Why is recovery nutrition important?

We ask a lot of our bodies. We train hard – maybe once or twice per year and maybe year-round. In order to recover from our runs & workouts, we must be intentional about recovery nutrition. The goals of recovery nutrition are to restock glycogen stores, stop muscle breakdown & repair our muscles. If we delay recovery nutrition, it can lead to fatigue, increased injury risk, decreased muscle mass, impaired immunity, and a crummy mood.

Delayed eating post run reduces the rate of glycogen synthesis by nearly 50% by 2 hours post run. If you wait too long to eat, it will take longer to build those fuel stores back up. We know that if we do not replace our glycogen stores post run, our next run will feel harder. We also know that depleted glycogen is a main cause of fatigue. Add some protein to those carbs and restock glycogen even faster.

Speaking of protein – if we want to stop muscle breakdown + repair damaged muscles post run, we have to nail our protein needs. Runners need 20 – 40 gm protein post run to stimulate our muscles to fully recover then repair them. Don’t just slug back a protein shake – one study showed that by adding carbohydrates to our post run protein, we increase muscle protein synthesis <aka recovery> by 36%. Takeaway: protein and carbs work together to fully repair and recover post run.

If we are strategic with our recovery nutrition, our bodies will recover faster & better, and we will be ready for the next bout of work to come.  Keep reading for the ins & outs of recovery nutrition, and try out our Recovery Calculator to make sure that you are nailing your recovery nutrition.

Do I need solid recovery nutrition after all runs & workouts?

Recovery nutrition is ALWAYS important. Recovery nutrition isn’t just for after long runs and hard workouts. Is it arguably even MORE important after harder/longer efforts? Yes. But during back-to-back training days, we really don’t want to compromise recovery any day of the week. We don’t look at our training as a single workout – so let’s not look at our nutrition as a single meal but consistently nailing meal after meal to best support our training.

Timing is important

Our bodies are primed to refuel & repair immediately after exercise. And, we can refuel & repair faster if we eat within 30 minutes post workout. But, we also know that we are able to refuel, repair and recover all day long after a workout.

Endurance exercise is largely fueled by carbohydrate stores, aka glycogen, which is stored in our liver & muscles. For endurance athletes, recovering and restocking these stores is key to repetitive training. Research suggests that there are 2 windows where we can restock these stores. ONE – within 30 – 60 minutes post workout – glycogen can be restored rapidly. TWO – the rest of the day – glycogen can also be restored, just at a rate of 60 – 90% of that initial recovery window.  If we nail our recovery nutrition consistently, amazing things happen like – faster recovery, increased muscle mass, performance improvement, less muscle soreness, improved immunity and healthier bones.

Everyone should aim to start recovery by eating a balanced meal within 90 minutes post workout. When should we aim to eat within 30 minutes post exercise? After long runs or workouts, high intensity runs or workouts, two-a-days, history of poor recovery, and athletes who cannot get to a balanced meal for 2+ hours should aim to hit that first recovery window knowing the next recovery meal will be delayed.

Protein needs for athletes over 40

Things we ‘got away with’ in our 20s & 30s may not be cutting it for us as we get older, as we continue chasing our running goals. We often hear we lose 3 – 8% muscle mass every decade after 30. However, these stats are for sedentary people. When we look at runners, we find this muscle mass loss is significantly less than sedentary controls. However, after 40, our muscle’s response to training remains but our response to protein diminishes – which decreases our capacity for adaptation to training. In order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis <aka recovery + training adaptation> we need more protein as we get older. How we can do this:

  • Eat more protein at each meal. The amount of protein we need to eat per meal to support lean muscle mass increases with age. Research suggests younger athletes can stimulate muscle recovery with 20 - 25 gm protein while older adults need closer to 40 gm high quality protein.
  • Eat protein sooner post-run. Recovery windows become even more important as we get older. We have multiple ‘recovery windows’ as athletes - first is within 30 minutes post exercise. Older athletes may benefit by maximizing this first recovery window. Aim to eat adequate protein within 30 minutes post workout + long run. Protein hits our bloodstream within 20 minutes of consumption to start the recovery process.
  • Consider a 4th meal of protein. Really struggling to recover? Stimulating our muscles to repair + regenerate a 4th time most days can improve recovery and adaptation to training as we get older.

What should I eat for recovery nutrition?

We’ve all heard it. Eat a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein for optimal recovery post run or workout. And, I get questions about this all the time. In the research, there is an ongoing debate about the optimal ratio of carbs to protein for endurance athletes, but, we can make this very simple. Quantity matters more than the ratio. A metaanalysis of studies looking at this ratio found vastly different results. Once they looked at total energy consumed – the research got more clear. Protein added to carbohydrate intake – NOT at the expense of carbohydrate intake = the best glycogen resynthesis rates. Takeaway: Just because a food has the optimal ratio of carbs:protein doesn’t mean we’ve rocked recovery. We need to consume enough total energy <aka calories> to fully recover. Make sure to include carbs <toast, bagel, fruit, pasta, potatoes, rice, etc> + protein <greek yogurt, eggs, protein powder, fish, meat, poultry, soy products, etc> in adequate amounts.

