1/10/17

Everything you need to know about recovery nutrition


You may be surprised to know that vegetarian athletes can easily meet recommended protein recommendations for athletes of 1.2-1.8g/kg/bw protein per day. As a 24.5 year lacto-ovo vegetarian, I have acquired several go-to protein sources in my diet, like cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, grains and whey protein.


As a heavy proponent of real food in the daily diet, my food choices become much more functional before, during and after workouts and thus, I see the purpose of food (and engineered products) differently when it's used to support a training session.

As an example, whey protein is often consumed post workout, specifically when I have an intense or long workout (or two workouts close together). There is a tremendous amount of scientific research on whey protein, in relation to athletes, the elderly, menopause, weight management, preventing muscle loss in trauma patients and burn victims and assisting in performance gains.


Seeing that protein supports muscle and tissue growth, assists in immune system health, helps with tissue structure and supporting enzymatic reactions and fosters health endocrine functioning, without sufficient protein in the diet, your health can become compromised with added training stress.


Athletes should aim for 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.


As an example, if you weigh 130 lbs (59kg), this equals 71-106g of protein per day.

To break this down, give yourself around 20-30g of protein per each meal which leaves you extra protein to consume during snack times and after workouts. Protein at meal time can help with satiety.

A few take-away messages on daily protein consumption:

  • If you are intentionally trying to lose weight or you need to gain lean muscle mass, you will want to focus on the higher end of your individual protein needs to preserve lean muscle mass.
  • On higher volume and higher intensity workout days (including double workout days), your daily protein needs should be on the higher end to optimize training-induced muscle adaptations.
  • Post workout, don't miss a prime opportunity to recover with protein.
  • Every athlete should recognize his/her own post workout preferences, based on appetite, convenience and type of workout. Recovery nutrition should not be skipped or an after thought but instead, it should be easy to find, prep and consume for any given workout.

The importance of recovery nutrition depends on the type, intensity and duration of exercise. Certainly you have heard this over and over again, that you should never miss the opportunity to refuel and replenish after a workout. If you don't recover properly post workout, you may experience the following: 

  • Increased fatigue
  • Tiredness
  • Struggles with increasing lean muscle mass
  • Struggles with decreasing body fat
  • Delayed recovery
  • Immune system depression
  • Low motivation and energy
  • Increase or delayed muscle soreness
  • Inadequate replenishment of carbohydrate stores
  • Poor training adaptations - increasing the risk for injury, sickness and overtraining

Many athletes assume that recovery is what happens in the 30-60 minutes post workout but from a practical standpoint as it relates to athletic performance improvements, recovery is everything that happens between two workouts. 

Therefore, it's to your competitive advantage to see every opportunity between the finish of one workout until the start of the next workout, to stimulate muscle repair and replenishment. You can do this through food and other recovery modalities like meditation, sleep and mobility work. 

Most research concludes that your ability to greatly adapt to a training stressor is dependent on what you consume within 60 minutes post workout. In other words, if you want to gain physical improvements, you need proper recovery nutrition and hydration. 

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Sadly, insulin has gotten a very bad rap in our society so simple sugar carbs, like juice and anything with sugar, are seen as a big no-no for athletes. (I'll save my thoughts on sugar for the athlete blog for another time). 

For the purpose of this blog, discussing maximizing recovery, when insulin is spiked post workout, anabolism (growth) is promoted. Low insulin and low blood sugar secretes catabolic hormones, which is completely opposite of what an athlete wants to achieve in the post workout period. 

Post workout, your body is extremely sensitive to nutrient intervention due to an increase in insulin sensitivity and an increase in membrane transport activity. This means that your muscles are highly receptive to soak-up nutrients. To take advantage of this open window, you don't want to miss out on replenishing fuel (glycogen) and promoting protein synthesis (which reduces protein degredation). Recovery nutrition is imperative to your health and development as an athlete!

You do not have to be perfect with your diet to have a healthy and performance enhancing diet. But recovery nutrition should be seen as part of your workout. 

Here are some practical post workout snack suggestions to eat (as tolerated) within 60 minutes post workout after intense or long workouts when you need a snack before a meal. 

