For endurance athletes recovery is defined as the restoration of damaged living tissue to normal function. It is the process by which the cells in the body regenerate and repair to reduce the impact of damage caused by a training session or event. Active recovery includes both the removal of damaged tissue and the replacement of tissue with new stronger tissue. The replacement can happen in two ways: by regeneration or repair. How an athlete chooses to FUEL the body after exercise vastly influences the quality and rate of recovery.
The body’s ability to recover from stresses of exercise can make a vast difference in an athlete’s ability to achieve their fitness goals. Two similar athletes (height, weight, age, fitness level, pace etc.) following identical training plans will yield very diverse results if one focuses on improving recovery while the other does not.
There are only two key components of active recovery: rest and adequate, optimal nutrition.
Active recovery becomes most critical for exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes. The main objective of recovery is to return your body to its pre-exercise level of hydration, glycogen storage, and muscle protein. Recovery takes place in three (3) stages post exercise: 30 minutes, exercise duration, and the time until the next workout.
Stage 1: Thirty (30) minutes post exercise
This is considered the most critical phase because the muscles are more prepared and vulnerable to receiving, storing, and replacing exhausted nutrients. Research suggests that muscles uptake carbohydrate two (2) to three (3) times more rapid immediately after exercise compared to a few hours later. So do not delay! Begin refueling ASAP after you cool down.
Three (3) main goals within the first 30 minutes post exercise:
Goal 1: Rehydrate and replenish electrolytes
After a hard workout or event it is obvious that some dehydration will have occurred. It is imperative to an athlete’s overall health that body weight loss due to sweating during exercise is replaced. Begin taking 16 oz. of liquid for every pound of weight lost during exercise. This may not be fully completed within the first 30 minutes but it should not be delayed!
Electrolytes are the salts, sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium found in the body’s cells, extracellular fluids, and blood. Electrolytes are lost as a result of sweating and should be replaced as part of the rehydration strategy. Electrolytes are found in abundance in natural food, juice, and recovery drinks.
FUEL Tip: Endrolyte tablets, NUUN, and sports drinks are good ways to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes.
Goal 2: Replace expended carbohydrate (glycogen) stores
When exercise last longer than 60 minutes, glycogen stores have usually been fully depleted. Failing to replace the stores satisfactorily will leave an athlete on low or empty for the next workout. This is noticed be a feeling of fatigue, brick legs, or lack of energy. Carbohydrate sources should be easily digested and considered high glycemic load: potatoes, rice, grains, fruit, fruit juices, or sports drinks.
FUEL Tip: Consume .75g/kg of carbohydrate after exercise last longer than 60 minutes.
Ex: .75g x (150/2.2) = 50g carbohydrates after exercise.
Remember: If you are mid run fueling properly post run energy needs will not change must as mileage increases due to the mid run calories evening out the score.
Goal 3: Provide amino acids in the form of protein for the resynthesis of damaged muscle.
Although protein or lean muscle mass is not the body’s first or second choice as an energy source it is still utilized in endurance events. Two (2) to six (6) % of an endurance event maybe fueled by protein sources, not to mention, the exercise it’s self has caused damaged to the worked muscle.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The focus should be consuming all 20 amino acids during recovery. The best way to ensure all amino acids are consumed is by eating complete proteins post exercise. Complete proteins contain all 20 amino acids such as; quinoa, buckwheat, hemp protein, eggs, fish, poultry, meat, or protein powder from whey or egg.
FUEL Tip: Consume a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein. Meaning for every 4g of carbohydrates add 1g of protein. Ex: 40g of carbohydrates paired with 10g of protein. (40/4=10g)
It is highly debated whether immediate recovery is optimal in the liquid or solid form. The idea is that liquid nutrition is easier to digest and absorbed quicker because the breaking down phase of digestion is removed. However, plenty of research shows solid foods do an adequate job of active recovery. Most athletes do not feel up to eating solid foods immediately after a hard workout so liquid meals are more desirable. Liquid meals are also a vehicle to rehydrate, replace electrolytes and energy all in one. Personal preference should be your deciding factor.
Stage 2: Exercise Duration
Active recovery continues on past the initial 30 minutes especially rehydration. Athletes should continue to focus on recovery for as long as the duration of exercise. Example: 4 hour event would yield a 4 hour recovery window. As the body starts to cool down and returns to a more normal heart rate and sweat rate, the feeling of hunger will occur. The first solid meal after intense exercise should include complete or whole nutrition.
The first solid meal should be well balanced and focus on carbohydrates for glycogen replacement and lean protein for repairing muscles. Good carbohydrate choices include potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, corn, dried fruits, solid fruits, wheat breads, bagels, rice, and whole grain cereals. Complete protein sources are still preferred. Do not forget to drink fluids because you will continue to lose fluids even after the event has stopped.
Stage 3: Time until the next workout session.
You survived the intense workout, ingested a gold standard post-exercise recovery drink within 30 minutes and enjoyed some R&R with a balanced meal for the rest of the day or weekend. Now you are back at work doing your daily grind. To the rest of the world this is an ordinary day but to an endurance athlete it is so much more. This is your extended active recovery period.
During this time you can separate the men from the boys in a sense of a true athlete spirit. Many athletes get sloppy with their diets and lifestyles thinking they can catch up or make up the day or so before the next long run or event. A true endurance athlete realizes the importance of optimal nutrition and knows that active recovery truly never ends.
Active recovery is an ongoing 24 hour a day 7 days a week process.
An endurance athlete’s diet should be infused with complete whole foods; whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries, and lean proteins. A common mistake is the impression it is ok to eat high carbohydrate, high energy diets 24/7 will “in training.” Poor performance, weight gain, and insufficient recovery are the result of unbalanced eating. The week in between long runs or intense workout should be a comprehensive approach to maintaining glycogen stores without over fillings, rebuilding muscle tissue, prevent or reduce inflammation, and maintain or reduce body weight.
FUEL Tip: Active recovery never stops.