As a runner, cyclist or triathlete, do you know that physiological adaptations from endurance training happen during the recovery period 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, eg increasing the number of mitochondria in muscle cells where energy is produced or synthesising proteins to create additional muscle tissue.
Optimising your recovery from exercise is a critical 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, replacing glycogen stores diminished during training, and consuming foods with an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effect to help prevent damaging chronic inflammation (which is different from taking high dose anti-oxidant supplements which might actually prevent training adaptations from occurring – read here for more on this).
But what are the best foods to choose? Protein powders and specially formulated recovery drinks and bars have a role to play and can be very useful after races or hard training sessions when you need to start the recovery process quickly and don’t have immediate access to a kitchen. Certain supplements may also have value in the recovery process, such as magnesium or tart cherry juice with an updated article I have written on tart cherry juice available to read here. But by consciously choosing foods with recovery benefits for your post-training meals and snacks, you can optimise the adaptation process through your everyday diet and at the same time help prepare yourself for your next session, whether that’s later the same day or the next day.
Here are my top 10 recovery foods to choose, in no specific order.
It’s good to get as many as possible of these different foods into your post training meal choices each week, rather than eat the same meal or snack each time. I’ve split the list into foods high in protein and foods high in carbohydrate, as both macronutrients are needed for recovery. Try to choose one from each list for your post-training meal or snack, eating different foods at other times of day. At the end of the list, I’ve given some suggestions on how you might do this.
Foods high in protein
- Oily fish (including salmon, mackerel, trout and tuna): a 150g salmon fillet for lunch or supper provides around 30g of protein, while a snack size 60g can of tuna contains 16g of protein. There is the additional benefit of consuming the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in oily fish which have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Greek Yogurt: this type of yogurt has a higher protein content than natural yogurt, providing around 9g per 100g (3-4 heaped tablespoons). You will also benefit from the calcium content to support bone health and the natural sugar found in yogurt – 3g of lactose per 100g – helps to restore glycogen stores.
- Turkey: a slice of cooked turkey has a slightly higher protein content (c 24g/100g) than a slice of cooked chicken (c 22g/100g). Turkey is also a good source of iron, vitamin B6 and B3, which are needed for energy production.
- Eggs: each medium sized egg gives you 7g of protein. Eggs are also a very good source of choline, a nutrient involved in the metabolism of energy which may be depleted after strenuous exercise.
- Nut butter: there is 4g of protein in one tablespoon of peanut butter compared with 2.5g in a tablespoon of almond butter, making peanut butter the better choice for vegan athletes. A brand that has no additives such as palm oil or sugar would be a healthier choice. Peanut butter is also a good source of vitamin B6 and magnesium.
Foods high in carbohydrate
- Rice or rice cakes: a large 75g serving of uncooked rice provides 60g of carbs. White rice is converted to glucose quicker than brown so may be a better choice when you are looking for quick replenishment of glycogen stores, eg on a day when you are going to train again within a few hours. Otherwise choose brown rice for its additional nutrient content, eg fibre and minerals like iron and magnesium. A single rice cake gives you 7g of carbs.
- Oats or oat cakes: a 75g serving of porridge oats gives you 50g of carbs and is a good source of iron and magnesium. A single oatcake gives you around 6g of carbs.
- Potato: a medium sized sweet potato (c 130g) gives 26g of carbohydrates and has the benefit of 4g of fibre to support digestive health and more than your daily requirement of vitamin A. There are a similar amount of carbs and slightly less fibre in white potato, which is a better source of vitamin C but does not contain vitamin A. Both types are sources of vitamin B6 and magnesium. I suggest including both types in your diet but keep the processed versions for occasional treats. Baked or boiled potato is better than fried.
- Tropical fruits: these contain a higher amount of carbohydrate than other fruits so make a good choice when you are looking to quickly restore glycogen stores. Choose banana (c 30g of carbs in a large one), mango (c 25g of carbs per half), papaya (c15g of carbs per half) or pineapple (c 22g of carbs in a thick slice). All contain various other nutrients beneficial to health such as vitamin C or digestive enzymes.
- Berries: low in sugar but high in anti-oxidant nutrients called polyphenols which help to support muscle recovery and your immune system. Choose strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants or redcurrants, fresh or frozen.
Example of recovery meals or snacks
- Greek yogurt with oats and berries
- Oat cakes or rice cakes with peanut butter
- Salmon and new potatoes
- Tin of tuna and a banana
- Baked sweet potato and turkey slices
- Packet of dried mango and a tub of Greek yogurt
- Scrambled eggs on rice cakes
- Frittata (omelette with white or sweet potato)
- Banana with peanut butter
Judge your portion size in line with the length and intensity of your training session. 40-70g of carbs and 15-30g of protein would be a typical range to work with.
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