The window of opportunity is the time immediately following exercise when your body is primed to digest and utilise key nutrients to support an efficient recovery. Ensuring an optimal recovery involves refuelling, repairing and rehydrating, all of which needs to be considered when planning recovery foods and their timing.
The major nutrients involved in the recovery process are carbohydrates and protein along with adequate fluid:
- Carbohydrates are our primary fuel source and many studies have found performance –enhancing benefits with an adequate carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates are stored in our bodies as something called glycogen and we have enough stored glycogen to last about 80-90 minutes of prolonged exercise. After an intense and long-training session or event, it is really important to enjoy some carbohydrate-containing foods so that you can restore your glycogen levels before the next training session or event. As a general rule, athletes are encouraged to eat 1g of carbohydrate per Kg of body weight within the first hour of finishing exercise as this is when glycogen rebuilding rates are at their highest.
Foods that contain 20g of carbohydrates:
- 1 medium banana
- 1 large apple/orange
- 200g of yoghurt
- 1 cup cooked porridge
- 2 sandwich slices of bread
- ½ cup rice
- 1 cup pumpkin
- Protein is made up of amino acids which among other things forms our muscles. Our bodies are constantly balancing between muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein rebuilding. During exercise we are more tipped in favour of muscle protein breakdown, however following exercise our bodies swing in favour of muscle protein rebuilding. It is therefore important that we provide our bodies with a good-quality source of protein immediately following exercise to provide these amino acids to support muscle protein rebuilding. While research is still continuing, most experts agree that consuming 15-25g of good-quality protein within the first hour of exercise will support muscle protein synthesis (i.e. muscle building and repair).
Foods that contain 15g of protein:
- 55g cooked beef or lamb
- 50g cooked chicken
- 60g canned tuna
- 1 small fish fillet
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup of high-protein milk
- 2-3 slices of cheese
- Handful of almonds
- ½ cup hummus
- 3 Tbspn pumpkin seeds
The interesting thing to note is that protein foods are more effective at enhancing recovery when they are consumed with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of the hormone insulin which in turn stimulates the muscles to take up the amino acids more efficiently.
When looking at recovery snacks that provide carbohydrates and protein (as well as other vitamins and minerals), here are a few nutritious options:
- Yoghurt + fruit + nuts
- Fruit smoothie made with fruit, vegetables, milk, yoghurt and nuts
- Peanut butter and banana wholegrain sandwich
- Tuna and a colourful salad on wholegrain toast
- Rice pudding with fruit and/or nuts
- Oats with high-protein milk and fruit
The other important thing to remember when thinking about your recovery nutrition is an adequate fluid intake to replace sweat and fluid losses. Your urine should be a pale straw colour as this would indicate that you are well hydrated. As a goal, you should be aiming to replace 150% of your fluid losses in the 4-6 hours following exercise. E.g. if you weigh 65Kg before a run and 64Kg after a run you have lost 1L of fluid during your run. Your fluid goal would then be to consume 1.5L of water/fluid over the following hours to support rehydration.
The other thing that’s important to note is the benefit of colourful fruits and vegetables in supporting the immune system after exercise. Following intense exercise the immune system can often become compromised which means we are at risk of becoming sick or picking up a bug during this time. One way you can counteract this is to choose nutrient-dense recovery snacks that also provide fruits and/or vegetables that are good sources of vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin C. An adequate carbohydrate intake eaten before and after exercise is also known to support a healthy immune system.
In summary, it’s important to be prepared by having a nutritious recovery snack immediately after exercise. This is especially so if you aren’t able to consume a healthy meal within an hour of finishing training. Choose nutritious recovery snacks that contain a source of carbohydrates and protein along with vitamins, minerals and adequate fluid.