Recovery From Severe Workouts
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | March 11, 2005

Many people exercise regularly, and many have moved up to serious training. They may want to run a 5K, ride a 100-mile bike ride, increase muscle mass by strenuous weight training, or compete in a triathlon. Serious training requires a serious approach to nutrition as well. What you eat and the supplements you take can make a significant difference in your ability to train. There’s a lot of information--and misinformation--about what and when to eat to optimize performance. This Newsletter will focus on one aspect of training: recovery from severe workouts, because when you can recover faster from your severe workout, you can train harder at the next workout.

Let me first state that there are few absolutes in recovery from intense exercise--research is on-going in this relatively new field and some studies seem to contradict others. Nevertheless, recent research has demonstrated some keys to recovering faster from a hard workout.

Water and Electrolytes
One of the absolutes in sports nutrition is that you need to replace water and electrolytes after workouts, especially sodium and potassium. While there have been a few concerns voiced about hyponatremia--excess water intake which dilutes electrolytes in the body--water is important to restore pre-exercise hydration levels.

You should drink about 4 ounces of water or a sports drink that contains sodium and potassium every 15 minutes while performing high-intensity workouts.

The simplest thing to do is weigh yourself before and after your workout. When you weigh yourself after the workout, note the difference in your weight, and keep replacing fluids until you’ve returned to your pre-workout weight. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t be concerned about the number on the scale--you’ve used the calories and if you don’t overeat, your body will gradually use its stored fat at some point during the day. But you have to replace fluids to sustain your metabolism.

Intense exercise uses stored glycogen (sugar) as a fuel. In order to help muscles recover faster, you should replace the muscle glycogen as soon as possible--especially if you’re training more than once a day (1). The critical time is the first 30-60 minutes after the workout. You can do that by taking in carbohydrates in liquid or solid form. Experts vary in the amount recommended, but it seems that 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight is about average. That means a 150-pound individual should take in 75 grams of carbohydrates in the hour after exercise to replace muscle glycogen. While we typically recommend foods that rank low on the glycemic index, in this case, high glycemic index foods are better choices because research has shown they replace muscle glycogen faster. Sports drinks and meal bars contain high glycemic index sugars and carbohydrates to facilitate glycogen resynthesis and speed recovery.

Carbohydrates Plus Protein
Recent research has demonstrated that combining some protein with carbohydrates may increase glycogen resynthesis (2). There has been no indication that this will positively impact the next workout, but the faster glycogen is resynthesized, the faster your energy levels will increase. And that may help with energy levels the rest of the day.

Exercise generates free radicals, and the more oxygen you use in strenuous exercise, the more oxidative damage you’ll experience. Antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E have been studied to see what effects they would have on recovery when used regularly throughout training (3,4). While the results are equivocal, there is some indication that oxidative damage, inflammatory enzymes, and muscle soreness are all reduced.

The next generation of sports products will contain phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory properties. The reason is that nutrients such as cyanidins from cherries and epigallocatechins from green tea have exhibited anti-inflammatory properties in current research, and together with other antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium, they should prove to further speed recovery. Eating a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is important, but supplementing the diet with foods or sports products enriched with phytonutrients may prove valuable for those individuals who train at a high level.

One cautionary note to close: Most of the studies are done on trained athletes and most of the exercise sessions last much longer than the typical person trains--usually 1-2 hours. Most elite athletes train long hours, several days per week, and some work out twice a day. If your goal is to lose weight, keep in mind that these products contain calories. For athletes training to maximize performance, those calories are critical to maintain nutrient levels but for those who want to lose weight, the calories aren’t necessary. You may want to consider a sports drink that contains no carbohydrates. You should replace the water, sodium, and potassium but not necessarily the calories.

Stay tuned for more in this rapidly changing field, but one thing is clear: what you eat and drink can make a difference, so pay attention to your workout nutrition to maximize your results.

  1. Burke LM, et al. Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):15-30.

  2. Ivy JL, et al. Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. J Appl Physiol. 2002;93(4):1337-44.

  3. Fischer CP, et al. Supplementation with vitamins C and E inhibits the release of interleukin-6 from contracting human skeletal muscle. Physiol. 2004. 15;558(Pt 2):633-45.

  4. Thompson D, et al. Prolonged vitamin C supplementation and recovery from demanding exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2001;11(4):466-81.
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