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Nutrition Drinks for Recovery

by Nancy Ling, RD

What's the difference?

Sports drinks, also known as hydration beverages, are completely different animals from nutrition drinks, or recovery beverages. While sports drinks such as Gatorade, All Sport and Powerade provide hydration, nutrition drinks are designed to help your muscles recover from exercise-induced stress. Sports drink formulations have carbohydrate (in the form of glucose, fructose and maltodextrin), electrolytes (in the form of sodium, potassium and magnesium) and a lot of water, adding up to a dilute solution that is easy for the gut to handle during exercise. Nutrition drinks, on the other hand, are made of protein (often whey protein), carbohydrate (including glucose, sucrose, fructose and maltodextrin), fat and extras including vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, amino acids and herbs.

Note that sports drinks are diluted, whereas nutrition drinks are relatively concentrated. Sports drinks usually deliver 50-70 calories per 8 ounces, while nutrition drinks may provide 200-300 calories in an 8- to 16-ounce serving. Sports drinks are usually described as a 7% solution, a concentration that is optimal for absorption of fluid in the gastrointestinal tract. This is approximately half the concentration of juices and sodas.

The small amount of sugar and sodium in sports drinks allows them to be absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut even faster than plain water. This allows for maximal hydration during running. The carbohydrate in the sports drink provides fuel for exercise, also.

By contrast, nutrition drinks have large amounts of carbohydrate and protein, and even some fat. This combination is not meant for use during exercise, when absorption is impaired. Nutrition drinks are to be used after workouts, when the muscles require carbohydrate and protein. The gastrointestinal tract is able to tolerate a large load of nutrients after exercise, so a concentrated drink can be absorbed. The nutrients can then be delivered to the muscles for rebuilding of glycogen stores and repairing damaged muscle fibers.

How are nutrition drinks used?

Nutrition drinks tend to be too heavy and nutrient-dense to be used before exercise, unless they are consumed an hour prior to exercise. Their protein and fat content makes them more difficult to digest and absorb. Hence, chugging a nutrition drink right before running may result in a stomach cramp.

Use nutrition drinks after intense or long workouts. There is probably no need for nutrition drinks after runs under 60 minutes or six miles. These runs are too short to cause any severe nutritional depletion. However, if the run is an intense interval training workout, or a hill run, you may feel that a nutrition drink is warranted. Probably the most useful time to have a nutrition drink is after a long distance run or race. Long distances tend to beat up legs the most, causing microtears to the muscle and depleting glycogen stores. After these runs, carbohydrate and protein are required to replete nutrient stores.

If you can eat ordinary food after running, a nutrition drink may not be necessary. What you need after running is carbohydrate and protein and, if you can get it from a turkey sandwich or hard-boiled eggs and crackers or fruit and yogurt, then your recovery needs are met. You don't need to overdo it by having a lot of food and a nutrition beverage also, unless you have covered more than 18 miles on a long run. The nutrition drink is really intended for the runner who can't tolerate solid food after running, and needs a beverage packed with carbohydrates and protein for easy consumption.

Can protein shakes be used as recovery drinks?

Some drinks that are sold in powder form to be mixed with water are not so much recovery drinks as they are protein shakes. You can tell a protein shake from other drinks because they have more grams of protein than grams of carbohydrate. They tend to be low in fat, too. Two examples are Met-Rx Nutrition Drink and Muscle Shake Premium Protein Powder.

One packet of Met-Rx Nutrition Drink makes up a 16-ounce drink that contains 250 calories, 22 grams of carbohydrate, 37 grams of protein and 2 grams of fat. It contains METAMYOSYN protein, vitamins, glutamine, calcium and antioxidants and is promoted as a recovery drink.

Muscle Shake is also a powder that is to be made up into a 16-ounce drink that provides 181 calories, 18 grams carbohydrate, 25 grams protein, and 1 gram of fat.

As you can see, with these drinks, protein is the key ingredient, and they are designed for weight lifters and strength athletes who want to bulk up. If that is not your goal, you don't need such a high protein drink for recovery. However, you can use these products for recovery after very intense workouts, such as 18-mile runs. Use them in conjunction with a carbohydrate-rich food such as fruit, juice, bagels or crackers to balance out the protein.

Bottom line

Not all runners need nutrition drinks, but they are a great product to have available for those times when solid food is too much after a workout. Finding a nutrition drink that's right for you requires some label-reading. Look for a product that provides between 200 and 300 calories per serving, and contains both carbohydrate and protein. That's the best game plan for post-workout.

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