Speeding the Recovery Process: A Runner’s Guide

What is Recovery?
Recovery is the process through which the body returns to normal functioning after some sort of stress. In the case of running, recovery means the time it takes to get your brain, body, and your muscles functioning in the same way as they were before your practice or race. In the minutes after a workout or race, recovery can involve the reduction of lactic acid and pain in the muscle, the return to a feeling of mental alertness and the disappearance of any confusion or disorientation. In the longer term (hours to days), recovery might involve the reparation of microtears in the muscle, and the replenishment of muscle glycogen to normal or above normal levels.

Why Do We Care About Recovery?
There are many factors that affect your ability to train or compete well: your physical preparation, your mental toughness, your nutritional status, hydration, environmental factors, and so on. If we were only worried about one day of running, recovery wouldn’t be a factor. But the reality is that many people are training four to seven days a week, and some are running multiple races in a season. If you are not giving yourself the proper tools to recover, you will begin to run yourself down, and your performance will gradually be compromised.

Recovery from Training
If you are training four or more times per week, you must consider your recovery plan carefully. Research shows that muscle glycogen (the carbohydrate stores in the muscle that help keep you from hitting the wall during your run) takes 1 to 2 days to fully return to normal levels if we do not intervene. If you didn’t eat after a workout, your glycogen stores would only reach about 80% of pre-exercise values. You can imagine what would happen if you did this day after day!

How do we ensure recovery, then? Make sure to eat! You have a window of maximal glycogen resynthesis (the fastest rate you can fill your glycogen stores back up again) that lasts about 2 hours after exercise, but peaks about 15 to 30 minutes into recovery. In other words, the sooner you eat, the sooner your glycogen stores will return to normal.

What to Eat?
For many years, this was an area of great debate. Virtually all researchers agreed that at least some amount of carbohydrate was necessary for recovery; after all, carbohydrate is composed of sugars, and sugars are what make up glycogen. What was less clear until recently, however, was the potential benefit of protein. Some used to argue that protein would slow down the insulin response (the hormone responsible for triggering glycogen resynthesis), but more recent research indicates that protein actually helps to speed recovery by allowing sugars to enter the muscle cells faster than they would on their own, while also helping to repair microtears (muscle damage) in the process.

How Much Carbohydrate?
This depends on the length and the intensity of the workout. As a rough guideline, consuming between 0.8 and 2.0 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight in the first two hours of recovery is recommended – but at least half of that should come within the first 15-30 minutes. So for a 70 kg (154 lb) person, this would mean about 50 to 150 g of total carbs, with at least 25 g right after your workout or race. For most people, sticking to the lower end of the range is sufficient; however, if your run or workout is greater than 90 minutes, if you are doing more than one workout in a day, or if you have an important activity (e.g. long run, race) in the next 48 hours, you should bump your intake closer to the 1.5-2.0 g/kg end. Note that you can split your carbohydrate intake up into two (or more) mini-meals within those two hours – just make sure that you get something to eat right away.

Some good sources of carbohydrates are:

1 bagel: 60 g
1 oz (30 g) cereal: 25 g
750 ml (3 cups) of sports drink: 48 g
125 g fruit-flavoured yogurt: 25 g 1 slice bread: ~20 g (check your labels)
1 banana: 18 g
500 ml (2 cups) of chocolate milk: 56 g
6 soda (saltine) crackers: ~20 g

Note that the best carbohydrates for recovery are actually those that are low in fibre. In other words, this is the one time when white bread, or a low fibre cereal, is better than whole grain or high fibre. Also note that fat slows recovery time, so white toast with jam and a glass of juice will help you recover faster than whole wheat bread with peanut butter and a piece of cheese.

How Much Protein?
A good guideline is to consume between 5 and 15 g total protein (more is okay, as long as you still get enough carbs). In the above examples, the bagel will provide about 8-10 g of protein, the cereal 3 g alone (or 16 g with 1 cup milk), the chocolate milk 16 g, and the yogurt 4-5 g. Realize that the banana and the sports drink will not provide a substantial amount of protein, so it would help to combine them with a protein source. The best protein sources for recovery are those that are known as complete proteins (i.e. that contain all of the essential amino acids), of which animal proteins are your best bet (so meat, dairy, or eggs). Like carbohydrates, there is about a 2 hour window of effectiveness for your protein intake, as well.

Tips for Recovery Meals
To cover all your bases, try 1-2 cups of chocolate milk, 1-2 mini yogurts, or a fruit-and-yogurt smoothie in the 15-30 minutes after your workout, followed by a mixed meal with protein (e.g. lean meats, eggs, beans, milk, tofu), along with a good source of carbohydrates (e.g. rice, pasta, cereal, potato, bread, wraps, sweet potato) within two hours. Some great recovery meals include stir-fries made with lean meat or tofu, rice, and vegetables (remember to go easy on the oil), pasta with meat sauce (extra lean) and salad, cereal with milk and a banana, or French toast made with egg.

Rehydration is also critical to recovery. Try weighing yourself before and after your training runs; you need to consume about 750 ml (3 cups) of fluid per pound of weight loss (about 1.5 L per kg). You also need to be sure to replenish your electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium, which are lost in your sweat. This can be accomplished by drinking a sports drink (they contain electrolytes), salting your foods lightly, and eating fruits or vegetables during recovery.

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