After finishing your long run, hard effort workout or morning run that lasts over 90 minutes, what’s the first thing you think about? Let’s all admit that unless you’ve developed a good routine, getting in a balanced meal or recovery drink is sometimes not the first priority. I visited with elite ultrarunners, Dr. Stephanie Howe Violett, coach and sports nutritionist, and recovery guru, Corrine Malcolm. Read below for the why, how and what to look for in nutrition after your next run.
Getting in your recovery is about replenishing what you have depleted during your run. “We are helping undo some of the negative impacts created during a run,” says Dr. Howe Violett. Yes, we are talking to those of you who choose to not fuel during long runs. Whether it’s in the form of a meal or drink, athletes need to restore glycogen stores from the work they’ve just done. Yes, it is that simple.
“The importance of a post-workout recovery drink is to conveniently and immediately refuel and rehydrate when the athlete might not have had time to make a meal, or it’s just naturally going to be a little while before they eat. In that post-exercise window, your body is more sensitive to insulin and the fuel consumed immediately post exercise is preferentially delivered to your muscles to restore glycogen stores that you’ve just used up (effective refueling = faster recovery),” says Malcolm.
The other ideal recovery drink has the optimal ratio of 4-5 grams of carbohydrates per 1 gram of protein (in 300-400 calories). Carbohydrates are the more important part of that. Protein has been shown to help speed glycogen resynthesis but it doesn’t help with immediate recovery. Essentially, some protein along with those carbs will help with improved glycogen resynthesis and a faster recovery, but too much protein immediately post exercise can slow gylcogen synthesis,” says Malcom. In the end, the balance of what you are taking in does matter – not too much and not too little. Protein is important for long-term adaptation, just not acute recovery (3-5 hours post exercise).
There isn’t anything magical about recovery drinks. Getting something in post-workout is important, but the exact composition is less so. An athlete is more likely to consume something that they think tastes good and is easy to get down, compared to the perfectly formulated drink that’s not appetizing. I will speak from experience of taking a magical recovery powder to the trailhead many times only to drive home with the same powder in a bottle, because it was the last thing I craved post-run. I finally started packing what I actually liked as a recovery drink – chocolate milk, latte or kefir/yogurt are all great options, and easy to get down post-workout.
The only reason Dr. Howe Violett recommends a recovery beverage over real food is convenience. Powdered mixes can be useful when traveling or if you suddenly find yourself 45 minutes from home, otherwise she doesn’t think they offer anything more than chocolate milk or a smoothie. Other options include Malcolm’s preference – a homemade coffee or mocha. If it’s got simple sugar (remember all carbohydrates are ultimately broken down into simple sugars in the body so she is just shortcutting it), carbohydrates, protein and fat, then it all comes down to taste. Mathematically, most mochas break down to a 6:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. It’s not perfect, but it helps get Malcolm down the road to her next meal and often leaves her more satiated, which is just as important as replenishing that glycogen.
In the end, it’s important to remember that getting in something is key after your run or workout. “There is so much information out there to guide us but ultimately, we have to use a blend of science and art,” says Dr. Howe Violett.