Want to nerd out further?! This study suggests 0.9 gm/kg/hr of carbs + 0.3 gm/kg/hr of protein to rock recovery by maximizing glycogen synthesis and stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Try our Recovery Calculator below to make sure that you are nailing your recovery nutrition! Note: This calculator is to be used for general guidelines based on the study listed above. 

Can I use any protein powder OR collagen for recovery nutrition?

In short, no. In order to fully stimulate muscle protein synthesis <aka the process that repairs and builds muscles>, we need to consume adequate leucine. Leucine is a branch chain amino acid <BCAA> that is the trigger to start the whole muscle recovery/rebuild process. Without adequate leucine, this process is not complete. We need 2.5 – 3 gm leucine to repair those muscles. Whey protein and some plant based protein powders contain this. However, collagen is naturally low in leucine. A 20 gm serving of collagen only has 524 mg leucine. The science is clear here, but in case we needed a study to prove our point – we got one! One study gave women collagen or whey protein – then looked at muscle protein synthesis <MPS> with and without strength training. Whey protein increased MPS at rest and post exercise – and collagen protein did not increase MPS above baseline at rest or post exercise.

What supplements are good for recovery?

First and foremost, as we discussed above, we want to make sure we are nailing our macronutrient needs <carbs, protein & fat> as well as eating enough during the day. Hydration is also key to muscle recovery. Being dehydrated exacerbates muscle damage during training sessions leading to increased muscle soreness, so it’s important to go into runs well hydrated & avoid excessive dehydration.

Research has shown that some supplements can be beneficial for recovery. Taking 10g of collagen 30-45 minutes pre-run or workout can be helpful if you have a history of soft tissue injuries. Omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory fat that is not found in many foods we eat. One study found 3 gm omega-3 daily significantly decreased muscle soreness in athletes. A review of the lit found that omega-3 supplements can reduce muscle damage & enhance recovery from intense exercise. Tart Cherry products are high in antioxidants + anti-inflammation polyphenols.  A meta analysis of 14 studies found decreased muscle soreness & lowered levels of inflammation in athletes. A study on marathon runners found decreased inflammation + faster muscle recovery post race with 5 days before + 2 days after supplementation. Pro Tip: one dose = 50 tart cherries, aka ⅓ cup dried, 8 oz juice, 1 oz concentrate – studies often use 2 doses/day.

If you are training hard, nailing your nutrition & hydration and still needing help with recovery, you may choose to add one or more of these supplements. Reach out to your sports dietitian for individualized recommendations.

Recovering from Injuries

The slow down period of an injury is actually the perfect time to evaluate nutrition. Some injuries are nutrition related – some are not. But, prioritizing nutrition in a period of injury recovery is always a solid idea and will get you back to running faster.

So for the million dollar question, how DO my nutrition needs change when I’m injured and not running all the miles. Put down the bottle – alcohol will slow the recovery process. Protein needs are about 20% higher. Carb needs are likely lower, and you can adjust based on activity level, but you still need carbs at all meals and snacks! Fat needs are fairly similar, focus on anti-inflammatory fats. And those micronutrient needs <vitamins and minerals> are SUPER important.

If you’re sidelined with a bone injury, we need to assess nutrition. Four nutritional factors impact our risk for stress fractures: low dietary calcium intake, low serum vitamin D levels, low body weight, and low energy availability. It is estimated that 90% of the total population is deficient in vitamin D. And, completely anecdotal, at least 75% of the runners I work with are coming back with low vitamin D. Why does this matter? Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium and promote bone growth and repair. Low vitamin D levels in the blood <aka serum vitamin D levels> are correlated with poorer bone health.

Research suggests vitamin D levels <20 ng/mL impairs healing. One study of 802 NCAA Division 1 athletes <men and women> found that there was a 12% increased risk of stress fracture when serum vitamin D was lower than 20 ng/mL without supplementation compared with athletes whose serum vitamin D levels were >40 ng/mL or those with low vitamin D who were supplementing. Another study looked at 118 NCAA Division 1 female cross country runners. Fifty percent of them were vitamin D deficient. With supplementation, they were able to reduce the stress fracture rate from 7.5% or 1.6%.

Generic recommendations for runners are often: supplement with 1,000 – 2,000 IU vitamin D per day + sun exposure <sans sunscreen> 2x/week for 5 – 30 minutes between 10am and 3pm.  However, many athletes need significantly more vitamin D than this to improve levels – be sure to rope in medical help for a plan here!

Note: it is NOT uncommon to see runners in sunny Florida and California who run mid-day, vitamin D deficient. No one is immune! Vitamin D is not very prevalent in the foods we eat – therefore, we often cannot rely on food to meet our vitamin D needs. <Vitamin D is found in fortified milk and non milk products, salmon, egg yolks, and some other fish.>

If you have a soft tissue injury, this may have nutrition ties or it may not. Not eating enough, poor recovery nutrition, or crummy timing of nutrition throughout the day can increase injury risk. Taking a high quality collagen 30-45 minute before activity can be helpful to heal soft tissue injuries. If you’ve been dealing with back to back injuries, get yourself to a sports RD stat!

Check out our blog to read more about recovery nutrition. If you need more help with your recovery nutrition, consider 1-on-1 or nutrition coaching group options.