Fuel your recovery

Image: Studio 33

The golden window

The 30 minutes immediately after exercise is crucial for recovery. ‘Your body is more receptive because it has seen the exercise as a threat and wants nutrients to rebuild,’ says Luke Heeney, director of new products at sports nutrition company Science in Sport (SiS). ‘It’s about maximising that opportunity by giving your body what it needs most.’

Refuel

‘In recovery mode, you’re trying to replace the carbohydrates you’ve used as effectively as possible,’ says Heeney. ‘So you want a molecule size that empties from the stomach quickly.’ What delivers, fast? ‘In food sources, look at the glycaemic index (GI),’ says Emma Barraclough, senior sports nutritionist at SiS. ‘This is a score from 0-100, with glucose scoring 100 as the sugar that’s released most quickly into the bloodstream. While in your everyday diet you want low-GI foods, in the post-exercise recovery window, you want high-GI foods to replenish muscles quickly. Look for “white” carbohydrates: white bread, white rice, white pasta. ‘We use a maltodextrin in SiS REGO rapid recovery products, as its GI creates a fast release of carbohydrate into the bloodstream, and the ideal level of insulin response to trigger the replenishment of glycogen stores,’ says Heeney. ‘Maltodextrin is a chain of glucose units rather than a single unit. You can extract them from many sources of carbohydrate, but ideally you want a source high in amylopectin, as this is what contains the glucose units. These are known as waxy starches. We extract from corn, but potato starch, barley and oats are also good sources. Oaty porridge is good, too, though the energy won’t release as quickly as it will from a recovery drink.’ In terms of quantity, your intake should be ‘in line with the rate at which your body can metabolise carbohydrates’, says Heeney. ‘This varies between 0.8g and 1.1g a minute.’

Rebuild

Next, think protein. ‘We have a constant natural breakdown of protein,’ says Barraclough. ‘But exercise increases this through stress on the muscles, tearing fibres as we perform movements.’ So you need protein to repair and rebuild, but not all protein is created equal. ‘Look for a protein source with a complete amino acid profile, containing all 20 of these essential building blocks,’ says Heeney. In the post-exercise ‘golden window’, you also want something that will be digested and transported to your muscles fast. ‘Both whey and soy have complete amino acid profiles, and are digested quickly,’ says Heeney. ‘We use soy to avoid lactose intolerance issues associated with whey, but they’re both rapidly absorbed and contain all the amino acids.’ Soy beans and soy milk are good food options. Whatever your source, consider quantity. ‘Your body can only deal with 20-25g of protein every two to three hours,’ says Heeney. Take in any more than that amount and, ‘it cannot be stored in the body, so has to be excreted,’ says Barraclough.

’Rebuilding doesn’t end after those crucial first 30 minutes, though. ‘Muscle breakdown can last for two or three days,’ says Barraclough. ‘That’s why you feel Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness [DOMS], and you need to address this period as well as immediate recovery.’ Keep feeding your body 20-25g of protein every two to three hours with foods such as soy beans, fish and chicken, and prepare to recover as you sleep. ‘Before bed, take in 20g of protein in the form of slow-release casein, giving your body a protein supply to work with through the night,’ says Heeney. Milk is your go-to natural source. ‘Eighty per cent of milk protein is casein,’ says Heeney. And milk has another rebuilding ace up its sleeve – its 20 per cent whey protein content. ‘A key amino acid in whey is leucine,’ says Barraclough. ‘It stimulates muscle protein synthesis, so not only does milk give you the building blocks, it also tells your muscles to make more.’ Down half a pint of skimmed or semi-skimmed. ‘They’re just as high in protein, but you avoid the saturated fat,’ says Heeney.

Rehydrate

‘Rehydration is key to facilitating the body’s natural recovery processes,’ says Barraclough. ‘You need sufficient fluid in your body to transport waste products out of the muscles and deliver recovery nutrients and electrolytes.’ Plain water isn’t your best option, though. ‘You’ll retain fluid better if you take it in with electrolytes,’ says Barraclough. ‘If you drink only water you’ll stimulate your kidneys to get rid of some of that fluid to rebalance your salt and sugar levels. It’ll take longer to properly rehydrate and you may start your next run dehydrated.’

Rebalance, repair and reinforce

‘Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and calcium are also used in energy production,’ says Barraclough. ‘And they’re depleted when you run, through sweating and being used in energy metabolism, so they must be replaced and rebalanced to restore normal function.’ Antioxidant vitamins, such as A, D and C, are also needed to combat oxidative stress in your muscles. ‘Oxidative stress occurs during exercise and it adds to muscle damage, so part of your recovery is getting rid of it,’ says Barraclough. ‘We also add some other key vitamins and minerals to our recovery formulas to take advantage of that 30-minute receptive window,’ says Heeney. ‘Vitamin B6 has been proven to help reduce fatigue, zinc helps protein synthesis, and magnesium combats fatigue and aids normal muscle function.’ You can get these the easy way via a formulated recovery product, but if you’re looking to food? ‘Green, leafy veg such as kale, spinach and broccoli for zinc,’ says Heeney. ‘And kale, tuna or sunflower seeds are good B6 sources. However you do get a slower rate of absorption from food and it’s difficult to precisely judge amounts.’