Follow the ‘three Rs’ when it comes to post-training recovery strategy

Any athlete could probably tell you in detail about their nutritional preparation for training and races. What and when to eat and drink before a race is engrained in their competitive psyche and often planned with unerring precision. But what happens when it’s over?

Sports nutritionists bemoan the fact that the post-training diet is woefully neglected by many and that athletes could significantly enhance their recovery processes by eating and drinking appropriately when they finish a session.

“I always say practice the three Rs of recovery – rehydrate, refuel, and repair,” writes Stuart Philips, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada. But how best should you plan your recovery strategy?

Rehydrate

Replacing fluid and electrolytes (or body salts) lost through sweat is essential, but how much do you need to drink? Earlier this year, a panel of eminent scientists assembled by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published the latest position statement on sports nutrition in the scientific journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. In their guidelines, they stressed the need for athletes to consume 125-150% of their estimated fluid losses in the 4-6 hours after a session, the extra accounting for the continued loss of fluid from the body through sweating and urine losses.

On his website mysportscience.com, leading sports nutrition expert Asker Jeukendrup says that, in practical terms this means “you would need to drink 600ml per hour for every 2kg (4.4lbs) of fluid lost”.

Including a little sodium is also important as “it helps to retain ingested fluids, especially extracellular fluids, including plasma volume”, the scientists concluded. Salt also triggers the thirst mechanism, meaning you are more likely to take on board enough fluids as your body is restored.

Sports drinks, flavoured milk and athlete-specific rehydration solutions are good choices.

Refuel

Muscle glycogen is the main fuel used by the body during any high-intensity exercise and inadequately replacing glycogen stores will compromise performance in subsequent sessions.

The new ACSM report emphasises that carbohydrate sources should be an athlete’s immediate priority after training. “A carbohydrate intake of 1.0-1.2g per kg of bodyweight as soon as possible after exercise and every hour thereafter for four to six hours will optimise rates of resynthesis of muscle glycogen,” states the ACSM.

This is even more important if you are training twice a day or if your sessions are less than eight hours apart. Complete muscle glycogen synthesis takes 24 hours or longer, so it pays to refuel well.

What about protein? Given the high-profile advertising campaigns to the contrary, you may be surprised to learn that immediately replenishing protein stores is less crucial than you might think.

“It is unlikely that ingesting protein in the hours after a given exercise bout will impact the extent of exercise-induced muscle damage sufficient to account for functional changes,” Dr James Betts, a researcher in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Bath.

There is some evidence, reports the ACSM panel, that consuming protein during the 1-2 hour recovery window after sport helps to re-boot glycogen stores more quickly, but no proof that it has a direct impact on performance.

Still, including some protein in your immediate post- recovery phase is advisable, not least because it can make your snack more palatable. According to the ACSM, a modest number of studies suggest that an intake of 50–100g of protein during the recovery period speeds up dynamic power production during delayed onset muscle soreness.

WHERE TO GET …

CARBS

These provide 50g carbohydrate per portion, suitable for most needs:

2 sports gels
700-800ml sports drinks
2 slices toast with jam or honey or banana topping
2 cereal bars
300g (large) baked potato

CARBS AND PROTEIN COMBINED

For 50g carbs and a useful source of protein, try these:

250-300ml liquid meal supplement
300g creamed rice
600ml low-fat flavoured milk
1-2 sports protein containing bars
1 large bowl breakfast cereal with milk
1 large or 2 small cereal bars + 200g carton fruit-flavoured yoghurt
220g baked beans on 2 slices of toast
1 bread roll with cheese/meat filling + large banana

PERFECT PROTEIN PORTIONS

40g of cooked lean beef/pork/ lamb
40g skinless cooked chicken 50g of canned tuna/salmon 300ml of milk
200g tub of yoghurt
300ml flavoured milk
1.5 slices (30g) of cheese
2 eggs
120g of tofu
4 slices of bread
200g of baked beans
60g of nuts
Cooked lentils/kidney beans

Repair

Where protein comes into its own is in the longer-term recovery process.

Evidence for protein’s role in ensuring adequate muscle repair and building during a process that can takes hours, days or even weeks is overwhelming and it’s vital to include it as a major part of your general diet.

Other strategies can help to reduce muscle soreness, including the use of antioxidant-rich supplements. A study from Northumbria University, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, suggested that the nitrates and betalains in beetroot juice (try Beet It; beet-it.com), which have been shown to act like antioxidants, might enhance exercise recovery by preserving muscle function and reducing inflammation.

Further, as reported in the pages of our Performance section recently, Montmorency cherry extract (try Cherry Active; cherryactive.co.uk) has proved similarly effective.

Supplement use needs to be tested in training and doesn’t suit everyone – indeed, large amounts of recovery aids have been shown to interfere with training adaptation in some athletes.

Jeukendrup suggests they are “strategies that should be used only when there is a focus on rapid recovery and when this is far more important than long-term adaptation” such as between heats and finals held on one day.