Key Recovery Nutrition Strategies for Competitive Athletes
Recovery nutrition is one area many athletes can quickly capitalize on to take their sports nutrition game plan to the next level. Let’s take a look at why recovery nutrition is important for athletes. Then we will explore key recovery nutrition strategies for athletes to focus on.
Why is Recovery Nutrition Important for Athletes?
During activity, athletes deplete their bodies’ energy stores, lose fluid and electrolytes through sweat, and breakdown muscle tissue. Thus, following activity, it is important for athletes to focus on consuming the right foods and drinks to support their bodies with recovering from the exercise session.
When Should Athletes Prioritize Recovery Nutrition?
Recovery nutrition is of particular importance when time between the training sessions or athletic competitions is limited. When athletes will be competing again the same day or the next, recovery nutrition should be a priority.
Examples of when athletes should make recovery nutrition a priority include:
- Tournament competitions
- Back-to-back games
- Multiple training sessions in the same day (two-a-day trainings)
What Should Athletes Eat to Optimize Recovery from Activity?
Now that you understand why recovery nutrition is important for athletes, let’s take a look at the top recovery nutrition priorities for athletes.
What are the Top Priorities for Recovery Nutrition?
The goal of recovery nutrition for athletes is to replace the fuel and fluid used during the activity. There are three key areas athletes should focus on when it comes to recovery nutrition.
- Fluid and Electrolytes: Rehydrate to replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat
- Carbohydrates: Refill energy stores (glycogen stores) used during the activity
- Protein: Build and repair muscles
Recovery Nutrition Hydration Needs for Athletes
Following a workout or competition it is important for athletes to rehydrate and replace the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. Weighing before and after activity can help athletes determine how much fluid was lost in sweat.
To replace fluid lost in sweat, you need to drink more fluid (125%-150% more) than the amount lost in sweat. For each pound of weight lost during the activity, athletes should aim to drink 20-24 oz of fluid (1).
When you have limited time before your next game, replacing this fluid is especially important to ensure you start your next workout in a hydrated state.
Replacing Electrolytes Following Activity
In addition to fluid, athletes lose electrolytes when they sweat. The main electrolyte lost in sweat is sodium. Thus, following activity, athletes should focus on replacing sodium sweat losses.
Consuming sodium in food and drinks can help athletes with replacing the sodium lost in sweat. In addition, sodium helps stimulate thirst and helps the body to better retain the fluid consumed after exercise (2).
Consider adding salty foods to your recovery nutrition meals and snacks. Ideas include:
- Broth-based soup
- Pretzels, pita chips, snack crackers
- Deli meat, cheese, bread
- Cottage cheese
- Beef or turkey jerky
- Salted nuts and seeds
- Pickles, relish, capers, olives
- Condiments: Ketchup, barbecue sauce, mustard, soy sauce, salad dressing
- Vegetable juice
- Sports drinks
*Note: Talk with your doctor or a sports dietitian nutritionist about staying hydrated if you are required to limit your fluid or sodium intake.
Recovery Nutrition for Athletes: Refueling with Carbohydrates
During activity, athletes use their carbohydrate (glycogen) stores to provide energy for their working muscles. As they exercise, the body’s stores of carbohydrates become depleted.
When athletes need to refuel quickly to prepare for the next exercise session, it is important to focus on replenishing these carbohydrate stores. To optimize recovery, it is recommended that athletes consume 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight for the first 4 hours after activity (1). For a 175-pound athlete, this would be 80 – 95 grams of carbohydrates.
Dietary Sources of Carbohydrates
There are a variety of ways athletes can meet their recovery nutrition carbohydrate needs. Dietary sources of carbohydrates include:
- Fruit: Fresh, frozen, dried, canned in natural juices
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans, and legumes
- Grains: Bread, pasta, rice, cereal, oatmeal
- Dairy: Milk and yogurt
By combining a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods in post-activity meals and snacks, athletes can easily meet their recovery nutrition needs.
Recovery Nutrition for Athletes: Build and Repair with Protein
When athletes exercise, they breakdown their muscles. Thus, including protein in recovery nutrition meals and snacks is important to support the repair and building-up of lean muscle mass.
Following activity, it is recommended athletes aim to consume ~0.25 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (3). In general, this calculates to be in the range of 20-40 grams of protein, with larger athletes needing more protein than smaller athletes.
Athletes can easily meet their recovery nutrition protein needs with real food. As a point of reference, the list below provides the amount of protein in commonly consumed foods.
- 1-ounce lean meat, pork, chicken, turkey, or fish: ~7 grams of protein
- 1 large egg: ~6 grams of protein
- 1 cup cottage cheese: ~28 grams of protein
- 1 cup Greek yogurt: ~21 grams of protein
- 1 cup low-fat milk: 8 grams of protein
- 1 cup ultra-filtered milk: 13 grams of protein
What About Protein Shakes to Meet Recovery Nutrition Needs?
Athletes often asked if recovery nutrition is best accomplished through a post-workout protein shake or through real food. As with many aspects of nutrition, this depends on the individual.
Some athletes do not have an appetite post-exercise and find eating a meal to be a challenge. For these athletes, a post-workout shake may be a solution for meeting recovery nutrition needs.
If an athlete is considering the use of a protein powder it is important to select a high-quality product. Make sure to check out my blog, 5 Keys to Selecting the Best Protein Powder, for key considerations when purchasing protein powders.
Time and Convenience Considerations
Time may be another determining factor between a post-workout shake and a meal. Many high school and college athletes head straight to class after practice, thus there is not time to go to the cafeteria to eat a meal. For these athletes, drinking a recovery shake or eating a well-planned snack can provide needed nutrients and hold them over until the next meal.
Building a Recovery Nutrition Meal
It is important to note that athletes can easily meet recovery nutrition needs with real food. The meal below contains ~80 grams of carbohydrates and 28 grams of protein. This meal would easily meet the post-workout carbohydrate and protein needs of a 175-pound athlete.
- 1 cup rice
- 4 oz grilled salmon
- 0.5 cup steamed broccoli
- 8 fl oz tart cherry juice
The key lies in planning ahead to have the right foods available, at the right time, to support recovery nutrition needs. For recovery nutrition snack ideas, check out my blog: Best Snacks for Athletes Between Games.
Adding Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Your Recovery Nutrition Meals and Snacks
When planning what to eat to support a quick recovery from activity, athletes should also focus on foods that can help reduce inflammation in the body.
In addition to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, consider including the following anti-inflammatory foods in your recovery nutrition meals and snacks:
- Berries and cherries
- Tart cherry juice
- Leafy greens
- Fatty fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
- Herbs and spices
For a complete, downloadable list of anti-inflammatory foods, check out the Ultimate Anti-Inflammatory Foods List PDF blog from Angela Lago, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Importance of Rest for Athlete Recovery
Finally, when discussing recovery from exercise, athletes should prioritize getting an adequate amount of quality sleep. During sleep the body heals and repairs, which is essential for muscle growth and recovery from exercise sessions. Athletes should focus on creating a consistent sleep routine to help support getting a good night’s rest.
Key Recovery Nutrition Strategies for Competitive Athletes
You are now set with ideas for how competitive athletes can meet their recovery nutrition needs. If you desire an individualized sports nutrition plan, consider visiting with a sports dietitian nutritionist who can tailor a plan specific to your unique needs.
For additional sports nutrition tips, check out my blog: Your Guide to Game Day Nutrition.
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About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.