​Recovery practices for endurance athletes

In today’s competitive sport environment, discovering effective methods of facilitating optimal athletic performance is paramount to success. The recovery period is essential in maintaining athletes’ physical and psychological well-being and crucial in the pursuit of intense physical training and satisfying performances

Rest and recovery are critical components of any successful training program. They are also the least planned and underutilized ways to enhance performance.
Most easily defined as a combination of sleep and time spent not training, rest is the easiest to understand and implement. How you sleep and spend this time is very critical.

Recovery, however, refers to techniques and actions taken to maximize your body’s repair. These include hydration, nutrition, posture, heat, ice, stretching, self-myofascial release, stress management, Recovery is multifaceted and encompasses more than just muscle repair. Recovery involves chemical and hormonal balance, nervous system repair, mental state, and more.

A proactive recovery means providing the body with all the nutrients it needs, in a speedy and practical manner, to optimize the desired processes following each session.

Recovery encompasses a complex range of processes that include;

• refuelling  the muscle and liver glycogen (carbohydrate) stores

• replacing the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat

• manufacturing new muscle protein, red blood cells and other cellular components as part of the repair and adaptation process

• allowing the immune system to handle the damage and challenges caused by the exercise bout

The emphasis an athlete needs to place on each of these broad goals will vary according to the demands of the exercise session

Two recovery practices are foundational and must-not be missed:

• Sleep

While there are many more accessory recovery techniques that can be used to complement nutrition and sleep, if you are not getting in the right nutrition and enough sleep, the accessory recovery techniques will have minimal advantage. You should focus your efforts on getting those two recovery habits perfected to get the most bang for your buck.

For athletes training once per day or more often, refuelling for the next workout as quickly as possible is crucial. Refuelling accurately and consistently after workouts will restore muscle and liver glycogen stores, replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat, promote muscle repair and maintain optimum immune system functioning. Athletes who optimize post-exercise nutrition will perform better in their next training session and accumulate more high quality sessions than athletes skipping post-exercise recovery fuelling.

30 Minute Post-exercise

Fluid, electrolytes, carbohydrates and protein are the foundation of proper recovery nutrition. 

It has been suggested that carbohydrate co-ingestion is needed to further augment the anabolic response to exercise. Muscle protein synthesis does not seem to be affected by the ingestion of carbohydrate only during post exercise recovery.

Co ingestion of protein with CHO during recovery from endurance exercise increases mixed skeletal muscle FSR and induces a more positive whole body net protein balance compared with drinks matched for total CHO or total energy intake.

To restore muscle glycogen and promote protein synthesis, consume 0.8g per kg of body weight of carbohydrate and 0.2g per kg of body weight of protein. For a 70kg or 154lb athlete this would be 56g of carbohydrate and 14g of protein.

Fluid, electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein can be replaced with a commercial recovery drink, a homemade smoothie or with real food plus water (real food first!).  

Two to Three Hours Post-exercise
Continue your recovery nutrition two to three hours post-exercise by eating a whole foods meal. It is OK to eat earlier than this if you are hungry but do not delay this post-exercise meal more than three hours. This meal should contain a combination of carbohydrate, about 20g of protein and some fat. Dividing daily protein intake into four or more 20g meals has been shown to have a greater stimulus on protein synthesis. A 20g feeding of protein is the sweet spot to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

Athletes should aim to consume 125-150% of their estimated fluid losses in the 4-6 hours after exercise. Fluid replacement alone will not guarantee re-hydration after exercise.  Unless there is simultaneous replacement of electrolytes lost in sweat, especially sodium, consumption of a large volume of fluid may simply result in large urine losses.  The addition of sodium, either in the drink or the food consumed with the fluid, will reduce urine losses or thereby enhance fluid balance in the post exercise period.  Further, sodium will also preserve thirst, enhancing voluntary intake.

Real food Vs supplements

Many athletes fall into the trap of becoming reliant on sports food supplements, believing this to be the only and/or best way to meet their recovery goals.   This often results in athletes “doubling up” with their recovery, 

Unless constrained by poor availability or lack of time, athletes are best advised to favour real food/fluid options that allow them to meet recovery and other dietary goals simultaneously.  This is especially important for athletes on a low energy budget.

Increasing Your Sleep Quality and Duration
Sleep is the most important time to recover. Adequate levels of sleep help to provide mental health, hormonal balance, and muscular recovery. Everyone has individual needs based on their lifestyle, workouts, and genetic makeup. 

Studies have shown increasing duration asleep leads to increased performance and mental well-being in athletes. We also know chronic sleep debt impairs performance and reduces motivation to excel.

Foundation sleep recommendations for adult athletes are 8 to 10 hours per night 

Along with sleep duration, sleep quality and sleep phase also affect the regenerative qualities of sleep. Sleep quality can be improved by reducing disturbances by wearing earplugs and sleeping in a cool, dark room. Following a pre-sleep routine of relaxing activities, avoiding light exposure from screens in the hour before bed, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine after noon and alcohol in the evening may increase your sleep quality and duration. Restless leg syndrome can occur in athletes with low serum iron levels and disrupt normal sleep patterns.

Eat well, sleep well and recover fast because your competitors probably are doing it!

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