Recuperation in sports – the 1x1 from the standpoint of sport nutrition

Paolo Colombani 2. November 2017

The importance of nutrition as a crucial factor in recuperation was recognised in the 1980s, having undergone in-depth research since. The last great scientific discovery in this field could be referred to as the “time-based distinction of recovery periods”. While the umbrella term “recuperative activities” used to be employed, nowadays a distinction is made between short and long recovery phases. There is no exact definition in terms of time. It’s more about the principle and the set targets. A short recovery refers to the time between training sessions on the same day or consecutive days, as well as between competition events on the same day. The primary concern is to restore performance for the next event to the greatest extent possible. Measures for long recuperation, on the other hand, consist more of training adaptations. 

Short recovery

The name of the game is: performance first. Two measures prevail in short recovery: optimal replenishment of metabolised carbohydrates and of sweat lost during the previous physical exertion. 

If you expect energy reserves to become scarce during your next physical activity, it is crucial to focus on carbohydrates. The ideal quantity was determined long ago, and amounts to about 1.2 g per kg of body mass per hour. This equates to slightly more than 80 g per hour for a 70 kg person, which is not always easy to implement in practice. Through drinking fluids, this would translate into about a litre an hour; too much fluid if short recovery takes, for example, four to five hours. This thus requires a mix of solid and liquid carbohydrate sources. If it is evident that this ideal quantity of carbohydrates cannot be achieved, adding in some protein helps to replenish your carbohydrate stores. This should be about 0.3 g protein per kg of body mass per hour, in other words some 20 g for a 70 kg person. 

If, however, during the next physical exercise significant sweat loss is expected to occur, the focus should lie on liquid intake. It is important, however, to have a bit of cooking salt in your drink, because otherwise you will have to urinate more and your drink is of little use. 

If the short recuperation time is really short, as in the case of two training units on the same day, you will also need to pay heed to best-possible digestion. This means no food fibres, no fat, and only a little protein. Otherwise you risk having stomach issues and all your measures will suddenly prove to be in vain…

Long recovery

If your focus is on longer-term training adaptations, attention must be paid to the repair and/or the structure of your muscles. With about 20-25 g of animal protein, ideally whey protein, you optimally support this process. According to the latest findings you must first and foremost take in a sufficient amount of leucine, which is automatically the case with whey protein. The first portion of protein should be consumed immediately after the last physical exertion of the day and should ideally be repeated every two hours, with a last portion before going to sleep – if you still manage to sleep well. This staggered protein intake is the best way to achieve the maximum effect of dietary protein. 

Is sports food necessary?

The consumption of sports food always makes sense if it becomes difficult to eat normal food in your day-to-day sporting activities. If this is the case during your recovery time, you can resort to sports food such as recovery shakes or bars. They provide carbohydrates and protein, and the shakes replenish your fluids a bit. A similar result can often be achieved, however, with normal food as well. Chocolate milk, for instance, has been shown to be a very good recovery drink. Another easy option is sandwiches plus drinks which contain carbohydrates. It is just important to ensure that all food has been digested prior to your next physical activity. 

Putting this knowledge to use 

Recovery after physical exercise must be regarded as part of the training at least in competitive sports. Only optimised recuperation allows for longer-term, top-performance training. If neglected, this important aspect will prevent training from yielding its full potential effect. In extreme cases, repeated, poor recovery measures lead to overtraining – a pitfall that is hard to escape again.

  • Short recovery: focus lies on performance during the next physical activity, as well as two essential aspects – fluids and carbohydrates. 
  • Long recovery: additional heed is paid to regular protein intake throughout the day, including in endurance sports.
  • Sports food such as recovery shakes or bars are fine if consuming normal food is too much of a trouble. 
  • Recovery is an integral part of training and requires proper planning as such.