  • 25g protein powder + 8 ounce water + 1 banana  ­
  • 8 ounce low fat chocolate milk + 10­-15g whey protein powder  
  • ­8 ounce OJ + 2 egg whites  ­
  • 1 serving applesauce + 15g protein powder + 4 ounce milk/4 ounce water
  • 25g whey protein + 8 ounce water + 6-10 saltine crackers + honey 
  • 25g whey protein + 1/2 cup cherries  ­
  • 1 serving Greek yogurt + 1 orange
  • 8 ounce milk + 10g whey protein + 1 slice bread + 1 tbsp nut butter  ­
  • 1 slice bread + 2­-3 slice deli meat + 1 egg  ­
  • 3/4 cup cottage cheese + 2­-4 dates

The first six options are ideal when you lack an appetite post workout or when you need something quick, convenient and easy to digest after an intense or long workout. 

After long or intense workouts, it's recommended to have a recovery snack first (options listed above) and then a real meal. 

When you are ready to eat your meal, your meal can be 30 to 90 minutes after the recovery snack.  

For EZ workouts, you can go right for a recovery meal of protein/fat and carbohydrates.    

The purpose of post workout protein is to stimulate protein synthesis. Due to it's high amino acid score and high bioavailability, whey protein isolate continues to rank as the gold standard of recovery protein as it digests quickly and rapidly to stimulate protein synthesis.

As it relates to muscle growth and recovery, the mTOR protein is key to muscle building and rejuvination. In response to loading the muscles with training stress, when mTOR is activated, protein synthesis is stimulated, which helps muscles heal and rebuild. mTOR is highly sensitive to leucine, found in whey protein. One 20g serving of whey protein isolate contains 3 grams of leucine. Other leucine containing foods include egg whites, fish, chicken and beef. 

Although whey protein is an animal based protein (milk is 80% casein protein and 20% whey protein), it is a fast digesting protein that is often well tolerated by lactose intolerant individuals. However, the primary and only ingredient should be whey protein isolate if a lactose intolerant individuals is trying whey for the first time or building up a tolerance. 

In a plant based (or vegan) diet, soy protein is a highly recommend protein source to assist in recovery as soy protein will raise blood leucine levels but not as effectively as whey protein. Hemp, brown rice and pea protein will provide protein but do lack all amino acids to make these plant based proteins complete. However, plant based protein powders should not be avoided in the diet for this reason as they are acceptable (and healthy) sources of protein and provide great value in a vegan diet. 

Why not real food after all workouts? 

Seeing that athletes have high energy demands and a real food diet is encouraged throughout the day to support energy and nutrient needs, a supplemental form of protein, post workout, alongside a real simple carbohydrate food (to help spike insulin) can make it easy to nail the recovery nutrition on a consistent basis - especially if you lack an appetite post workout or you need something quick, portable and easy. 


Selecting the "best" protein powder

Many athletes ask me about a "favorite protein powder" or have questions as to the "best" protein powder. With so many protein powders on the market, here are some of my criteria when searching for a quality protein powder.

1) Serving size - 1 scoop
2) Protein content per scoop  - 20-30 grams
3) Calories per scoop - 80-150
4) First ingredient - whey protein isolate
5) Ingredient list - short! natural flavors, no artificial flavors or colorings, no added sweeteners, minimal to no added sugar
6) Quality manufacture, reputable company
7) Use your best judgement  - is it a quality product manufactured with quality ingredients


Brands I often recommend: Solgar whey to go (vanilla), KLEAN, Blue Bonnet, Vega, Sun Warrior, Hammer Whey, INFINIT raw.

I would be happy to review your protein powder to see if it is something that I would recommend to athletes.

As for Clif Recovery protein (yummo) and other combined recovery drinks with carbohydrates, sugar, sodium and protein......

Ideally, I would recommend this type of recovery product when energy needs are very high and it can be difficult to consume adequate protein and carbohydrates in the diet (ex. after a very long workout or with two intense workouts within a few hours). Or for athletes who continually fail to meet energy needs throughout the day and need a higher calorie sugar/carb/protein recovery drink.  Typically, we use Clif Recovery powder as our go-to recovery drink (mixed with water) at our camps and I will often recommend to my endurance athletes after their long workouts in peak training. Seeing that many athletes lack an appetite after hot and intense/long workouts and crave fluids, it seems to be a very tolerable protein powder with a delicious taste. I typically add a little extra whey protein, cherries and water to my clif recovery drink (all in the blender).

Well, there you have it. EVERYTHING you need to know about recovery nutrition and protein powder. Well, maybe not everything but hopefully enough to help you nail your recovery nutrition post workout. 

If you need help navigating through all the advice on recovery nutrition as it relates to your personal journey, reach out to a sport dietitian to help you take away the guessing so that you can create healthy habits to help you create athletic excellence.