As an endurance athlete, you are probably well aware that training adaptations, which help you to get faster, happen during the recovery from training, rather than during the training itself. The purpose of training is to create the stimulus for those adaptations to occur, eg by stressing the aerobic system or muscles. Your body then makes the appropriate physiological and bio-chemical adaptations while at rest.
So optimising your recovery from exercise is a vital part of your training regime, and nutrition plays a significant role here, alongside sleep and interventions like stretching, massage and compression wear. Examples of nutritional support would be providing protein to support muscle adaptation and consuming foods with an anti-inflammatory effect to help prevent damaging chronic inflammation. Nutrition also has another critical role to play in the recovery period: to get you ready for your next training session, whether that’s later the same day or the next day.
So here are my tips for optimising your post-training recovery period through nutrition:
- First and foremost, take some time to plan ahead and work out what you are going to eat after your training session. You may be able prepare a meal or snack in advance, leaving it at home to come back to or taking it with you to eat after you have finished working out. For example, if you train on the way to work, take your breakfast with you. Planning ahead also helps you to make the best nutrition choices, rather than just raid the fridge for anything you can lay your hands on.
- Include some carbohydrate in your post-training meal or snack, unless you are deliberately following a strategy of doing a second session later in the day in a glycogen depleted state. The latter has been shown to help enhance training adaptations but it isn’t something to do after every workout or year round. The amount of carbohydrate you need will depend on the type of workout you have just completed: the longer and/or more intense your session, the more carbohydrate is required to replenish muscle glycogen stores; whether you trained in a fasted state; and how soon you are training again. Good carbohydrate sources to replenish glycogen include oats, rice, pasta, white and sweet potatoes, wholegrain bread and tortillas, pancakes, tropical fruit like bananas, pineapple or mango, and dried fruit such as dates, raisins and apricots.
- Include around 15-20g of protein in your post-training meal or snack to help support muscle repair. This might be 2-3 eggs, 150-200g of Greek yogurt, 400-500ml of cow’s milk, 100g of chicken or turkey, 75g of fresh red meat (not processed, eg bacon or ham), a tin of tuna or a small piece of fish like salmon or mackerel. Or you might choose to drink a protein shake – see below for a suggested recipe – or eat a commercially produced recovery bar which contains 15-20g of protein. The ‘window’ for the benefits of consuming protein after training is much wider than previously thought (around 24 hours) so there’s no need to drink your shake before having a shower! The best strategy is to ensure you have some protein as part of every meal and snack on a daily basis. Other sources include cheese, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and chickpeas.
- Don’t forget to hydrate. The amount of fluid you need is very individual, based on your sweat rate and thirst. It is also influenced by how much you drank during the workout itself. Keep well hydrated by drinking regularly throughout the day, which might be anything between one and three litres in total. Milk and protein shakes have the benefits of both hydrating you and providing protein. Using a sports drink with electrolytes or coconut water (which does contain natural sugars as well as some electrolytes, but actually not much sodium) helps both to rehydrate and to replenish glycogen.
- Include some anti-inflammatory foods. This might not be at your initial meal or snack, but later in the day or before bed. Examples include:
- Oily fish like salmon, mackerel or fresh tuna for the omega 3 fats. Or take an omega 3 supplement with EPA and DHA.
- Plant sources of omega 3 fats like chia seeds, flaxseed or pumpkin seeds.
- Berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or blackberries. These are rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Add to muesli or porridge, blend into a smoothie or eat as a dessert or snack with some yogurt.
- Tart cherries: these have been extensively researched for their benefits in recovery from exercise and also sleep. See my two blog posts here and here. Consider including a tart cherry concentrate such as Cherry Active in a post-exercise smoothie or as a hot drink before sleep. Or add the dried fruit to muesli or porridge.
- Blackcurrant extract: a number of research papers have shown benefits for recovery, as well as performance, from taking blackcurrant extract in supplement form. See here for more details
- Green tea: another source of anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Drink several cups of hot or chilled tea over the course of the day, or include Matcha green tea powder in a post-training smoothie.
- Cocoa powder and raw cacao: yet more polyphenols. Add 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder or raw cacao to a smoothie or drink with an unflavoured protein powder. Consider a cup of hot cocoa before bed. A small amount of good quality dark chocolate might also have some benefits.
- Here’s something not to do: don’t take a high dose anti-oxidant supplement such as vitamin C or vitamin E after exercise. If you need to take vitamin C, eg to support your immune system in winter, take it at least three hours after training. The reason for this is the increasing amount of research showing that synthetic anti-oxidants such as supplements, in particular, may prevent training adaptations taking place to the optimal level, due to their effect on your biochemistry. Producing free radicals and producing acute inflammation is now seen as an important part of the training stimulus; overdoing the anti-oxidants post-training to “quench” those free radicals may be detrimental to your progress. See my blog post here for more on this topic.
By the way, this doesn’t mean avoiding foods containing vitamin C, eg fruit and vegetables, and vitamin E, eg avocado, nuts, olive oil, which provide a much lower amount of anti-oxidants in their natural form and plenty of other beneficial nutrients. Some of these foods should certainly be included in your first meal after training.
So that’s the theory. Here are some meal suggestions to help you put good recovery nutrition into practice:
- Post-training recovery smoothie: here’s the recipe for my favourite smoothie after a tough session. Blend the following: 20g whey protein powder, a handful of frozen blueberries, one banana, 1 tsp of chia seeds or pumpkin seeds and 2 tsp raw cacao powder with c 200ml of coconut water. Add a pinch of salt if you sweat heavily.
- Homemade recovery bars: See here for a recipe.
- Homemade muesli with Greek yogurt. The night before, mix 50-70g of jumbo oats with 2 tbsp of mixed nuts and seeds (try a combination of walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia, pumpkin seed, chia seed and ground flax seed). Add a handful of fresh or frozen berries of your choice and 150ml of cow’s milk or a plant-based alternative if you are sensitive to dairy. Leave overnight in the fridge. In the morning, top with 2-3 heaped tbsp of Greek yogurt and eat immediately. You can also make this in a lidded pot the night before, including the yogurt, and take with you to eat after your session if not at home for breakfast.
- Egg breakfast: scramble, poach or boil 2-3 eggs. Eat with 2 slices of wholegrain or sough dough rye toast or on a wholegrain English muffin, or wrap in a wholegrain or corn tortilla. Add ¼ of an avocado, a handful of baby spinach and some chopped tomatoes, plus some chopped fresh chilli or spring onions if liked.
- Pancakes with fruit and Greek yogurt: great for brunch after a weekend ride or run. See here for the recipe.
- Smoked mackerel nicoise salad: good for lunch, click here for the recipe.
- Brown rice pilaf: another lunch suggestion. See here for how to make it.
- Salmon Kedgeree: great choice for dinner, especially if someone else can make it for you while you do an evening training session. Here’s the recipe.
Wishing you optimal recovery from your training!
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk