Athletes work hard and often give 100% (or more!) in their training sessions and competitions. As a result, muscle soreness, fatigue and exhaustion are often experienced by novices and seasoned athletes alike. Recovery is needed to rebuild muscle, restock energy stores and reduce fatigue. Making sure you get adequate recovery prevents injury and keeps performance levels high for your next session or competition.
Most people agree that good nutrition is important for general health, but not everyone recognizes the role nutrition can play in athletic recovery. We will look at how the following key nutritional elements impact recovery:
- Fatty Acids
It is important to eat protein within 2 hours after exercise so the amino acids found in protein can repair and build your muscle. Having enough protein in your diet can also improve recovery time. Recommendations for how much protein to eat daily differ depending on age, gender and level of activity, but a good guideline is 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. In practice, if you weighed 150 pounds you would need to aim for 25 to 45 grams each meal (if eating 3 meals a day). Good sources of protein include:
- Meat (including poultry and fish)
- Dairy products
- Legumes or beans
- Whole grains
Muscles store glycogen (a form of glucose) for energy to use during activity. When the glycogen stores are used up the muscles fatigue. Carbohydrates (fondly know as carbs) are an excellent source of glucose for replacement of muscle glycogen. Eating enough carbs during your recovery period is essential to speed muscle glycogen store recovery. Nutrient rich carbs include:
- Whole grains
For athletes with multiple intense training sessions, it is important to eat carbs immediately following exercise and then spaced out every 2 hours for the next 4 to 6 hours. For athletes that include rest days in their training, it is enough to eat carbs throughout the day instead of timing it between sessions.
Athletes experience muscle damage, oxidative stress and inflammation during exercise or high levels of activity. A few studies have recently shown eating foods high in polyphenol increases metabolic recovery after exercise. This may sound intimidating as many of us don’t know what they are or what foods they are in. The good news is they are very easy to find! Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant found in colorful plant-based foods such as:
- Black currants
- Dark chocolate (hurray!)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids also combat oxidative stress resulting from strenuous exercise. This may be due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Increased omega-3 fatty acids in the diet have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue and increase performance following the recovery period. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in:
- Flax seed
- Chia seeds
Hydration is key to good performance and is non-negotiable during recovery. How much you need to drink (and if you need electrolytes) will depend on several factors:
- How long you are exercising
- How intense you are exercising
- The environment you are exercising in
- How much you sweat
- Your body mass
Most athletes do not remember to drink enough, despite knowing how important it is. Keeping water close by can help you remember to drink up. A good rule of thumb to know if you are drinking enough is to pay attention to the color of your urine. Dark, amber colored urine is a sign of dehydration. Urine should be light yellow or clear when you are well hydrated.
It’s important to consider personal preference and dietary needs when looking at using nutrition for athletic recovery. For example, while Greek yogurt is an excellent source of protein, it won’t do you much good if you are lactose intolerant. Or if you really can’t stand blueberries, strawberries and cherries are excellent swaps. The beauty of food is there are so many good things to eat that can give us the nutrients we need.
Also, it’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to hit every nutritional benchmark for optimal recovery. Don’t over think it! A lot of foods have multiple benefits. Tuna is a wonderful source of protein as well as omega-3 acids. Many fruits are good sources of carbohydrates and polyphenols.
Author: Tammy Rampton, RN, BSN
Rampton Medical Writing