- If you are serious about your performance you must have an ‘active’ recovery plan for to adapt, heal and recover as efficiently as possible
- The timing and quality of the food that you eat post-exercise has a dramatic impact on your body’s ability to recover in time for the next session
- Carbohydrate and protein play a major role in the recovery process after intense exercise
- Hydration is a core component of the recovery; 1-1.5 litres of fluid are required for every 1 kg lost in body weight from sweating
After training and matches the body is mentally and physically fatigued, dehydrated and energy stores are depleted. There are many layers of recovery that athletes must consider. Traditionally recovery would be considered as a brief stretch, a bottle of water and maybe some tea and sandwiches, at best! Our understanding of what recovery is and how important it is to get it right has dramatically improved in the past 10 years. A key message for athletes to consider; athletes spend more time recovering from exercise than actually exercising. It is the precision of a highly personalised recovery plan that will allow you to build a consistent level of training and execution of purposeful practice while reducing the risk of injury and illness.
Active vs passive recovery
The term ‘recovery’ is regarded in sports science terms as physical and mental recovery from intense training or competitive matches. ‘Active’ rather than ‘passive’ (just allowing the body to recover without intervention) recovery is the target, active recovery is where you proactively improve the rate of recovery by implementing strategies to allow the body to heal, regenerate and refuel. There is significant anecdotal evidence for contrast water therapy, massage, stretching and compression garments. We will be focusing on the nutrition aspects of recovery in this article but will look at the other active components of recovery in a future article.
In short, the primary nutrition goals for recovery after training and matches can be thought of as: The 4 R’s
1/ Restore depleted energy and fuel (glycogen) stores
2/ Rehydrate: replace lost fluid
3/ Repair damaged muscle tissue
4/ Rest – Sleep to mentally recuperate and restore cognitive function
Physical demands of team sports
During intense team sports like Gaelic football, hurling, hockey, rugby and soccer, athletes will cover anywhere between 6k-12k. Irrespective of field position, the type of exercise being performed is high intensity and intermittent, which results in a significant use of energy, particularly glycogen (the body’s stored form of carbohydrate). Additionally, the impact from tackling in team sports, and particularly the nature of tackling and collision in rugby, results in a significant amount of bruising, muscle damage and inflammation that must be taken into account in the nutrition recovery protocol.
Understanding your energy and fuel needs
Replacing lost energy is one of the primary considerations after a match or an intense training session. Competitive matches that are greater than 70 minutes result in energy expenditure often greater than 1,200 calories and maybe even as high as 1,800 calories. This can result in a potential energy expenditure on match days of approximately 4,500 calories for larger, muscular athletes.
Consuming suitable foods immediately post-exercise is essential for recovery. If you want to perform week in, week out then executing your recovery strategies is paramount. Athletes will have depleted glycogen stores, and tired muscles, so the immediate recovery meal should contain a source of fast-digesting CHO as well as a quality source of protein. Essential micro-nutrients and antioxidants have also been shown to support recovery, and should be included to reduce muscle soreness and muscle recovery. These antioxidants are found in foods such as vegetables, spices and fruits which is another important reason to consume at least 7 portions of fruits and vegetables each day.
Post-Workout Recovery Meal – How much to eat?
To fully replenish carbohydrate stores in the muscles and liver glycogen the timing and composition of the post exercise / competition meal is hugely significant. Consumption of 1.0-1.5 g CHO per kg BM and 0.3-0.5 g of protein is recommended. You will see below what that looks like in simple food terms and of course by using our meal plans.
Post exercise meal timing
Your first meal should be consumed within 45 minutes of finishing your session and should contain a fast digesting source of carbohydrate and a moderate source of protein. We are talking about something simple like a flavoured milk and a granola bar here. This meal should be followed by another meal 90 minutes to 2 hours later containing starchy carbs and a protein source, for example chicken with white rice, baked potato or cous cous with a good serving of whole protein. It is common that training sessions are matches in the evening time which makes the logistics of meeting these targets challenging, particularly if you are not home till merely 10.00 pm. A liquid meal that includes fruit, whey protein, milk and yogurt works effectively in this situation. Just make sure to follow this up with a good breakfast that includes a protein and carbohydrate source the next morning. There are plenty of super simple recipes appropriate for recovery on the recipe page. Selecting ‘recovery meal’ in the ‘nutrition goal’ drop-down box on the recipe page will help you to find suitable meals
The role of protein in recovery
Protein is the primary nutrient that supports growth and repair in the body. It’s what makes up muscle tissue and it also provides a source of energy for cells of the immune system. Active people and athletes should aim to consume 1.7–2.0g of protein per kg of body mass per day depending on their health or performance goal. The reason why athletes take protein (in whatever form) after exercise is to promote recovery by helping to repair damaged muscle fibres, but protein is also involved in countless other functions such as reducing muscle protein breakdown and facilitating hormone production and immune support, all vital for recovery.
