Endurance athletes often train two to three times per day, six days per week and need to have a proper nutrition recovery plan to allow them to “bounce back” the following training day without sacrificing performance. This article is intended to provide the latest research and thoughts surrounding the fairly controversial topic of recovery nutrition.
The primary goals for a solid recovery nutrition plan are to replenish the following:
- Muscle glycogen
- Body water
The depletion of muscle glycogen can happen quickly during a training session. In fact, it is not uncommon for an athlete weighing 130 to 160 pounds to lose the following after a hard training session or competition:
- Water: 70 ounces (range 35 to 123 ounces)
- Sodium chloride: 5 grams
- Muscle glycogen: 200 grams (range 150 to 250 grams)
- Liver glycogen: 50 grams
Let’s look at each recovery nutrition goal in detail:
We have known for years that the restoration of muscle glycogen is an important factor in proper recovery from training. However, the proper mixture of macronutrients was not scrutinized for the basis of recovery nutrition. More specifically, the role of protein has taken center stage and has some fairly decent research to support its role in recovery nutrition.
The regulator of glycogen replenishment is the hormone insulin, which increases the transport of glucose from the blood into the muscle and stimulates the enzyme responsible for the conversion of glucose to glycogen. Insulin is also reported to stimulate the transport of amino acids into the muscle, therefore speeding the protein rebuilding process following exercise and is reported to blunt the rise in cortisol (the hormone responsible for protein breakdown) following exercise, which helps to maintain muscle protein.
While you may be thinking that muscle protein catabolism isn’t applicable with endurance athletes, remember that during a long endurance competition, protein can supply up to 15 percent of the athlete’s total energy. Thus it is important to preserve and restore protein stores as much as possible.
Recent research has proven that consuming protein with a carbohydrate source versus a carbohydrate alone during recovery is beneficial. In fact, one study showed that the addition of protein to carbohydrate post-training led to a more rapid replenishment of glycogen and was slightly higher in glycogen restoration at four hours post training than just carbohydrate alone. Several other research studies found a reduction of total free radical buildup (by 69 percent), increased insulin levels (by 70 percent), decreased post-exercise muscle damage (by 36 percent) and increased muscle glycogen levels (2.2 fold). There is no doubt that the addition of protein to recovery nutrition is important and useful for endurance athletes. These studies used a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrate to protein intake, and while this ratio is not accepted by all scientists, the data from the studies act as a springboard for future studies that will explore and find the optimum ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
Current recommendations to enhance glycogen resynthesis post-training include eating 50 to 100 grams of rapidly absorbed carbohydrate and 10 to 20 grams of protein within the first 15 minutes after the completion of exercise. Continue this every two hours until the next complete meal.
Body Water and Electrolyte Restoration
Complete rehydration requires enough sodium replacement and extra water intake above that which is lost in sweat and urine during training. Electrolytes can accelerate rehydration by speeding intestinal absorption of fluids and improving fluid retention.
It is recommended that athletes either consume a sports drink with adequate sodium (at least 110mg/8 oz) to match weight loss (20-24 ounces of fluid per pound of weight lost during training) or drink large volumes of fluid and eat foods that contain a sufficient amount of salt (approximately 3-6 grams in the meal following training). When athletes drink without eating salty foods during the two-hour window after training, a large portion (25-50%) of what they drink will be excreted as urine. Interestingly, when athletes drink after training, their bodies retain the following approximate percentages of beverages:
- Caffeinated Diet Cola: 50 to 60 percent
- Water: 60 to 70 percent
- Sports drink: 65 to 75 percent
Since muscles are comprised of roughly 60 to 70 percent water, it would be most beneficial for athletes to consume a beverage such as a sports drink that will have a higher retention rate to ensure proper rehydration.
Looking into the Future
A relatively new concept in recovery nutrition that has not received much attention yet in the scientific field is the amount of dietary fat needed for an athlete to recover from exercise. It is possible that the same 130 to 160 pound athlete we used in our example earlier can lose 50 to 100 grams of intramuscular triglyceride and 50 grams of adipose tissue triglyceride during a hard or long training session. While research doesn’t support whether or not this is important in the recovery nutrition performance plan, it is recognized that the increase in body fat oxidation of an endurance athlete is derived almost exclusively from triglyceride fat stored within the skeletal muscle fibers. Therefore, it would be logical that in order to fully restore intramuscular triglyceride after training, athletes should eat more “healthy” fat than is obtained in a low-fat diet.
Since this is a fairly new player in the recovery nutrition plan, there are not specific guidelines for fat consumption post-training; however, it is recommended that endurance athletes eat 50 to 100 grams of “healthy” fats (mono- and polyunsaturated) in their normal daily diet (approximately one gram of fat per kilogram of body weight).
The bottom line when it comes to a recovery nutrition plan for endurance athletes is to replenish glycogen stores, body water and electrolytes. Whether this is accomplished by using a formulated sports drink with the necessary nutrients, a homemade “smoothie” or through whole foods is the choice of each individual athlete. Individual preferences will guide the athlete towards proper recovery, but professionals should provide the above recovery nutrition guidelines to ensure that their nutritional goals are met.
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- Fogt, D.L. & Ivy, J.L. (2000). Effects of post exercise carbohydrate-protein supplement on skeletal muscle glycogen storage. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 32(5) S60.
- Sports Nutrition: A Guide for the Professional Working with Active People. American Dietetic Association, 2000, third edition.
- Sport Nutrition for Health and Performance. Manore and Thompson. Human Kinetics, 2000.