What's the best recovery strategy for runners?
Runners know that training is necessary to enhance performance, but we often overlook the significance of recovery. It is during recovery that our bodies repair and adapt, leading to substantial performance gains. Proper recovery is essential for supporting future performance and overall well-being. In this blog post, we will delve into the factors influencing recovery requirements, the risks of insufficient recovery, the goals of an effective recovery regimen, and provide guidance on determining your personal recovery needs.
What factors influence recovery requirements?
For optimal performance, runners need fuel, hydration, resilient tissues, and mental stamina. Exercise depletes fuel, fluid, and electrolytes while causing tissue damage and fatigue. To excel and stay resilient, it's crucial to replenish and repair what's been depleted between exercise sessions. Prioritising recovery depends on understanding session goals, upcoming training, and personal aspirations as a runner.
What happens when we recover poorly from exercise?
Proper recovery can be challenging due to time constraints, fatigue, reduced appetite after training, limited food availability, and other life commitments. Neglecting these barriers poses significant risks to both health and performance, including:
- Missing out on optimal training adaptations
- Poor performance
- Increased perception of effort during exercise
- Reduced enjoyment of future exercise sessions
- Muscle soreness
- Moodiness and irritability
- Decreased ability to maintain and/or build muscle
- Sleeping problems
- Poor bone health
- Hormonal problems
What are the goals of recovery?
Carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for muscles during exercise. Intense or long workouts can deplete our carbohydrate stores (muscle glycogen). Within the first 4 hours after exercise, our bodies efficiently replenish glycogen, a process that continues gradually over the next 48 hours. To optimize glycogen stores for future training, consume carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, cereal, fruit, vegetables, legumes, dairy, and sports foods/drinks during recovery. Seizing the initial window is crucial, especially with less than 12 hours between workouts. If there's over 12 hours, immediate carbohydrate intake is less critical but still advised within 2 hours to avoid delayed glycogen restoration.
During intense and prolonged exercise, muscle and tissue breakdown occur. Protein, in the form of amino acids, is vital for muscle rebuilding. Consuming protein after exercise reduces muscle soreness, inflammation, and supports the immune system. Opt for high-quality protein sources to provide the necessary building blocks for muscle repair and protein synthesis. Ensure intake of all nine essential amino acids, with a focus on leucine. Leucine-rich foods include milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, soy products, and hemp seeds.
Replenishing fluids after exercise is essential as we often have a deficit due to sweating more than we drink. This is particularly important in hot and humid climates, limited fluid access, or during long and intense sessions. Monitoring weight changes before and after training helps assess fluid losses. Aim to replace 125-150% of lost fluids within 4-6 hours for optimal hydration, especially if training within 12 hours. Take frequent sips rather than large amounts, and consider sodium-containing meals or snacks to enhance absorption.
Intensive training suppresses the immune system and increases inflammation, increasing the risk of illness or injury. Minimizing the inflammatory response is crucial. Carbohydrate intake reduces stress hormones and benefits the immune system. Consuming carbohydrates during and after exercise may lower the risk of post-workout illness. To support your immune system, follow an anti-inflammatory diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats, nuts, seeds, legumes, soy products, olive oil, and omega-3 fatty acids (found in flaxseed, soy, canola, and walnut oil). Include dairy, calcium-rich sources, and vitamin D from oily fish, eggs, or sunlight.
Sleep is crucial for athletes, aiding in recovery and preparing the body for the next day. During intense training, athletes may experience insufficient sleep. Restricting sleep to less than 6 hours per night for 4 or more days has negative effects, including reduced performance, impaired learning and memory, weakened immunity, increased inflammation, and altered metabolism and appetite regulation. For more information on improving sleep, check out my blog post on sleep and nutrition.
What is the best recovery strategy for me?
Recovery strategies should be personalized, taking into account factors such as workload, fuel utilization during the session, body size, body composition goals, and the time until the next training session.
To determine your recovery needs, consider the following questions:
What have I lost and in what quantities? Carbohydrates, fluid, electrolytes? How much muscle damage? How fatigued am I?
Do I aim to restore everything, or could restricting fuel intake benefit my body composition goals?
Do I want to consume extra energy to promote muscle gain or prepare for future exercise sessions?
How much time is available until the next training session? Do I need to refuel and rehydrate rapidly, or do I have ample time? What are the goals of the upcoming session? Is being well-fuelled crucial for intense and/or prolonged training, or can I afford to be slightly under-fuelled for a light session?
By addressing these questions, you'll gain insights into the key priorities for your recovery. This knowledge will guide your choices regarding meals and snacks during the recovery period.
Recovery is the key to making gains and improving performance. By effectively addressing our recovery goals, we can adapt to training and enhance our abilities. When designing your recovery strategy between sessions, consider your individual requirements for fuel, hydration, repair, immunity and sleep. Understanding the specific nutrients, foods, and fluids that can fulfill these needs allows you to plan your meals and snacks accordingly. With proper attention to recovery, you'll experience the benefits of faster recovery, increased energy, and improved resilience, enabling you to run further, faster and push your limits!
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Jager et al 2017, International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14:20.
Kersick et al 2018, ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research and recommendations, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 15, iss. 38, pp. 1-57.
Thomas et al 2016, American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 48, iss. 3, pp.543-568.