Clients often ask me, what is the best way to recover from a training session? When is the best time to have a protein recovery shake? And do I really need protein powder for recovery or can I have real food? The short answers are: ideally immediately, no and yes. The long answer is: to understand what you need to do to recover depends on how soon you are completing your next session, so let’s split recovery into ‘same day’ and ‘next day’.
Carb and protein: Yoghurt, muesli and berries or poached eggs on toast with sides such as tomatoes, spinich and mushroom. Now who would turn that meal down!
SAME DAY DELIVERY
For ultimate recovery, if you are training the same day, the sooner you can top up carbohydrate (your muscle’s favourite fuel) and protein (to repair and rebuild muscle fibres) the better. A rough ballpark for post-exercise is to ingest a good serve of carbohydrate (1g/kg body weight) and protein (25g) within the hour post-exercise. Let’s use the athlete, Jenny Smith (65kg), who has just completed an intense two-hour brick session as an example; she would be looking at 65g carbohydrate and 25g protein for a recovery meal.
Could Jenny use sports foods? Absolutely. Jenny could consume a sports bar, a sports gel and wash it down with a Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) powder mixed with water to get her 65g carbohydrate and 25g protein.
Would this satisfy her needs? Very likely.
Is this the most convenient option? If Jenny hasn’t prepared a recovery option or she needs to recover in the quickest possible time (i.e. she has another session in two hours’ time) or she is a substantial distance from home/suitable shop, then yes.
Are there real food alternative options? Absolutely.
The reason WPI powders are promoted so heavily is their ability to be absorbed faster and provide a more complete protein profile. They also contain a key amino acid for building muscle: Leucine. However, Leucine is also found in dairy, meat and eggs – we can easily meet protein requirements with these foods.
For the vegans out there: Soy Protein Isolate or Pea Protein formulations are also available. Tofu, soymilk and nuts also provide good sauces of protein and Leucine.
Real food alternatives
Another option for Jenny would be to have something prepared, go home or eat out. Jenny’s requirements could be satisfied by two slices Turkish bread, one poached egg, one large skinny flat white and one small banana. Adding a side of vegetables (tomato, baby spinach, mushroom) would make this a more complete meal and definitely more nutritionally complete than the sports foods already mentioned. An alternate option would be: cup fruit and nut muesli, ¾ cup low-fat yoghurt, ¾ cup diced fruit and ½ cup skim milk, which could easily be prepared beforehand and taken to training. This option also ticks the requirements for carbs and protein.
Jenny’s 65g carbohydrate and 25g protein recovery meal could look like this:
NEXT DAY DELIVERY
If you aren’t training again the same day then timing becomes less important. There is no reason why you can’t have a small snack to keep you going and then wait until your next main meal to refuel properly. My rule of thumb is a two-hour window. Going back to our athlete, Jenny – she could easily grab a piece of fruit or yoghurt to keep her going until her next main meal (assuming it is within two hours). If Jenny isn’t going to be having a main meal in the next two hours, then a more substantial snack is in order.
Again, for Jenny’s main meal we would still be looking at hitting those rough ballpark figures for her (65g carb, 25g protein). What does that look like?
For lunch, Jenny could prepare two regular wraps with salad and 95g canned tuna spread between them, plus a little basil pesto for flavour. For dinner, Jenny may cook an Asian stir-fry: 2 cups mixed veg, 125g tofu, 1 cup cooked brown rice with an Asian sauce. Jenny would need to add a dessert of 1-cup fruit salad to meet the carb total with this meal. So, as you can see, by being a little creative it is absolutely possible to meet your recovery needs with real food.
Some of you may read this and think the amounts of food I have suggested for Jenny look excessive or vice versa. This is because everyone differs in terms of how much food they require to maintain weight and activity levels – what is right for Jenny may be extreme or inadequate for you. Though the one thing we don’t want to reduce too much is that protein content after a hard session.
It’s also worth noting that if you went out for a 5km jog or 60-minute coffee ride, recovery isn’t so important. Let’s face it, you have only spent a little energy and it was hardly taxing on your body was it?
So, enjoy the coffee, but forget the protein shake. The more intense or longer in duration your sessions are, the more recovery nutrition plays a role. For those familiar with using training software: the higher your TRIMP (training impulse), the more important recovery nutrition becomes.
Take home messages
- Sports foods and powders are designed for convenience and quick absorption
- You can meet your recovery requirements with real food
- Some preparation, knowledge and creativity is all you need for an adequate recovery meal
- If refuelling for the same day: time is of the essence
- If not refuelling the same day: it is okay to wait until your next main meal
- Everyone has slightly different requirements, so consult an Accredited Sports Dietitian to get individualised advice.