After a long, intense training session your body has been stressed so much that muscles are damaged, energy stores (muscle glycogen) are depleted, and you are dehydrated. Your body is craving nutrients from food and water to help it recover, and there are 4 R’s to remember for optimal recovery;
Repair – protein to heal damaged tissue and promotes training adaptations
Replenish – carbohydrates to replace lost muscle and liver glycogen to fuel your next workout
Rehydrate –fluids to replace body water and electrolytes lost through sweat
Rest – sleep to recharge, promote healthy brain function and emotional well-being
With this in mind, here’s a list of functional foods to consume post-exercise to maximise recovery, allowing your body to repeatedly train and improve performance by maintaining a high-intensity for longer.
The ultimate post-training recovery drink! Research shows that consuming milk after endurance or resistance exercise is more effective for replenishing glycogen stores, stimulating protein synthesis and rehydration than any commercially available sports supplement. Milk is also rich in calcium to promote bone health.
Milk is a great option for anybody looking to increase muscle mass, as mentioned in the ‘How to stock your muscle building kitchen’ article. It may also be a better option than carbohydrate drinks for dieters as it offers a greater feeling of satiety, likely attributable to its protein content. If you are focusing on fat loss then opt for semi-skimmed or skimmed milk for reduced calories. Otherwise whole milk is recommended for enhanced nutrient availability as the fat promotes the absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
A pint of whole milk is a cheap and extremely beneficial source of nutrients to maximise recovery after any type of exhaustive exercise. If you’re lactose intolerant then choose Lactofree milk instead of soy based milk, or if you do not like plain milk then a flavoured product is a suitable alternative.
High-glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates are considered superior to low-GI carbohydrates as post-exercise recovery foods based on their ability to rapidly break it down into sugar and stored as glycogen. However this theory is aligned to individuals (particularly athletes) who train multiple times per day with short recovery periods between sessions. White potatoes are considered high-GI whereas sweet potatoes have a low-GI. If training sessions are more than 24 hours apart then the type of potato may not influence subsequent performance, but if they are as short as 3 hours apart then choose white potatoes for increased carbohydrate availability in the second session. Aside from carbohydrate content, white potato is higher in folate, iron, potassium, magnesium and sweet potato contains more vitamin A & C and calcium.
If you believe in the term ‘superfood’ then liver is definitely one of them. This was also mentioned in great detail in the ‘How to stock your muscle building kitchen’ article, outlining how nutrient dense liver is and may actually be a better option than other red meat. As well as being rich in protein and low in fat, including liver twice per week will significantly boost micronutrient availability to promote recovery of various physiological functions that are pivotal for performance.
Salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines are all types of oily fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Dietary fat is important for aiding transport of vitamins A, D, E & K, but omega-3 also plays a vital role in reducing inflammation, boosting immune function, stimulating protein synthesis, supporting brain function and cardiovascular health. Regular intake of oily fish (2-4 servings per week) is recommended to supply sufficient omega-3, but if you do not eat fish then a daily supplement (1-3g) that is rich in EPA & DHA is recommended.
Fruit – pineapple, cherries, bananas
Fruit is rich in vitamins and antioxidants which are vital to recover from intense exercise. A variety of fruit is better than just having one particular favourite to make sure you benefit from all nutrients. Mixed berries, particularly cherries, are rich in antioxidants and are proven to reduce recovery time following exercise. A regular intake of colourful berries can boost immune function and protect against exercise induced muscle damage.
Bananas are a very common fruit to be eaten around training because of their high carbohydrate content (25g per banana) made up of glucose and fructose, but also a source of potassium and vitamin B6 for muscle contraction and energy production, respectively.
Pineapple has a high-GI and is rich in vitamin C for immune function, manganese and copper for energy production. It also contains bromelain; an enzyme that promotes digestive health and reduces inflammation. Enjoy pineapple with some Greek yoghurt as a nutritious snack.
Food may not always be available so that’s why supplements are so convenient. If food is available then opting for lean meat, fish, eggs or dairy are excellent options, otherwise whey protein is a common post-workout drink to stimulate protein synthesis, and is also a good option for fat loss as it is low in calories. Furthermore, active individuals who struggle to get enough protein in their diet through food alone can rely on a whey protein supplement to boost recovery and energy availability. Known for its role in connective tissue protein also supports immune function, so sufficient dietary protein is important to maintain good health and recovery from exercise, particularly in cold weather!
Take home message
- Maximise recovery by consuming the required protein, carbohydrates and fluids after training so you’re ready for your next session.
- Milk is potentially the best all-in-one option in the initial stages of recovery (<60 mins) as it is a natural source of protein, carbohydrates and electrolytes. Drinks are generally preferred after exercise as they are more palatable and help to rehydrate.
- Carbohydrates and glycaemic index are dependent on when your next training session is – focus on high-GI carbohydrates if training within quick succession (approx. 3 hours), and low-GI carbohydrates are suitable if longer than 24 hours.
- Choose a protein source that is nutrient rich to support a range of physiological functions e.g. liver, lean meats, oily fish.
- Eat a range of fruit to benefit from a range of nutrients including vitamins, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to keep you healthy and performing at your maximum.
- Food first, supplement later.