The guideline for protein intake after intense performance is 0.3–0.5 grams per kg body mass, which is 24–40g of protein for the average 80kg male or 20–32g for a 65kg female, but more for larger athletes. You can easily meet protein requirements post-workout by eating whole foods such as lean meats and fish in the recovery meal, but some people do struggle to eat dense food after exercising due to a sensitive stomach or lack of appetite. In this case, again, a liquid recovery meal like a recovery drink like milk, a smoothie or whey protein fruit-based smoothie is perfect to provide these essential nutrients in a more tolerable form.
Depending on environmental conditions, athlete size and match intensity, fluid losses can range anywhere from 1.5 litres up to four litres. These fluids must be replaced at a ratio of 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1kg lost, meaning an intake of more than five litres of fluid in some cases.
As there is much variability between athletes, sports and positions, the practice of weighing in before matches and weighing out afterwards is a simple way to measure fluid losses and guide fluid intake after matches. Interestingly, there is a significant variation from athlete to athlete on the amount of fluid they lose during intense exercise.
A key point here is to be practical with rehydration strategies. Best practice dictates that such recommendations on 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1kg lost are addressed over the six hours after performance.
Here is a simple procedure for monitoring fluid balance pre and post exercise:
Fluid Requirement = Pre-exercise Weight – Post-exercise Weight
- Athlete weighs themselves without boots or trainers and in minimal clothing before training
- Athlete records weight at 64kg
- Athlete weighs in again after training and weighs 62.5kg
- The athlete has lost 1.5kg (1.5 x 1.5 = 2.2)
- The hydration target for the athlete is is 2.2 litres
For more information on hydration please refer to our hydration article that includes a hydration protocol for exercise.
What about high antioxidant supplements and foods?
Superfoods and antioxidants have become big business! Antioxidants are defined as substances that inhibit oxidation and can remove chemical agents which are capable of damaging muscle tissue, proteins, lipids and DNA. While researchers continue to explore the route of antioxidant supplementation and various antioxidant rich food forms for health and performance, much debate still exists on the efficacy of the various nutrition strategies that incorporate antioxidants in an athlete’s diet. This debate stems from numerous factors including lack of clear evidence for performance improvement, commercial motives and conflicting or inadequate research on the role antioxidants play in an athlete’s diet. Despite the main body of research dismissing the benefits of antioxidants for use in a performance context there is some evidence they may offer marginal benefits in specific situations.
The rationale behind using large doses of antioxidants after intense exercise is to negate the negative effects of free radicals (which damage body cells) and promote a faster rate of recovery. Reactive oxygen species or free radicals as they are also known will be present post-exercise due to the physical and mental strain placed on the body during intense exercise. However, rather than large amounts of antioxidants improving the rate of recovery, research has shown that too much antioxidant supplementation can inhibit the natural adaptive response to exercise (i.e. the benefits you get from training).
So, rather than consuming large amounts of antioxidants in supplement form, it seems more beneficial to consume natural, whole-food sources that contain a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in normal amounts.
- Pineapple and
The above foods in particular are suggested to be excellent anti-inflammatory foods that assist with muscle recovery. In your post-exercise meal and in the hours following exercise, ensuring you include some of the foods mentioned above and plenty of fruits and vegetables will help to ensure you obtain sufficient amounts of antioxidants to support muscle recovery.
Sleep and recovery
It would be impossible to discuss the concept of recovery without mentioning sleep. Adequate sleep in the days following intense exercise is vital to allow the body to heal and recover both physically and psychologically. Sleep allows the restorative process to occur and our mental and physical fatigue to subside. Aim to get a minimum of 8 hours sleep on any given night and after exercise. It can be challenging to sleep after playing a match or training intensely and you may have to implement strategies such as mindfulness, music, or reading to unwind. If you do have a bad nights sleep, aim to get up at your regular wake time and go to bed early the next night to ‘catch up’ on sleep rather than sleeping in. That will help to maintain a more consistent sleep pattern.
Please see our latest meal plans that have been created for optimum recovery.
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