You just gave your run everything you had, and now you are in need of recovery nutrition. Wondering what nutrients and ratios to use? And does it matter? You ran so hard, can’t you just eat whatever your want?
You could, but to recover optimally to be ready for your next workout, you need to tailor your post-workout meal carefully.
You will get great benefits from a nutrition and supplement plan that supports your running, including more fat loss, new personal records, and greater work capacity.
Naturally, there are big differences in nutrition and recovery needs for short distance runners, long distance runners, elite runners, ultra runners, and multi-sport endurance athletes so this article will provide basic nutrition information for runners. It will also ddress specific issues within the running population (for example, is there a way to train the body to burn more fat so that you spare glycogen?).
The latest research on nutrition for endurance exercise points to the following five significant findings to consider when developing an after-run nutrition protocol:
1) The “Window of Opportunity” when the Muscles are Primed for Feeding
2) The Optimal Ratio of Carbs to Protein Post-Run
3) Protein and Carb Recommendations during the “Window”
4) How to Train the Body to Burn Fat in Addition to Glycogen
5) Increase Performance with Carnitine, Glutamine, and Antioxidants
1) The “window” of time when nutrition is most effective for recovery
Recover fastest by consuming recovery nutrients immediately after you finish running. There is a 30 to 60 minute window following exercise when you should provide your muscles with nutrients. The muscles are primed and ready to metabolize nutrients, replace fuel stores and damaged tissue immediately after intense exercise, whether it is endurance or resistance training.
Be aware that this is important for runners who run daily for a long period of time (60 minutes or more), run twice a day, or are doing cross training of some kind that lasts for more than an hour (running and then strength training for example). It is not as important for recreational runners who eat a real food diet and get adequate protein, carbs, and plenty of healthy fat.
Glycogen replenishment is not as important if you are a recreational runner who is running three to five times a week for less than an hour because you aren’t using up your fuel stores in that amount of time. There’s much more time for glycogen replacement between runs, and if you’re concerned about body composition, consuming protein post-workout may be your best bet.
2) The optimal ratio of carbs to protein post-run
Protein is just as important as carb intake after your run. Whether you’re an elite endurance athlete or a recreational runner you will benefit from getting extra protein.
Protein high in the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) is recommended for post-workout nutrition because the BCAAs have been shown to improve muscle glycogen replenishment without requiring the intake of lots of extra carbs. BCAAs and protein can also help to minimize the catabolic, muscle-degrading response that typically comes from running.
A 2002 study found that consuming carbs with protein (80 g/carbs, 28 g/protein) after endurance exercise was much more effective at replenishing glycogen in the muscles than carbs alone (80 g/carbs) or a higher amount of carbs (108 g/carbs).
Protein supports the gene signaling pathways that are involved in protein and glycogen synthesis. Consuming protein with BCAAs ensures you get your fuel stores back up so you will feel energetic and ready for your next run—and you’ll restore tissue and muscle.
A ratio of 1:1 carbs to protein may be ideal for recreational runners who run for less than an hour, whereas greater carb intake is indicated for intense endurance runners. A 2:1 or 3:1 carb to protein ratio is recommended for endurance athletes, which translates into 0.8 to 1.5 g/kg/body weight of simple carbs with 0.3 to 0.5 g/kg/body weight of protein that contains BCAAs. Naturally, this ratio will vary based on individual needs and goals.
3) Opt for whey over casein protein and simple over complex carbs
Opt for whey protein over casein for a faster digestive pattern during the post-run window of opportunity. Whey protein is responsible for a greater boost to protein synthesis upon ingestion, whereas casein protein releases its amino acids at a slower rate just as complex carbs take longer to digest, counteracting the point of immediate post-run nutrition.
Switch to complex carbs for all your carbohydrate needs after the “window of opportunity” because they will be digested slower, leading to a more moderate insulin response and supporting body composition. Elite endurance athletes who are not concerned with body comp may benefit from more simple carbs in their diets.
However, something to consider is strategies that train the body to burn fat and spare muscle glycogen. Such methods are really a topic for another article, but it's mentioned here because the answer to better running is not more carbs. Rather, it’s in preserving your carb stores so that they are there and you don’t hit a “wall” when you want to blow past your opponents near the end of a race—sprinting requires carbohydrate stores!
4) Train the body to burn fatty acids to improve performance
One way to train the body to burn more fat is to avoid ingesting carbs before and during runs because this will require the body to get fuel from fatty acids. Rating of perceived exertion may go up, while your time for that training run will also be slower, but that’s okay because it’s a training run, not a race. The benefit is greater endurance and speed when you’re in competition.
Avoid consuming fructose pre-run as well because fructose has been shown to increase carbohydrate use and minimize fat burning. A recent study found that avoiding fructose before exercising will result in the body using significantly more fat for fuel during exercise than a meal that contains fructose.
5) Get adequate carnitine, glutamine, and antioxidants
Increase your running performance with carnitine and glutamine. Carnitine is a nutrient that has to “load” or build up in the muscle to provide performance benefits. By taking two to four grams daily post-run, you may be able to increase work capacity, run faster, and have it feel easier. Carnitine supports the use of fat as fuel, sparing muscle glycogen and giving you more energy.
Glutamine is an amino acid that is important for tissue repair and immune function. High levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—diminishes glutamine levels, and intense endurance exercise is known for using up glutamine stores. Low glutamine is one reason endurance runners often get sick during intense training cycles because the muscles can’t fully recovery between workouts when glutamine is low.
Research shows that taking 0.2 g/kg/body weight of glutamine daily can significantly increase time to exhaustion and minimize hydration stress from intense endurance running in the heat. Include glutamine in your post-run shake to stay healthier and boost performance.
Include antioxidant-rich foods or nutrients post-run to speed recovery. Antioxidants enhance the body’s ability to recover from extreme physical stress. They help to minimize the negative effects of cortisol and reactive oxygen species, which are produced due to intense aerobic exercise.
For example, a recent study found that drinking tart cherry juice—cherries are one of the most antioxidant-rich fruits—twice a day for a week resulted in significantly less muscle pain after an intense endurance race than a placebo.