Nutrition for Recovery

Hard yards and endurance events such as a marathon go hand in hand, so it comes as a shock to many people when they learn that they are not getting the fitness gains they deserve out of all the hard work they put in during training. In fact, for many people, their training is like climbing a sand dune, two steps forward, and one step back.

Fortunately, by paying more attention to certain aspects of your nutrition during training, you can make sure that you are not making this mistake yourself. A key sports nutrition concept is that recovery nutrition is just as important as nutrition before and during training.

There are two important facts to think about in order to understand why nutrition during the recovery period is so important.

1. You do not get fitter during exercise, you get fitter during the recovery period.

2. To maximise your body’s response to exercise, you need to supply your body with the right nutrients, in the right amounts, at the right time.

Let’s expand upon the first fact – you get fitter during recovery, not during the actual exercise.

What people do not realise is that when they train, they are only creating the potential for fitness improvements, and it is during the recovery period in which this potential is actually fulfilled.

Fitness improvements are an acute response to a stimulus. Just like our skin responds to sunlight exposure (the stimulus) by getting a tan (the response), our muscles, heart, and lungs all undergo subtle changes (the response) as a result of exercise (stimulus).

Think about a Formula 1 car. If it is not going fast enough during practise, its driver cannot expect it to go faster at its next race simply because it has been taken out for a practise drive. The car gets faster when a team of mechanics get under the hood and make adjustments. Fortunately, our body is clever enough to do this itself, as long as we give it the right tools.

Which brings us to the second point – to maximise the body’s response to exercise, we must feed it correctly during the recovery period.

There is a window of opportunity after exercise during which our body can quickly soak up nutrients and use them to build and repair our muscles, refill our fuel tanks, and make the many other changes required to adapt to the stimulus of exercise.

Eat the right nutrients:

Carbohydrates and protein are the key nutrients for these jobs. Carbohydrates are our petrol, which we burn during training. In order to ensure that we have a full tank before our next exercise session, we need to top up during this window of opportunity. Eating the right amounts will also develop our ability to store more carbohydrates.

Protein is used to build and repair muscles, and we need to drip feed our body with a constant supply of high quality protein after exercise in order to ensure that our muscles can bounce back quickly, and that they adapt positively to the stress of exercise.

Body water and sodium also get depleted during exercise (in our sweat) and we need to top up our stores during recovery. Aim to drink about 1 litre of water for every hour that you exercised and ensure that you take some sodium, be it in your sports drink or on your recovery meal.

Many micronutrients play an important support role in the post exercise adaptive process. Consume at least 5 servings of colourful fruit and vegetables everyday to meet your requirements. Vegetarians and vegans may need to be more diligent to ensure they meet their iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc requirements, but many successful vegan endurance athletes have proven that with a good nutrition plan you can meet your needs.

Eat the right amount of nutrients:

Unfortunately this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and your requirements will depend on your weight, fitness level, body composition goals, health goals, training type and training duration.

It is important to get this right because if we do not give our body enough of the required nutrients at the correct times our body won’t adapt properly, and the hard work during training will have been a waste of time.

On the other hand, if you eat too much, you will put on weight, waste time, money, and nutrients, and not see the improvements you deserve.

Eat the nutrients at the right time:

Nutrient timing is very important. As we discussed above, carbohydrates and protein seem to be best absorbed immediately after exercise. However our body has a limited capacity to absorb these nutrients, so you cannot eat your entire nutritional requirements straight away and expect them all to be completely absorbed. You must spread your intake over a 24 hour period by having regular, nutritious, portion controlled meals.

If all this sounds like hard work, it doesn’t have to be. We all eat, so it’s just a matter of ensuring that we are eating the right foods at the right times. Also, there are other benefits aside from getting fitter faster.

I had a client who used to get frustrated that her weekends would be ruined after a long training session when she was training for the Round Taupo race, as she would be too exhausted to do anything for the following 24hrs.

Once she started to use a recovery plan however, she could replenish her fuel supplies much quicker and more extensively, and she found that she had the energy to function normally for the rest of the weekend.

So, sorry, but there are no longer any excuses for not helping out round the house on Sundays anymore!