Exercise: Nutrition For Recovery
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | March 23, 2004

Nutrition to maximize exercise performance has been studied for many years. One result of this research was carbohydrate loading: in order to increase the supply of glucose for the muscles to store as glycogen, a higher than normal quantity of carbohydrates is eaten in a specific time period before an athletic event. The carbohydrate loading routines became very complicated. For example, in one routine, athletes depleted their muscles of glycogen through a strenuous workout. For the next three days, they ate no carbohydrates--just protein and fat. Then they ate high amounts of carbohydrates with little fat or protein. Did it work? Absolutely--the amount of glycogen stored increased. Did it improve performance? Not really. After years of further research, we know that simply increasing the amount of carbohydrate in the three days before a competition is enough to get enough stored glycogen for long-distance competitions such as bike races or running marathons.

Currently, the focus is on what to eat after a strenuous workout to help the body recover faster. Once again, researchers are looking at carbohydrates. That makes sense, because replacing muscle glycogen is critical to the health of the muscle. Many studies have demonstrated that eating carbohydrates after a strenuous exercise bout will restore glycogen levels. This is important not only for replenishing glycogen, but also seems to improve immune function as well (1). Remember--exercise is a stressor and the higher the intensity of exercise, the more the immune system can be compromised. Carbohydrates can reduce the systemic stress response.

Recently, new research has focused on the addition of protein to the post-exercise regimen. The research has been equivocal as to the effect on the amount of glycogen stored. Some studies have found an increase in glycogen storage (2), and others have found no effect (3). While the amount of glycogen stored may remain the same, the protein may have other benefits. The American College of Sports Medicine, in a joint statement with the American Dietetics Association and Canadian Dieticians, endorsed the use of carbohydrates after exercise. They further stated that while research hasn't proven that protein will increase glycogen storage, it may be beneficial for repairing muscle protein and promoting a more anabolic (muscle-building) hormone profile (4).

The last point is critical: timing. What everyone agrees on is that whether athletes use carbohydrates or a carbohydrate-protein blend, they must eat it in the first 30 minutes after exercise for maximal benefit. They can continue to eat anytime in the next several hours after exercise, but the first meal should be within that 30-minute window.

But what if you're not a high-level athlete--just a weekend warrior? If you want to recover by Monday, what you eat and when you eat it is critical to recovery. It may be fun to get pizza and beer after three hours of playing basketball or hockey, but on the way to the pizza parlor, you'd better eat a protein bar and wash it down with a high-carbohydrate sports drink if you want to limit the damage you did to your body. While opinions vary, getting 40-80 grams of carbs and 10-20 grams of protein in that first 30 minutes should be just about right.

High-level athlete, weekend warrior, or someone who likes to hit the gym hard--pay attention to what you eat and when you eat so you can come back even stronger next time.


  1. Gleeson M, et al. Exercise, nutrition and immune function. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2004. 22(1):115-25.

  2. Ivy JL, et al. Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2002. 93(4):1337-44.

  3. Burke, LM, et al. Effect of coingestion of fat and protein with carbohydrate feedings on muscle glycogen storage. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1995. 78:2187-2192.

  4. ACSM Joint Position statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. 2000.
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