Stella Lucia Volpe, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., FACSM, is an associate professor and the Miriam Stirl Term Endowed Chair in Nutrition in the Division of Biobehavioral and Health Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Volpe is a member of the Gatorade Sports Nutrition Board. Her degrees are both in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, and Dr. Volpe also is ACSM Exercise Specialist® certified. Dr. Volpe's research focuses on obesity and diabetes prevention, using traditional interventions, mineral supplementation, and more recently, by altering the environment to result in greater physical activity and healthy eating. Dr. Volpe is an associate editor of ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal®.
Recovery nutrition has become a popular phrase in the sports world. Is it really as important as everyone makes it to be? The answer is yes! Recovery nutrition is equally as important to working out, as working out! Recovery nutrition adequately restores glycogen in the body, allowing for optimum performance from day to day. Because recovery nutrition allows for proper restoration of muscle glycogen, a person should feel strong each time he/she begins a workout or competitive event. However, other factors do come into play, such as adequate sleep, stress levels, proper training, and the like. Nonetheless, even when a person is not obtaining the proper amount of sleep, for example, good recovery nutrition will still be helpful to the person's performance (e.g., he/she is not tired and not properly fueled).
What does optimal recovery nutrition require?
Optimal recovery nutrition requires two main components; however, these should be coupled with appropriate training, sleep, and stress management.
1. Proper hydration. Proper hydration is required throughout the day. The greater the temperature and humidity, the more fluids are required. In addition, for athletes who exercise in hot and humid conditions or who exercise for an hour or more per day, sports drinks are the best choice for hydration and to maintain blood glucose levels. Drinking sports drinks will help to spare muscle glycogen, especially in endurance events. To evaluate proper hydration, an athlete should weigh himself/herself before and after workouts. Ideally, if the athlete consumed enough fluids during a workout or event, he/she will have the same body weight before and after the practice or competition. This is not usually the case, however. An athlete should consume at least 8 to 10 fluid ounces of water or a sports drink for every pound lost after a workout or competition. Another method of assessing dehydration is urine color. Urine that is pale yellow is a crude estimate that a person is properly hydrated. Dark yellow urine usually means a person is dehydrated, whereas urine color that is clear may indicate overhydration.
2. Food consumption. Postexercise food consumption is equally as important as hydration. Often times, after a workout or competition, athletes do not want to consume a lot of food. Nonetheless, consuming foods up to 2 hours postexercise results in the best restoration of muscle glycogen. Thus, for athletes who cannot consume food right after an event, liquid foods may be better tolerated after a workout or competition: sports drinks, sports gels and water, nutrition shakes, chocolate milk, or fruit smoothies. Even a snack of 50 to 100 g of a carbohydrate food, 15 to 20 minutes postexercise, may help to "jump-start" muscle glycogen restoration (See Table 1 for examples of more postexercise snacks.)
a. Once an athlete is able to eat, the meal should consist of approximately 60% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 20% fat. The carbohydrate can be a combination of low, moderate, and high glycemic index foods. The research has shown mixed results as to whether high or low glycemic index foods postexercise are optimal (1-4). In brief, some researchers found that eating high glycemic index foods postexercise enhanced glycogen storage (1,2). Others reported that the glycemic index of foods consumed immediately postexercise is not as important as the amount of carbohydrates consumed (3,4); however, these same researchers also state that "high insulin concentrations after a HGI (high glycemic index) meal later in the recovery period could facilitate further muscle glycogen resynthesis" (4). How much carbohydrate is enough to properly restore glycogen stores? Athletes who train daily will need to consume approximately 5 to 7 g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. Depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration of training, an athlete may require slightly less or slightly more than 5 to 7 g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. (See Table 2 for examples of low, moderate, and high glycemic index foods.)
Finally, but also very importantly, is that "recovery nutrition" really equates to "overall nutrition." In my view, there is "Immediate postexercise recovery nutrition," "2 to 4 hours postexercise recovery nutrition," and "24-hours post recovery nutrition." This may seem like a silly concept; however, it makes sense in lieu of the fact that athletes need to realize the importance of eating adequate energy and that there are times when that energy intake should be primarily from carbohydrates. It also allows an athlete to view his/her day in "parts" and may result in the athlete spreading food consumption more evenly throughout the day.
Recovery nutrition, combined with proper training, sleep, and stress management, can lead to optimal exercise performance. When recovery nutrition is accurately implemented, athletes will see a big difference in their overall performance and energy throughout the day.
1. Siu, P.M., and S.H. Wong. Use of the glycemic index: effects on feeding patterns and exercise performance. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science
2. Siu, P.M., S.H. Wong, J.G. Morris, et al. Effect of frequency of carbohydrate feedings on recovery and subsequent endurance run. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise®
3. Stevenson, E., C. Williams, G. McComb, et al. Improved recovery from prolonged exercise following the consumption of low glycemic index carbohydrate meals. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism
4. Stevenson, E., C. Williams, and H. Biscoe. The metabolic responses to high carbohydrate meals with different glycemic indices consumed during recovery from prolonged strenuous exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism