Eating and drinking the right things after exercise can improve your mood, subsequent performance and longer-term adaptations, as Eleanor Jones explains
Giving eating and drinking habits top priority is vital for athletes to perform well and keep the chances of injury minimised.
Three main benefits are:
» RECOVER from previous session
» PROMOTE adaptation
» PREPARE for next session
Choose food items that provide a lot of bang for their buck – emphasise those with quality ingredients rather than products that simply have empty calories in the form of “carbs” or “protein”. Many sports nutrition products fall into the latter category, but they still have their place. They are convenient and pre-packaged, making them ideal for when you’re on the go or training abroad. Just watch out for the portion sizes and make sure they’re appropriate to your needs (see the guidelines below).
What do I need?
You need to replace the fuel you’ve used in the session, provide protein for growth and adaptation and fluids to reverse any dehydration.
Your body stores carbohydrate for use during exercise. You need to eat starchy foods regularly to top up these stores as they can be limited to perhaps only 500g. Eating promptly increases the speed at which your body replaces your stores.
Training stimulates genes that cause adaptations. This includes building new muscle fibres or new mitochondria (the muscles’ powerhouse). If there are no proteins (the body’s building blocks) present to build these new tissues, adaptations cannot occur.
Thirst is a poor indicator of hydration status – aim to offset your fluid losses from each session. Coaching breaks provide excellent opportunities to rehydrate and refuel – help make it a habit for your athletes.
What you need to eat or drink depends on how hard you train, your event, current nutritional status, the time between sessions and your personal preferences. Getting the advice of a sports nutritionist can help you to refine your strategy.
1-1.2g per kg of carbohydrate to refill your stores. This equates to: 60kg athlete = 60-72g carbohydrates, 80kg athlete = 80-96g carbohydrates. 20g good-quality protein. Animal sources best, such as eggs or whey. 150% of your fluid losses.
This can be estimated by: Body mass pre-exercise – body mass post-exercise x 1.5 = fluids required: example – 84.0kg – 82.6kg = 1.4kg x 1.5 = 2.1 litres.
What does it look like?
A sound recovery nutrition strategy might look very different for a female endurance runner and a male decathlete. This is where your own goals and preferences will help to translate the science into real foods.
Female endurance runner:
Egg sandwich (two slices of bread, two eggs, spinach)
500 ml bottle Lucozade, plus water
About 25g protein, 65g carbohydrate, 500ml + fluids
This athlete has timed her session to finish before lunch, so that her recovery meal is incorporated into her normal meal pattern. This is a strategy that helps to manage her overall calorie consumption and provide sufficient carbohydrate. She also emphasises high-quality protein, for repair and recovery. It also helps to manage her appetite.
Protein shake and flapjack
Drink of milk
(Shower and change)
Tuna salad (pasta, tuna, assorted vegetables)
Water ad lib
~45g protein, 125g carbs, 300ml + fluids
This athlete has several smaller meals to increase calorie intake and carbohydrate re-synthesis. This is beneficial when lots of training sessions occur close together. They also use several forms of convenience foods – there’s no difference in efficacy between solids or liquids, or real or packaged foods. With multiple sessions in one day, timing becomes even more important, which is why handy snacks for immediately after the session has finished are ideal.
» Eleanor Jones is senior sport scientist at the University of Birmingham and a BASES-accredited sport scientist with an IOC diploma in sports nutrition