Getting your nutrition right before exercise is vital in order to make the most of the training session or race. Taking on the right fuel, in the right quantity, has the potential to make or break the session.
But what about nutrition after exercise? How important is it to eat well afterwards, and what are the best foods to fuel your recovery?
Think about what you are trying to achieve. The aim is optimum nutrition once your training or race has finished so your body gets the nutrients it needs to recover better and faster. Effective recovery is essential after running training. You need to take in the right balance of nutrients to get your muscles structurally and functionally recovered.
However, many runners, especially recreational runners, do not share the view on essential effective recovery. Or, more accurately, they want their cake too!
Functional recovery will get you back to a physiological state where training can take place again.
So, I totally get that if you are running once a week with no race goals then post-run nutrition does not seem so important.
But if you want to feel energised for the rest of the day following a morning run, and wake up the next morning with minimal aches then fueling your recovery effectively is so useful. You can still have cake if you want!
One thing to note, the advice in this article is primarily aimed at endurance runners. Other sports have specific nutrition requirements. Please get in touch with any questions.
Carbohydrates need replenishing as stores of glycogen will have been depleted during endurance exercise. This is especially important if you are exercising again within 24 hours.
Ideally you want to be eating low GL (glycaemic load) complex carbohydrates after exercise. These foods will give you sustained, slow release energy. Some people mistakenly believe they need sugary quick fix carbs straight after running, but that usually results in a sugar high and subsequent crash.
Sugary carbs have their place during a run when we need to get an instant glucose boost, but after training we are better off with wholegrain foods like brown rice, oats and wholemeal pasta.
How much carbohydrate do we need to consume?
Little and often in the 24 hours after a long run is ideal, starting with a good mixture of protein and carbohydrates within an hour of finishing your training session.
Aim for around 1g/kg of body weight of carbohydrates every few hours.
As an example, a runner weighing 65kg wold want to aim to eat around 65g of carbohydrates within an hour of finishing their run. Then another 65g of carbohydrates every couple of hours.
How can you achieve this: 100g oats, 80g (dry weight) wholemeal pasta, or one medium sweet potato
Protein is extremely important after exercise to start the process of repairing and rebuilding muscles. The sooner after exercise the better.
Because the body does not store protein we need to take in regular amounts to maintain levels of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Amino acids serve many functions, including making muscles, tendons and bones, and as transports for nutrients.
Exercise, especially intense and endurance, increases protein breakdown in the muscles. Eating the right kind of protein as part of your recovery will help to repair and build muscles, supporting your body to recover optimally ready for the next exercise session.
How much protein you need after running, as always, depends on several factors. Intensity and duration of the run, your body weight, and your plans for the upcoming days mean there is no one size fits all answer to how much protein you should consume after a run.
As a rough general rule, around 20g of protein after training or racing is usually ideal for recovery.
This could take the form of: 3 large eggs, 100g of chicken or turkey, 150g Greek youghurt with a handful of nuts and seeds, 200g tofu, 100g of oily fish, or one 240g tin of chickpeas or beans.
Hydration to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes always needs to be considered, and is especially important on long training runs or in hot weather.
Most of us instinctively know if we tend to produce high volumes of sweat or not. Some people sweat, others go bright red in the face (that's me!), it is just one of those things. You could weigh yourself before and after exercise to help determine the amount of fluid you lose.
Salt losses are less well considered. We know to avoid consuming an excess of salt in our daily diets, for many health reasons including blood pressure, but it is a mistake to avoid salt completely. Especially when exercising in hot, humid conditions.
Keep in mind other minerals too. Magnesium and potassium are also contained in sweat so it is important to replenish sufficiently these also in order to avoid symptoms of dehydration and minimise muscle cramps and aches.
There are all sorts of hydration tablets available to buy now, most of which have been carefully formulated to give you what you need.
Some simple home ideas to add back some salts into your body include a sprinkle of salt on your food, salted peanuts or pretzels (I can vouch for the wonders of salted pretzels in staving off dehydration during long, hot runs).
My favourite way to hydrate and replenish lost salts though is a teaspoon of Marmite dissolved in hot water. Try it, you will either love it or hate it!
Taking on sufficient carbohydrates, protein and hydration are the basics of fueling your recovery with optimum post-run nutrition. As explained above you need to take in the right balance of nutrients to get your muscles structurally and functionally recovered.
By focusing on eating 'real' whole foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds you will naturally get a good balance of essential micro nutrients including iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium.
Fine-tuning your nutrition will give you exactly what you need. We are all different so there is no one perfect post-run meal to suit everybody's needs. Whether you are fighting off an injury, struggling with hormonal imbalances or going through a stressful period, there are always nutritional interventions that can help. It is just a question of finding out is right for you. Which is where I can help.
As a BANT registered Nutritional Therapist I take a holistic approach, devising for my clients a personalised nutrition and lifestyle plan. If you want to fine-tune your nutrition, improve your health and running performance then please do book in for a free discovery call.
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Helen Morton, registered Nutritional Therapist. sports nutritionist, runner, Level 2 Fitness Instructor and food lover, sharing latest nutrition research and recipes.