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Recovering from Hard Exercise: How to Refuel

What's best to eat for recovery after a hard workout? That's what marathoners, body builders, and fitness exercisers alike repeatedly ask. They read ads for commercial recovery foods that demand a 3-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein, tout the benefits of a proprietary formula, or emphasize immediate consumption the minute you stop exercising. While these ads offer an element of truth, consumers beware: engineered recovery foods are not more effective than standard foods. Here's how, as the parent of  a hungry athlete, you can help them choose an optimal recovery diet.

Which athletes need to worry about a recovery diet?

Too many athletes who are obsessed with rapidly refueling the minute they stop exercising. They are afraid they will miss the one-hour "window of opportunity" when glycogen replacement is fastest. What they fail to understand is that refueling still occurs for several hours, just at a slowing rate. Given a steady influx of adequate carb-based meals and snacks, muscles can refuel within 24 hours. If your teen has a full day to recover before their next training session, or if they have just done an easy (non-depleting) workout, you don't need not obsess about making sure they refuel immediately afterwards.  

Chocolate milk being poured into glass from bottle

So when is refueling as soon as tolerable most important?  For serious athletes doing a second bout of intense, depleting exercise within six hours of the first workout, including:

  • triathletes doing double workouts
  • soccer players in tournaments
  • skiers who ski hard in the morning and again in the afternoon.

The sooner an athlete consumes carbs to replace depleted muscle glycogen and protein to repair damaged muscle, the sooner they'll be able to exercise hard again.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, an athlete's muscles will have lots of time to replenish glycogen stores. Just be sure your teen  repeatedly consumes a foundation of carbohydrates with each meal/snack, along with some protein to build and repair the muscles. For example, chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie are excellent choices.

How many carbs are needed?

According to the International Olympic Committee's Nutrition Recommendations, adequate carbs means:

Amount of Exercise
Gram carb/lb
Gram carb/kg
Moderate exercise (~1hour/day)
 2.5 to 3
Endurance exercise (1-3 h/day)
 2.5 to 4.5
Extreme exercise (>4-5 h/day)
 3.5 to 5.5


Example, a 150-lb triathlete doing extreme exercise should target ~500 to 800 g carb/day (2,000-3,200 carb-calories). That's about 500 to 800 g carbs every 4 hours during the daytime.

What are some good carb-protein recovery foods?

Recovery meals and snacks should include a foundation of carbohydrate-rich breads, cereals, grains, fruits, and vegetables plus a smaller amount of protein (at least 10-20 grams per recovery snack or meal). For example:

  • fruit smoothie (Greek yogurt + banana + berries)
  • cereal + milk bagel + (decaf) latté
  • pretzels + hummus baked potato + cottage cheese
  • turkey sub pasta + meatballs.

Do NOT consume just protein, as in a protein shake or protein bar. Protein fills an athlete's stomach and helps build and repair muscles, but it does not refuel muscles. Muscles want three or four times more calories from carbs than from protein. If your teen athlete likes the 

Ripe yellow bananas

convenience of protein shakes, at least add carbs to them. That is, blend in some banana, frozen berries, and graham crackers.

Keep in mind that recovery calories "count." I hear many frustrated dieters complain they are not losing weight despite hard workouts. Perhaps that's because they gobble 300 or so "recovery calories" and then go home and enjoy a hefty dinner. By organizing their training to end at mealtime, a teen athlete can avoid over-indulging in recovery-calories.

What about recovery electrolytes?

After a hard workout, many athletes reach for a sports drink, thinking Gatorade or PowerAde is "loaded" with sodium (an electrically charged particle). Think again! Milk and other "real foods" are actually better sources of electrolytes than most commercial sports products. These electrolytes (also known as sodium and potassium) help enhance fluid retention and the restoration of normal fluid balance. Here's how some common recovery fluids compare:


Beverage (8 oz)  Sodium (mg)
 Potassium (mg)
 Protein (mg)
 Carbs (g)
 Water  --  --  --  --
 PowerAde 55 45  -- 19
 Gatorade 110 30  -- 14
 Low-fat milk
100 400 8 12
 Chocolate milk
150 425 8 26
 Orange juice
 -- 450 2 2

As you can see, after a hard workout, recovery fluids that such as chocolate milk, orange juice, or a latte offer far more "good stuff" than you'd get in a sports drink. Sports drinks are dilute and designed for during extended exercise.

To assess how much sodium your teen is losing in sweat, have them weigh themselves naked pre- and post-exercise to accoun for any fluid consumed. Loss of one pound equates to loss of about 700-1,000 mg sodium. If your teen sweats heavily and loses a significant amount of sodium, the losses can easily be replaced with:

  • pretzels (300 mg sodium/10 twists)
  • a bagel (500 mg) with peanut butter (200 mg/2 tbsp),Pretzel
  • Wheaties and milk (300 mg), or
  • a spaghetti dinner with tomato sauce (1000 mg/cup Ragu sauce).
Fact is, most athletes already consume plenty of sodium!

Recovery can start before exercise

What an athlete eats before exercise impacts their recovery. According to research presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, consuming protein before lifting weights enhanced recovery better than consuming a protein drink afterwards. That's because the body digests pre-exercise protein into amino acids (yes, the body can digest food during exercise!) and puts those amino acids right into action repairing damaged muscles.

What if your teen feels like they never really recover well?

If an athlete hs to drag themselves through workouts, questions arise:

  • Are they overtraining? Rest is an essential part of a training program; muscles need time to refuel and repair.  They should take at least one, if not two, days off from exercise per week.
  • Are they anemic? Anemia is common, so have your child's pediatrician or primary care physician monitor their serum ferritin (stored iron). If iron stores are depleted, they'll feel needlessly tired during exercise. An estimated half of female athletes are iron-deficient, as indicated by low serum ferritin stores. (About 14% of all women are iron deficient.) A survey of collegiate male runners suggested about 20% had low serum ferritin. Iron supplements help resolve the problem, alongside a good recovery diet. Eat wisely, recover well, and feel great!

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

Nutrition for Athletes: A practical guide to eating for health and performance.

Prepared by the Nutrition Working Group of the International Olympic Committee, Feb 2010 http://www.thecgf.com/media/games/2010/CGF_Nutrition.pdf

Campos. Manuel, S Gervais, J Walker, A Olson. Iron deficiency in Division III male cross country and track runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010;42(5 Supplement):Abstract 2821

Lee, Choi Hyun, J Kim, K Hoon Park, J Lee. Efect of the timing of protein supplement on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010;42(5 Supplement):Abstract 2862.

Nicewonger, Christine, J Flohr, M Todd, C Womack. The effect of iron supplementation on iron markers and performance in female athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010;42(5 Supplement):Abstract 2822

Posted February 10, 2012

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