by Nancy Ling, RD
Experienced runners eat nutritiously before and during running. They spend days carbo-loading, make specially planned meals that digest well the night before the run, and stick to tried-and-true food rituals before running. Then they meticulously fill water bottles and pack gels and energy bars to consume during the run to give themselves extra fuel.
But what happens after the run? Usually, relatively little attention is paid to those critical moments after running, when runners are either too exhausted to eat anything, or so famished they'll eat anything.
What are the optimal nutritional approaches after a long run, a speed workout, a hill workout or a marathon? Is it time to celebrate with burgers and beer, or just a sip of Gatorade? How can eating well after this run help you with your next run?
These are important questions. Current scientific research tells us that post-exercise nutrition, or recovery nutrition, has a great impact on athletic performance. Optimal recovery nutrients allow athletes to replenish their fuel and fluid stores, heal microscopic muscle tears and maintain their immunity against illness.
The five important nutrients to focus on after a long or intense run are carbohydrate, protein, fluid, sodium and potassium. These components of the diet will be discussed individually, then put together in some real tips you can use to improve your recovery.
Carbohydrates are the backbone of a sports diet, especially for aerobic and endurance sports such as running. After running, the focus of nutrition is on glycogen rebuilding. Glycogen is the body's storage form of carbohydrate. Most of the body's glycogen is in the muscle, and muscle glycogen is the body's prime fuel for exercise.
Before running, the glycogen stores in the muscle are full. But after running more than 90 minutes or eight miles, glycogen stores are significantly lower. If you are training for a marathon or ultra-marathon and running 18 or 20 miles in one shot, muscle glycogen stores can become seriously depleted.
You have to replenish your energy stores as quickly as possible, especially if you plan to work out again the following day. For the first two hours after exercise, the muscles are primed with the enzymes used to build glycogen, so this is the most effective time to eat carbohydrate. Think of your muscles sucking up the sugar from your bloodstream as they rapidly build up the glycogen stores. Think of how important it is for you to eat carbohydrate-rich foods that will supply that blood sugar to the hungry muscles.
Interestingly, new research has found that carbohydrate ingestion after exercise may improve immune function. Researchers studied the effects of over-training in elite athletes and found that intense, long-duration exercise can impair the immune system. Giving these athletes carbohydrate-rich drinks for recovery appeared to diminish the immune system impairment.
Carbohydrate-rich foods include sugars and starches such as juices, fruits, bagels, pasta, potatoes, rice, bread, baked goods and dairy products.
While runners are discouraged from eating protein before and during exercise, protein-rich foods are encouraged post-exercise. Research has shown that consuming a little protein with a lot of carbohydrate within two hours of exercise improves recovery and increases the rate of glycogen building compared to consuming carbohydrates alone.
This seems logical. Not only do the muscles in your legs utilize glycogen during long and intense runs, but they also sustain small muscle fiber injuries, sometimes referred to as microtears.
How does the muscle repair itself? The actual mechanism of healing is quite complex but, in essence, the damaged muscle fibers require amino acids to make muscle proteins. Eating protein-rich foods gives the body the amino acids it requires, and may hasten muscle fiber healing.
Hence, the goal is to consume protein-rich foods with carbohydrate-rich foods after exercise to promote a speedy recovery. Choose protein foods that are lower in fat such as turkey, tuna, salmon, low-fat yogurt, lean roast beef, eggs, tofu, beans and skinless chicken.
Running produces a great deal of heat, and the body's cooling mechanism - sweating - kicks into overdrive. It is not unusual to lose three to six pounds of body water in a single run. Drinking water and sports drinks while running is strongly recommended, but you are rarely able to replace lost fluids while running. Hence, post-exercise is the ideal time to rehydrate.
Water is a fine fluid replacer, but almost any non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverage will do. Even colas, which contain a small amount of caffeine, do not present a concern. A sweet drink, such as juice, a smoothie, soda, ice tea or sports drink, has the added benefit of providing needed carbohydrates.
The most important concept here is to drink adequate amounts, beginning immediately after running, to prevent dehydration. To determine whether you have had enough fluid, you can weigh yourself to see if you have reached your pre-run weight, or check to see when you need to urinate. You should need to go to the bathroom within 30 to 45 minutes after running. If not, you are still dehydrated and need to consume more beverages. Urine color should be pale yellow, not dark or amber.
Some athletes believe that beer and coffee are good fluid sources after running. However, both of these beverages are dehydrating. If you want to treat yourself to alcohol, have some water and juices first, then celebrate with beer or wine. If it is a chilly day and you crave a hot beverage, consider some hot chocolate or herb tea. If you really want coffee, be sure to drink plenty of water and juices also to counteract the dehydrating effects.
Water isn't all you lose when you sweat. You also lose some minerals, called electrolytes. Electrolytes, found in all body fluids, help your body function normally and in balance. The main two in sweat are sodium and potassium.
Sodium is a well-known component of table salt (sodium chloride). The American diet is high in sodium. Normally, we hear recommendations for people to cut down on their salt or sodium intake, but these are geared toward the general population, which tends to be sedentary. Runners actually require a diet containing sodium to replace the sodium lost in sweat. This doesn't mean the runner's diet should be based on Kentucky Fried Chicken and hot dogs, but it does mean that some salty foods can and should be included.
