The 3 R’s of Recovery: How to Optimize an Athletes Post-Workout Nutrition

Adequate carbs, protein, fluids, and electrolytes are all crucial after a workout. Learn how much you need to optimize your recovery nutrition!

Author: Shannon Jacobs, MS, RDN, LDN

Recovery nutrition is often overlooked by student athletes. Right after an intense training session or competition, you may want to devour anything and everything in sight, not thinking twice about the foods you are choosing. On the other hand, sometimes student-athletes are so busy and focused on getting to class or another activity, that they skip post-workout fueling altogether. However, how an athlete eats after training may be even more important than what they eat before activity. 

The more complete the recovery, the better the athlete is prepared for their next training session, competition and for adapting to the demands of training. Providing the body with adequate energy via specific nutrients – at the right time – can improve overall performance. In this post you’ll obtain a better understanding of how to optimize recovery nutrition for athletes.

What do athletes need to recover?

• Carbohydrates and protein are the macronutrients most needed. Even though carbohydrates are emphasized more before training to provide you with energy for activity, they are just as important in recovery nutrition for athletes. During exercise over an hour, blood sugar may also drop, so ingesting carbohydrate helps regulate blood glucose at normal levels. This allows protein to more optimally repair and rebuild muscle, versus be relied on as an energy source. 

• On top of carbohydrates and protein, replacing fluid and electrolytes lost during exercise is also critical to support physical and mental energy levels as well as recovery and heart health.

How to optimize recovery nutrition for athletes

recovery nutrition for athletes

• To make it easier to remember, there are 3 R’s of Recovery you can focus on after every training session and competition. As a student athlete, you’ll then be more prepared for the demands of training, academics, and competitions; improving overall performance and decreasing the risk of injury.

Refuel Your Energy Stores: Carbohydrates are the most efficient and preferred source of fuel for the muscles and brain, especially during the higher intensity activity that student athletes engage in. After activity, the body’s energy stores (glycogen) have been depleted and need to be refueled for the next activity, as well as to stabilize blood sugar levels. There are a lot of misconceptions about carbohydrates in the media and social media, but these claims are not rooted in science and this important energy source is not the enemy!

If you consistently don’t have enough carbohydrates to refuel your glycogen stores, then you may feel fatigued and underperform. Some athletes who have under-fueled for a long time may not even realize their energy is lower than it should be during training. If that is you, all it takes is some trial and error with your eating pattern to see how energized you really can feel. If you weigh 150 pounds, an example of a good post recovery meal would be a turkey and cheese sandwich with a fruit smoothie with your choice of 1-2 cups of fruit. If you weigh 250 pounds, an example of a good post recovery meal would be a turkey and cheese sandwich, a high carbohydrate bar such as a Nature Valley bar, whole grain or baked chips, and a fruit smoothie with your choice of 2 cups of fruit, a low protein liquid, and third party tested protein powder.

In planning your recovery nutrition, keep in mind that choosing easily digested and lower fiber carbohydrate sources such as bread, potatoes, and rice will help speed absorption. This gets energy to your muscles more quickly, prepping you for your next training session. Because exercise stimulates muscle tissue to accept nutrients, it is most responsive to carbohydrate refueling within the first 30 min after activity. If you choose to delay carbohydrate consumption by 2 or more hours, then you cut your muscle tissue’s ability to accept nutrients by 50%. It is best to eat carbohydrates with protein as soon as tolerated after training sessions. If you struggle with reduced appetite after competition or training, it is best to talk with a sports dietitian to come up with creative ways to make sure you are getting enough nutrients you need to recover properly.

Repair Your Muscles: You likely know that muscle tissue is made up structurally of protein and may have heard of “amino acids” before. Amino acids are essentially the building blocks of protein, and they fit together in a variety of combinations to produce many proteins in the body from muscle, to skin, to the structure of your bones and more. Training and competing offer stresses that create tiny micro-tears to the muscle tissue. In order to effectively adapt to this stress, and become stronger and better for the next stress, adequate nutrition is important. 

To recover and repair, muscle cells depend on a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS), more easily referred to as muscle repair and growth. When MPS is consistently greater than the muscle protein breakdown from exercise, damaged muscle cells are repaired and new ones are added. When adequate calories and protein are eaten post workout, and throughout the rest of the day, muscle cells are able to rebuild and repair optimally. This helps to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness and enhances muscle strength, mass, endurance and/or power from training sessions or competition.

Depending on your weight, in addition to carbohydrate, eating 20-40g of high quality protein at a time is appropriate for most athletes to optimize muscle protein synthesis. However, it is important to eat this amount of protein 4-5 times total throughout the day to continue repair. A single post-workout meal or snack isn’t effective on its own! Choose protein sources such as dairy, soy, eggs, chicken, fish, chicken, meat, and concentrated pea protein. The easy meal suggestions in the “refuel” section supply enough protein! If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s helpful to work with a sports dietitian who can help you choose the right protein pairings from plant foods to ensure your body is getting what it needs for optimal repair.

athlete drinking water

Rehydrate: Adequate fluid intake is an essential component of recovery nutrition for athletes. Hydration status impacts blood pressure management and therefore oxygen delivery to muscles during exercise, body temperature regulation, transport of energy and nutrients throughout the body, and protection and lubrication of joints and tissues. Without adequate fluid intake – and enough of other nutrients that regulate fluids –  the recovery process can be compromised. 

Most athletes finish activity dehydrated and need to intentionally drink extra fluids as part of their recovery nutrition goals. Rehydration strategies should include both water and electrolytes; without adequate sodium, excess water may be lost in urine..  While it may not be practical to measure losses, it may be helpful to know that at just a 1-2% fluid loss, both physical and cognitive performance are impacted. Because thirst is relieved before optimal hydration is reached, drinking specific amounts of fluid after exercise is recommended. In addition to normal fluid intake, student athletes should drink an extra 20-24 oz of fluid for every pound lost during exercise.

Early consequences of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps, and impaired mental and physical performance. These symptoms can increase the risk of injury as well. As dehydration progresses, heart and kidney health are at risk. Choosing either sports drinks or adding electrolyte products and carbohydrates to water during training and competition will help you maintain adequate hydration.

Recovery Nutrition Takeaways 

• Recovery nutrition for athletes requires specific delivery of adequate nutrients to allow an athlete to properly recover. The foundation of sports recovery includes the 3 R’s: Refuel, Repair, and Rehydrate

• Refuel with carbohydrates to help replenish glycogen stores and stabilize blood sugar.

• Repair with protein to help rebuild micro tears that occur to muscle tissue from intense activity.

• Rehydrate with water and electrolytes at a rate that minimizes urinary losses.

• Athletes need the right nutrients at the right time. It is best to recover within the first 30 minutes after activity. The earlier an athlete begins the recovery process, the better.

Shannon is a registered dietitian who specializes in performance nutrition for collegiate basketball. After working with the Mississippi State University Men’s Basketball team, along with some of their other athletes, she took a position as a performance dietitian fellow at the University of Pittsburgh where she fuels the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

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