle growth. However, when the intensity and duration of your workouts increase, a recovery snack or meal is more important, especially if you have another workout later that same day.