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Recovery: The Key to Peak Performance

Author:Britt Maughan R.D.
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Recovery Image

Recovery nutrition and care goes beyond the immediate recovery needed after a race or competition. For your body to perform at its best, it needs to continue the recovery process well past the day of your event or hard workout. What you do in between - how you eat, how you sleep, and how you rebuild - are all a part of the recovery process and will affect your next training or event. Recovery should be just as important and strategic as your pre-race and during race strategy. Recovery can be broken down into the following areas: immediate recovery nutrition, continued recovery nutrition, daily supplements & nutrition, and physical & mental recovery. 

Post Workout Nutrition
This is the most discussed strategy when it comes to recovery nutrition – with most athletes aware of the ‘’recovery window’’. This is the 30-45-minute window after exercise where the body optimizes its ability to replenish energy stores – namely muscle and liver glycogen. The main nutrients to focus on are fluids, electrolytes, carbohydrates, and protein. 

Fluids and electrolytes should be managed during your workouts (especially with activity lasting over an hour) and should continue past your event to replenish what’s lost through sweat. Carbohydrates consumed in the recovery window help to restore glycogen, and proteins help to start the muscle recovery and rebuilding process. Protein powders or protein bars with a solid carbohydrate to protein ratio are great for a quick recovery snack (especially for the athlete that has a poor appetite following training). 

Other helpful additions to immediate recovery include antioxidants (like Vitamin A and E) to help combat free radicals (which increase during exercise) and offer benefits such as reduced muscle soreness, improved circulation and cognition, and strengthened immune function. Probiotics are also a great addition, as they provide immune support and help the athlete recover faster from fatigue and help combat the negative effects of over-exertion (such as illness, colds, intestinal upset etc.). 

For more information of immediate nutrition strategy and recommendations, read our Post-Workout Recovery Nutrition for Athletes article. 

Continued Recovery Nutrition
Past the 30-45-minute window, athletes should continue with recovery nutrition 2-3 hours after intense exercise and endurance events. This is a continued focus on carbohydrates and proteins to continue replenishing glycogen levels and assist with muscle repair and rebuilding. This is especially important for athletes doing multiple events or workouts – and will help ensure that your body is ready to perform again. 

Recommendations are to consume a whole food meal that combines carbohydrate, roughly 20g of protein, and healthy fats. Fats are important to note – as healthy fats found in foods such as nuts, olive oil, avocados, and fish – help regulate the inflammatory response after exercise and help speed up recovery. Examples of a great recovery meal would be chicken breast, sweet potatoes, broccoli, quinoa and avocados. Here you have two great carbohydrate sources, protein, and fat all in one meal. This could then be followed by yogurt and berries for dessert to add even more carbs, proteins, and fats (not to mention antioxidants and probiotics). Recovery protein powders can also be used here, with options to add additional calories and nutrients such as peanut butter, bananas, dairy, nut milks, fruits and veggies. 

Lastly – additional use of amino acids, antioxidants, omega fats, and probiotics are all great ways to increase your recovery time and continue to combat the effects of intense training and exercise. 

Daily Supplements and Nutrition
What you do daily – from your diet to your supplements, will help determine your rate of recovery and help prep you for the next event or workout. Recovery nutrition isn’t just the 30 minutes after, or the 3 hours after your event – it’s the constant practice of giving your body what it needs to perform at its best and giving it the tools it needs to continually rebuild and recover. 

This means that you are eating a balanced diet (rich with quality carbs, proteins, healthy fats, and a variety of fruits and veggies), and giving it the essential nutrients it craves – such as vitamins and minerals, essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids. To ensure you have all the essential nutrients you need, we suggest at minimum, taking a multivitamin and omega fatty acid supplement. For more info on essential nutrients – read here.

Having a strong foundation of daily nutrition will help support a strong immune system, allowing you to be healthier and stronger – which allows you to push yourself harder and further in your performance.  This helps your body function as a well-oiled, ass-kicking, efficient machine that can recover and rebuild time and time again. 

Physical and Mental Recovery 
Every athlete knows that performance involves both the body and the mind. To be successful you must be focused, determined, motivated, and ready to take on the challenges of a demanding training session or race. You must take care of the machine, but also the driver of the machine. This means taking care of your physical body (muscles, joints, injuries etc.) and managing stress, letting your mind and body rest, and doing activities that help you improve both physically and mentally. We describe each in more detail below.

Physical Recovery
This simply refers to taking care of your body. While you might have your nutrition and supplementation on point – your body needs attention during recovery to address the physical demands of intense exercise. Techniques to help you recover physically include compression, massage, foam rolling, stretching, yoga, and using the sauna. These will help speed up recovery – especially to the muscles and joints, and helps to improve flexibility, lessen the risk of injury, and helps to remove lactic acid build up post exercise. 

Sleep
The importance of sleep cannot be overstated! Your body undergoes the rebuilding and repair of tissues during the 3rd and 4th stages of the sleep cycle – this is when the human growth hormone is released. To achieve this stage, you must enter a deep sleep (aka slow-wave-sleep) and can’t get there on cat naps and interrupted sleep. Recommendations are to have about 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep may raise cortisol levels (aka the stress hormone - constantly high levels has been associated with abdominal fat gain, cognitive decline and decreased immune function) and affect the body’s metabolism. The study of sleep and athletic performance has shown that athletes achieve more PR’s, have better reaction time, improved overall health, reduced injury rates, better accuracy, have fewer mental errors and recover faster when well rested. Bottom line, it’s a major player in achieving peak performance. Check out our sleep aid category if you need help in this area. 

Mental Recovery 
As mentioned above, sleep is a major part of both physical and mental health. Aside from getting consistent rest, consider doing other activities that help boost your mental acuity. Activities such as mediation, yoga, and acupuncture can all help with mental health by addressing stress, anxiety, and depression. For athletes dealing with injuries – mental health can make all the difference in recovery and returning to training and competition. Other techniques include doing activities that help with self-awareness – such as journal writing, reading, breath work, visualization exercises, and listening to podcasts or motivational speakers. These techniques can help relieve stress and help build awareness, change of perspective, positivity, and overall power in your thoughts – which relate to your actions and confidence as individuals and athletes. 

Bottom Line 
Recovery is the key to achieving peak performance during training and competition. Recovery starts with a strong foundation of healthy habits (this includes your daily nutrition and supplement program) and continues with nutrition post workout, proper sleep, and activities and supplements that aid in mental and physical recovery. No matter what the sport, the duration, or the intensity – every athlete can benefit from a solid recovery program. 

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