I often get asked, what is the most important meal of the day for athletes, and unlike our Irish Mammy’s who would choose breakfast, I believe that the food eaten after training is the most important. The food you eat after exercise has the power to compliment your training and enhance training adaptations in the long term.
Recovery is defined as returning the body to a normal state and depending on exercise intensity can take from minutes up to 48 hours to repair and refill the muscles energy stores. Training adaptations, the development of speed, power, strength and endurance occurs in these rest periods and food has the power to support and enhance the recovery process.
Exercise programmes and training schedules are planned meticulously but the same cannot be said for the food the majority of athletes eat after training. Planning and preparing what food to eat after training increases the body’s ability to recovery faster, allowing for greater exercise intensity in subsequent sessions, ultimately leading to faster and greater strength, power and fitness. So what are the primary foods to consume in the recovery period to ensure optimal recovery is achieved?
Carbohydrate is stored in the muscle as muscle glycogen and is significantly depleted after training and competition. Research has found that a 6 second sprint depletes muscle glycogen levels by 15% and 15 miles of fast paced running in a 75 kg athlete completely depletes these levels. So regardless of your sport if you are exercising at high intensities glycogen replenishment is vital to maintain intensity in subsequent exercise sessions. Carbohydrate foods which are converted to glucose quicker (high glycaemic index), such as white bread, white pasta, may have advantages over those that release sugar slower (low glycaemic index), such as wholegrain bread and brown basmati rice, in refilling glycogen stores. However, for the majority of athletes with a 36-48 h recovery window healthier sources of carbohydrate are the optimal choice, sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa or spelt bread, as they provide other nutrients which can help with healing & recovery. Muscle glycogen replenishes faster during the first hours after exercise, consuming carbohydrate after this time will prolong the restoration of muscle glycogen. Add carbohydrate to your post-session shake or just insure there are plenty of healthy carbs on your plate after the session to ensure glycogen is replenished after exercise.
After high intensity or prolonged exercise the body is also in a catabolic state, which means that muscle tissue is being broken down. Protein is an essential macronutrient to help reduce this process and plays a key role in repairing and rebuilding the muscle after exercise. There is much debate in the scientific community about the type, timing, amount and the frequency of when you should consume protein to optimise muscle growth. However, what we are certain of is that the protein consumed after exercise should contain all 9 essential amino acids to increase and prolong the muscle building response to exercise. Essential amino acids can only be found in food and although they can be found in both meat and plant sources, animal sources i.e. chicken, fish, beef, milk, whey etc., have the highest quantity per serving, with particularity high concentration of leucine. Leucine is one of the branch chain amino acids, which switches on and drives muscle protein growth. Consuming 20-30 g of whey protein, 500 ml of protein milk or simply a large chicken breast with dinner will ensure muscle repairs and grows appropriately in the hours after exercise.
The more intense the session, whether it is in the gym, on the track or pitch, the more the muscle is damaged which has a knock on effect on increasing the inflammatory response. Inflammation is a necessary response to exercise and is essential to achieve the training adaptations each athlete is striving for. However, increased inflammation above what is necessary can lead to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and in some instances muscle damage. Therefore, to ensure optimal recovery and reduce the likelihood of sore muscles during the next exercise session include foods which contain anti-inflammatory properties, i.e. oily fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs & spices etc.
Rehydration after exercise is important, however, in a temperate climate such as ours its importance may be over stated unless you are training again within a 4 hour window. My advice is to drink to ensure that you are hydrated in time for your next exercise session.
Putting it all together
So, now you know the science how does this translate into food? Firstly, it is important that your recovery meal is convenient, accessible and is personalised to YOU! Although pasta and chicken is a staple recovery for the majority it does not mean it is the one and only meal that promotes muscle adaptation, in fact there are many more nutritious meals. After an early morning session, a second breakfast is perfectly acceptable as a recovery meal. It is also acceptable if you are stuck for time in the evenings or have not been as prepared as you had planned to be. As long as your recovery meal contains the above components it should be full of food that you enjoy! Check out my recipes with the recovery tag to bring some tasty inspiration to your training adaptations 🙂