by Colleen Cooke, MS, RD, RAC member
Think what you eat after your run is not that important? Think again. The timing and composition of your post-workout or post-competition meal can make a difference on how well you recover. If you just completed a training run or race longer than 90 minutes, your glycogen stores will be mildly to significantly reduced depending on the length and intensity of your run. Your top priority is replacing fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates. But did you know that you also need some protein and antioxidants?
During exercise, muscle fibers are broken down and damaged. It is during recovery or rest that muscles repair and strengthen. Good nutrition during this time will maximize recovery and help you prepare for your next workout.
Research has shown that consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise results in higher glycogen levels six hours post-exercise than when ingestion is delayed for two hours. This means that there is an ideal "two-hour window" following exercise when your muscles are most receptive to replenishing spent glycogen stores. Eating 1.5 grams of high-glycemic carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight at two-hour intervals is recommended for optimal recovery. The higher glycemic index carbohydrates are transported more rapidly into the muscle cell during this critical post-exercise period.
New research also shows that adding protein to your post-exercise carbohydrates aids in glycogen re-synthesis. The ideal ratio when combining carbohydrate and protein is 4:1 (four grams of carbohydrate to one gram of protein). This carbohydrate and protein ratio is beneficial because the carbohydrates stimulate insulin secretion, which transports glucose from the blood into the muscle and stimulates the enzyme responsible for converting glucose into glycogen. Insulin also speeds the protein rebuilding process by increasing amino acid transport into the muscle. It's important to keep to the 4:1 ratio, as too much protein (or fat) will slow rehydration and glycogen replenishment.
If you're a runner that doesn't feel like eating immediately after a long or intense workout, some of the sports nutrition supplements on the market may help. These are more appealing for most runners because liquids are much easier to digest than solid food. Also, you'll be replacing lost fluids from your run.
The Need for Antioxidants
We all know that running has many health benefits, such as weight maintenance and/or weight loss, increasing "good" HDL cholesterol while lowering total cholesterol, lowering blood pressure and decreasing the risk of developing some cancers. However, there is one minor negative side effect of running-the buildup of free radicals. The high rate of oxygen consumption during running leads to muscles with oxidative stress. Consuming antioxidants like vitamins C and E may reduce this free-radical damage. Choose foods that are naturally higher in vitamins C (e.g. oranges) and E (e.g. almonds).
Eat for Recovery
What you eat immediately following your run is indeed important for recovery. But don't stop there. To perform at a peak level, you need to consistently eat a high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein and low-fat diet every day in order to maintain appropriate glycogen stores. Drink plenty of fluids throughout your day, and eat whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
So after your next long run, immediately replace lost fluids with water and a sports drink, and within two hours eat a quality meal consisting of complex and simple carbohydrates, lean protein, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats (avoid saturated fats). Also, make sure there is lots of color in your meal. This will help ensure that you're eating essential fruits and vegetables.
Sound recovery nutrition makes for higher quality workouts, which leads to a long, healthy running life-and perhaps even a PR!
About the Author: Colleen Cooke, M.S., R.D., is a freelance writer and sports nutritionist residing in San Luis Obispo, California. She is a competitive age-group triathlete, has completed several Ironmans and has been an RAC member since 2000.