How Does Nutrition Help in Exercise Recovery?
Exercise recovery refers to the return of your body to a normal state of muscle health and strength after a workout session. Proper recovery nutrition allows your body to heal itself in preparation for the next workout session. If you recover quickly and adequately, then your exercise performance will improve and your risk of potential injury will reduce. Failure to replenish fuel and fluid after training may result in sore muscles, fatigue, and underperformance in your next workout.
Role of nutrition for exercise recovery
Exercise depletes your glycogen stores (energy) and breaks down muscle proteins, and these need to be replaced to recover properly.
The goals of nutrition for exercise recovery are to:
- Refuel the body to replace muscle energy stores
- Repair the damaged muscle tissue and promote muscle remodeling/ growth
- Rehydrate the body by replacing the fluids lost in perspiration
- Revive the body by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation
Which nutrients are necessary for optimal recovery?
After an intense workout session, restocking muscle glycogen stores is the most critical factor that determines recovery time.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are the primary nutrient to replenish these stores. Research suggests that taking 1g to 1.5g of carbs per kg of body weight within 30 minutes after exercising can improve recovery. Eating plenty of carbs immediately after exercise is most important for those who are into endurance exercises (like running and cycling) or exercise often, such as twice on the same day. This becomes less important if you have one to two days to rest between workouts.
Whole grain cereals, fruits, and vegetables are good sources of complex carbs. Among these, bananas are a great option to improve recovery. Eating a medium-sized (118g) banana provides nearly 29g of easily digestible carbs that increase blood sugar levels rapidly, thus, quickly restocking muscle glycogen stores.
Eating adequate protein provides the necessary amino acids (like leucine) needed to repair, rebuild and grow damaged muscle fibers. While the total amount of protein you eat is important, the timing and type of protein you consume determines your muscle gains and minimizes your muscle breakdown.
Animal proteins, including meat, fish, poultry, and milk products are sources of high-quality protein. Cottage cheese (paneer) and eggs provide the best nutrition for exercise recovery, primarily because they are concentrated sources of protein — eating one cup (226g) of fresh paneer or three medium-sized (150g) boiled eggs may provide you with 20g of high-quality protein. And, they also contain high amounts of leucine.
Also watch: Foods to promote muscle growth
During the recovery process, fats serve as an important energy source. And according to some studies, consuming fatty acids like omega-3 (2-3g) after a workout, may also improve recovery by reducing muscular inflammation and soreness brought on by intense exercise.
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are oily fish such as salmon. Eating a 100g salmon fillet in your post-workout meal can provide you with 2.5g of these essential fatty acids. Plant sources of omega-3 include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds. Mustard and canola oils are good options for cooking your post-workout meals as they contain substantial amounts of omega-3.
Also read: Cooking Oils: How to Make a Healthy Choice
Vitamins and minerals
Exercise leads to the generation of harmful molecules called free radicals that increase oxidative stress in the body. This leads to inflammation in the muscles and impairs recovery. After an exercise session, eating foods rich in antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc) can improve recovery by reducing muscle inflammation.
You can meet 100% of your daily requirements of vitamin C by including a portion (100g) of fresh fruits and vegetables (amla, guava, berries, bell peppers), and green leafy vegetables (fenugreek, mustard leaves, moringa leaves) in your pre-and post-workout meals. Snacking on a handful of nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts can meet up to 35% of your daily needs of zinc, selenium, and vitamin E.
Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants, which are potent antioxidants that also reduce inflammation in the body. These include non-essential nutrients like polyphenols, curcumin, and caffeine.
Curcumin (a nutrient in turmeric) has been shown to promote muscle recovery between 24 to 48 hours after a workout. So adding a quarter teaspoon (1g) of turmeric to all your post-workout dishes or even to a glass of warm milk may help revive your muscles.
Studies also indicate that drinking a cup (250ml) of black coffee (which contains caffeine) an hour before working out may reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.
Exercise increases your core body temperature, and sweating is the body’s way of bringing it back to normal. But, the loss of body fluid that occurs can result in dehydration, if your fluid intake is suboptimal. Dehydration decreases your blood volume and also your ability to form sweat. This reduces the capacity to deliver oxygen to your muscles and causes your body to overheat during exercise, adversely affecting your exercise performance and recovery.
Depending on the intensity and duration of your workout, water or an electrolyte drink may be recommended to replenish fluid losses. It is advised to drink at least half to one glass (125ml to 250ml) of water every 10 to 20 minutes while exercising. Two to three cups (500ml to 750ml) of water are recommended after a workout to optimally rehydrate your body.
Is nutrient timing important for exercise recovery?
You should rehydrate your body immediately after finishing your training session. However, the urgency to consume carbs and protein after exercise depends on how long you have until your next exercise session.
If you exercise once a day or thrice a week, you need not focus a lot on nutrient intake timing. You only need to ensure that you consume enough calories, carbs and protein from your regular post-workout meals or snacks over 24 hours.
However, if you exercise more than once a day or have two training sessions less than eight hours apart — like an evening session followed by an early morning session the next day — you not only need to eat the right amounts of nutrients, but also need to consume them within two hours post-training. Research suggests that eating required amounts of carbs and proteins within the first 60-90 minutes after exercise, known as the “window of opportunity”, may optimally replace muscle glycogen and promote muscle repair and growth.
So, if you have a quick turn-around between sessions, it’s a good idea to maximize your recovery during this period.
Are supplements necessary for optimal recovery?
Supplements such as curcumin, creatine (in the form of creatine monohydrate), specialized protein powders (collagen and whey protein), nitrate, and sodium bicarbonate have scientific evidence to support their effectiveness in boosting exercise recovery. They do so by either reducing inflammation in the body or by enhancing muscle and tissue repair.
However, the intake of these supplements is necessary only for certain individuals in specific situations, like endurance athletes undergoing marathon training or people engaged in high-intensity resistance training.
It is ideal to follow a food-first approach to meet your recovery nutrition targets. Indiscriminate and unnecessary use of supplements may result in excess nutrient intakes, that may do more harm than good. Also, supplements can help enhance exercise recovery only when the foundations of recovery nutrition (ie, carbs, protein, micronutrients, hydration, and nutrient timing) are adequately met.
Recovery nutrition (and exercise nutrition in general) is influenced by the intensity and duration of your training, body composition, and fitness goals. As everyone’s requirements are unique, it may be worthwhile to consult a nutritionist or dietitian to understand your personal nutrition needs.
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