After a long run in the heat, replenishing yourself with plain water alone may not be enough. Along with some foods containing carbohydrate and protein, as mentioned above, some salty foods may be needed. Consider pretzels (carbohydrate and sodium), a tuna sandwich (carbohydrate, protein and sodium), cheese and crackers (carbohydrate, protein and sodium), and soup (fluid, carbohydrate and sodium).
Last, but not least, potassium is another electrolyte lost in sweat. A well-balanced diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables provides the potassium needed by the athlete. To replace the potassium lost during exercise, have one of these high-potassium foods: potatoes, yogurt, bananas, orange juice and raisins.
Putting it all together: A real post-workout plan
It has been mentioned several times that recovery nutrition is required after an intense or long workout. Generally, this means any long run over eight miles or 90 minutes, a hill workout or a speed/interval training workout. These are the tougher workouts that require post-exercise nutrients to replace losses. For short, easy runs lasting an hour or less, post-exercise nutrition is less crucial because glycogen stores don't get depleted, and your next meal will likely provide enough carbohydrate, protein, fluid and electrolytes to top off your tank. If you run for an hour or less, your only concerns will be having a bit of water or juice and perhaps half a bagel, a piece of toast or fruit after the run.
If your hour-long workout is a hill workout or a speed/interval-training workout, aim for a snack or mini-meal of 300 to 400 calories, mostly from carbohydrate. This can be achieved by having a half-cup of orange juice and a sandwich (tuna, turkey, cheese or egg salad) or a bowl of cereal with milk and a banana. Another good choice is a large baked potato (leftovers is fine) topped with cheese and a small bowl of chicken noodle soup. Drink an 8-ounce cup of fluid (water, juice, sports drink or ice tea) for each half pound of weight loss.
If your workout is a long training run - up to two hours long - try to consume approximately 500 calories. You can divide this up into a snack and a mini-meal, because sometimes it is easier to munch or sip on something while preparing the other food. For example, you can start with a can of soda and some crackers, which provide about 200 calories, then prepare yourself a cottage cheese and fruit plate for the other 300 calories. Or have a cup of Gatorade and a banana (150 calories), then a bit later have some leftover beef stew (350 calories). If you are vegetarian, start off with a cup of apple juice (100 calories) and make yourself a nice salad with a cup of canned garbanzo beans and your choice of greens and half a bagel (400 calories). Again, remember to rehydrate.
If your workout is a long run of more than three hours or 15 miles, eat a snack within the first hour after running, and follow it up with a meal afterwards, for a total of approximately 600 to 700 calories. Each mile of running utilizes approximately 100 calories worth of fuel, so don't think that this is so many calories. Start off with a high-carbohydrate snack, such as a large smoothie (300 to 400 calories), a large muffin (400 calories), or a fruit yogurt and a banana (300 calories). An hour or two later, follow up with a meal such as a soup and sandwich, a chicken burger, rice and tofu stir-fry, rice and beans, chili and cornbread or cottage cheese and fruit. Let your appetite be your guide, but try not to overeat. Have a regular sized meal for you, and wait before you go for seconds. You may be more tired than you are hungry at this point, and need some time just to relax and rest.
After long runs or races, such as the marathon, be easy on yourself and not too restrictive with your diet. Foods containing some fat, sugar and/or salt are fine. Some runners crave junk food or fast foods after marathons and long training runs, and giving in to these cravings on occasion is okay. A balanced sports diet has room for treats like cake, cookies, chips, burgers and ice cream - in moderation.
Some runners have a difficult time eating after hard, long workouts. For these runners, the answer may be the recovery drink, a packaged liquid meal intended for post-exercise nourishment. Some coaches and athletes consider them to be a convenient way of getting the nutrients they need back into their system fast. They are best suited for athletes who have little or no appetite after a hard workout and prefer not to eat anything. For these individuals, it is easier to gulp down a concentrated, nutrient-dense beverage.
Recovery drinks are not the same as sports drinks like Gatorade, which are intended for use during exercise. Recovery drinks are heavier, and contain carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, electrolytes and fluid. Use recovery drinks only if you have trouble eating after running. They have a lot of calories and may cause weight gain if you use them together with a lot of food after running.
Protein bars & 40-30-30 bars
Other runners may reach for a different packaged sports food: the energy bar. Often, protein bars and "40-30-30"-type bars are touted as the preferred post-workout energy bar, as opposed to strictly high-carbohydrate bars.
High protein bars and 40-30-30 bars can be good choices for runners who have a difficult time eating protein foods or having access to protein foods after a run or race. For example, some runners may easily grab a soda, bagel or fruit, but have a hard time getting a tuna or turkey sandwich, or even string cheese or cottage cheese. These situations may call for having access to a protein-containing bar. The bar can substitute for a sandwich or snack, and may be a good choice after exercise.
The bottom line is this: eat after running long or hard. A little planning before your run may help you grab the foods and beverages you need after the run. Your next workout will be better for it.