Recovery Nutrition: Why The Big Deal?

 How to Give your Body the Nutrition it Needs for Recovery

By: Susan Boegman & Dana Lis, Canadian Sport Institute Dietitians

After hard training (endurance, sprint, resistance) the muscle fuel glycogen – the storage form of carbohydrate – will be depleted and both protein synthesis and protein breakdown will be stimulated. Glycogen is essential to keep your muscles working. When you exercise you burn through glycogen, and as it runs out you become slow and tired. The harder you train, the more glycogen you use and the lower your glycogen stores become.

In the absence of food, protein breakdown is greater than protein synthesis and glycogen re-synthesis will be limited – so, forgetting to eat after exercise is definitely not a high performance strategy if you want to maximize your training and adaptation to get stronger and faster!

Post Exercise Nutrition Is Critical To:

  • Replenish glycogen stores
  •  Help prevent muscle protein breakdown
  •  Improve cellular rehydration
  •  Help keep immune system function high
  •  Improve exercise performance within the same day or on following training days

Your Recovery Focus: The Three ‘R’s’

  • Replenish glycogen
  • Recondition the muscle-synthesize protein
  • Rehydrate

Replenishing Glycogen
To be able to train at your best day after day after day, glycogen MUST BE REPLENISHED after exercise. In a review of over 165 studies it has been found that the most effective replenishment of glycogen happens when you eat or drink about 1.2 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight (range 0.8 –1.5 g/kg BW) immediately after exercise for as many as four to six hours after exercise. As well as stimulating glycogen synthesis, eating or drinking carbohydrate in recovery inhibits the muscle protein breakdown that occurs after training.

The amount of carbohydrate needed right after training or competition depends on your body weight, how hard/long the training/competition is and if you eat or drink protein rich foods or fluids along with your carbs. When you train multiple times in a day, have back-to-back events or engage in high volume or intensity training, an efficient post-training glycogen recovery plan becomes essential. If you skip the carbs in favour of protein, delay eating after training or forget to eat all together, the result will be lowered muscle glycogen resynthesize by up to 50%. Essentially, you’re giving your competition the edge before the race even starts!

Reconditioning the Muscle
Essential amino acids (EAA), found in protein rich foods and supplements, do two really cool things: (1) increase protein synthesis; and (2) decrease protein breakdown. Protein eaten before, during or soon after exercise will cause a greater increase in muscle protein stimulation, repair and growth. Muscle protein synthesis seems to plateau at about 20–25g (0.35–0.3 g/kg body weight). The type of protein matters as well. Whey protein seems to cause the greatest immediate increases. So if you are looking to maximize muscle protein synthesis, liquid whey is your best bet. If you can’t consume whey protein right away after exercise, plan to eat other high quality animal based proteins.


The purpose of rehydration is simple: restore the fluids (and electrolytes) lost in sweat. A dehydrated athlete is more prone to fatigue (especially when exercising in the heat) and exercise feels harder. To make sure you are well hydrated, monitor the amount and color of your urine and follow a hydration plan. Excreting a large amount of lemonade coloured urine? You are doing a good job. Dark yellow and small amounts? You are probably dehydrated and need to drink more throughout the day and after exercise.

  • Start drinking as soon as you wake up
  • Plan for a beverage at each meal and snack
  • Carry a water bottle and sip fluids throughout the day. Refill as needed.
  • Drink during and after training – set yourself the goal of at least one full water bottle during and after each training session.
  • In some sports or conditions over-hydrating is not helpful. Work with your sport dietitian or physiologist to find out the right hydration level for you.
  • If you are waking up to go to the bathroom more than once per night you are either over hydrating or drinking too much too close to bed.


Few Other Nutrients Essential to Recovery

Sodium losses will depend on sweat loss. However, after training or competition, the sodium content of a recovery drink plus the sodium found in all follow-up meals and snacks should be sufficient to replace any losses. If you know that you are a “salty sweater” plan on salting your food.

Fat may slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates and proteins so it is best to limit fat in immediate recovery and instead save it for meals at other times during the day. Stick to fats found in fatty fish, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, hemp hearts and pumpkin seeds. These sources of omega 3s and/or antioxidant nutrients may reduce inflammation.

Antioxidants are essential in minimizing the effects of the free-oxygen radicals produced during exercise and to protect cell membranes and the immune system. High intensity training or competition may lead to a temporary increase in production of free radicals. There is no consistent evidence that antioxidant supplementation will enhance your performance so eat your antioxidants – choose high quality, colorful, unprocessed plant-based foods.

Recovery Timing
Are you taking part in high intensity training, competition or regular workouts more than once per day? If so, consume a post-workout recovery drink or snack containing both carbohydrates and protein as soon as possible (within 30 minutes) after intense training or competition. This means being prepared! Pack recovery foods and fluids to enjoy while engaged in active recovery – stretching, doing an easy spin on a bike …etc., or for the drive home. Easily digested carbohydrates and whey protein are ideal during this time. See table on next page.

The Next Six Hours
Follow up your immediate recovery nutrition with a high quality meal and fluids as soon as you feel hungry or eat within the next 30–90 minutes even if you do not feel very hungry. When you have limited time between training sessions, aim to eat frequently after training or at least every two hours for the next two meals.

Meal should include:

 HIGH QUALITY CARBS: quinoa, brown rice, barley, multigrain pasta, sprouted or whole grain breads, oatmeal, multi or whole grain cereals, fresh and dried fruits, dairy products, and legumes.

LEAN PROTEINS: eggs, fish, lean beef, bison, chicken, turkey, legumes, milk products, and milk alternatives.

HIGH QUALITY FATS: olives, flax, olive and canola oil, avocados, fish, nuts, and seeds.

 ANTIOXIDANTS: fresh or frozen veggies and fruits – as large a variety as possible.