Fueling Your Recovery
At IHN, part of my curriculum was a Sports Nutrition course. My instructor actually taught us that an 'athlete' can be anyone who is physically active and participates in regular, moderate, to intense exercise. 'Athlete' isn’t just a term used to describe those professionals who make a living off of their sport. This means that if you regularly walk, run, jog, weight train, swim, take fitness classes, cycle, spin, box, or anything in between, you -- yes, you! -- are an athlete who needs to take their recovery and nutrition seriously.
I had never considered myself to be an athlete before I took this course. Growing up, I barely participated in gym class and I lasted maybe two seasons of soccer before dropping out. It was always ingrained in my mind that I just wasn’t an 'athlete' since I couldn’t excel at any sport. But as I got older and started taking my health more seriously, I started working out regularly. It wasn’t always consistent at first, but by the time I was in school, I was running, taking spin classes and doing weights 4-5 days per week. For all intents and purposes, I was an athlete.
Having my instructor shift my perspective on what it means to be an athlete before practicing as a nutritionist was really important. It helped me realize that the principles for proper fueling, recovery and hydration apply to so many people.
Think about a time when you’ve worked out and felt tired or weak. Maybe you didn’t have the energy to finish your set or session, or you couldn’t push yourself to do what your normally can. Your body tells you when it doesn’t have the fuel that it needs to function optimally.
Ensuring a proper diet both before and after exercise is so important for all athletes.
Any type of exercise is a stress on the body. Not all stress is bad, and exercise (within reason) is an example of 'good' stress. Any type of physical activity uses the body’s stores of carbohydrates for fuel and uses protein to help rebuild and repair the muscles. Fat is a substrate that is used in lesser amounts, but it’s still used during exercise (except in the case of ketosis where there are no carbohydrates present for the body to use). This means that after exercise is a critical time to ensure you are replacing those nutrients the body used to refuel and repair the muscles and tissues.
As with everything else in nutrition, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about proper recovery fuel. It can be confusing when you read articles that talk about the macro-nutrient or 'macro' ranges. You’ll often read that you need to make sure you’re getting the proper ratio of carbs and protein that equals 3:1 or 4:1. What the $#!* does that mean and how are you supposed to calculate that?!
Leave the macro counting obsession to the professional athletes and body builders who have the time and professionals helping them.
When it comes to fueling right after a workout, there are some simple tools you can use and foods to think about that will help you refuel right. No counting or ratios involved.
Carbohydrates are the main fuel source that your body uses during physical activity. Glucose is the fuel that our muscles need in order to sustain contractions during exercise. Particularly after a long bout of aerobic (or endurance) exercise, the body will use up a good portion of its carbohydrate stores. Always include a good source of complex carbohydrates to your post-exercise meal.
What to eat: sweet potatoes, oats, brown rice, quinoa, starchy vegetables (like squash), bananas, spelt pasta, sprouted grain bread, juice-sweetened dried fruit, gluten free pasta
How much to eat: the amount that your body will need is entirely dependent on the exercise and intensity that you just did. Use your judgment for portion sizing. If all you had time for was a 20-minute jog, for example, it’s not necessary for you to refuel with a heaping bowl full of brown rice. In this situation, a ¼ cup portion size would be more than enough. If you ran 10 kilometers, that’s a different story. Focus on building a balanced plate rather than overloading your plate with grains and carbohydrates. A balanced plate is one that has a serving of protein, good fats, 1-2 vegetables and small serving of grains or starch. We can even find carbohydrates in foods like broccoli, so you’re more likely to overdo your required carbohydrates than not eat enough.
Protein is the second piece of the puzzle for proper recovery. When we exercise our muscles take a beating so it’s important to provide a good source of protein to help rebuild and repair the tissues.
What to eat: lean meat, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, nut butter, beans (also a source of carbohydrates!)
How much to eat: Similar to carbohydrates, with protein and recovery, it’s more likely that you would overdo it than not get enough. Ensure you get a good serving size of your chosen protein, which is about the size of the palm of your hand and the thickness of a deck of cards. Two eggs, ½ cup beans, a tablespoon of nut butter or a ¼ cup serving of nuts or seeds are other good options.
Hydration is important to consider before, during and after your workouts. I find that the majority of my clients are not drinking enough water in general. Even the smallest amount of dehydration (2% to be exact) will affect your performance during exercise. This means you won’t be able to sustain your efforts or it will feel harder to keep up.
In most cases, hydrating with just plain water will be enough. However, if are exercising outside in the summer or in a hot environment, you need to be hydrating with more than just water. In most cases, when you are feeling the effects of dehydration it’s already too late and your body is already severely imbalanced. Adding in electrolytes to your water is important in cases of extreme heat and sweating.
Check out the new recipe for my 'Better Than Gatorade' Lemon Hydrator to get a delicious recipe you can make at home!
When to refuel
Aim to refuel 30 minutes to 1 hour after exercise.
If your digestion can’t handle food right after exercise, do your best to have small amounts of something that contains protein and carbohydrates. Almonds and dried cranberries is something I like to have when I can’t handle a big meal after a run. Just be sure to eat a balanced meal as soon as you can during the day to ensure your body has what it needs!