8 ways your nutrition helps or hinders sports recovery

Recovery nutrition is a vital part of your athletic performance. In the lead up to competition, training load increases and consequently body stress. If not recovering adequately you cannot adapt to the subsequent benefits of your training and are at an increased risk of illness and injury during and following competition.

Intense exercise can cause a stress response in the body due to the emotional and physical demands of this training load. This stress activates a number of neural pathways which triggers the release of hormones that increase stress and inflammation and may result in changes in the bacteria that is found in the gut. 

If recovery nutrition is not optimised, you can experience:

  • Increased fatigue 
  • Reduced performance at your next training session or event
  • Suboptimal gains from the session just completed
  • Increased muscle soreness
  • Recurrent illness and injury

Recovery requirements will differ depending on your sport, duration of activity, intensity, and training conditions. Therefore, recovery requirements will be different every day and different from your teammates and competitors. 

The following points provide insight into why you need to eat a nutritious, varied diet in the recovery period for optimal sports performance. 

Recovery window to optimise performance gains

The body is most efficient with nutrient uptake 30-60 minutes after exercise so where possible, it is recommended to make the most of this recovery window. However, the full recovery window extends across a 24-48hour period after exercise. If you are exercising again (competing or training) within an 8-hour period, it is more important for you to make the most of the 30-60minute window. If not, eat your first recovery meal at your earliest convenience.

Energy (kilojoule) intake for optimal recovery

In the hours following a heavy training session or in the few weeks following competition, it is essential to eat enough energy to support optimal recovery. Trying to restrict energy intake limits the amount of nutrients available to recover properly and increases your chances of illness and injury. 

Macro intake for muscle recovery and energy replenishment

Protein and carbohydrates are vital for recovering from exercise and should be included in all your main meals. Protein is made up of amino acids which are used in the process of muscle repair. During exercise our muscles experience small, microscopic tears which causes cells to rush to this area to begin to repair the damage which results in muscle growth. Consuming adequate amounts of protein ensures that there are sufficient amino acids for muscle growth and optimal recovery from exercise.  

Carbohydrates are broken down in the digestive system into smaller molecules called glucose, this glucose is either used for energy or stored away as glycogen in the liver and muscles. During high intensity exercise these glycogen stores are used to provide energy for the activity. Therefore, it is important to replace these glycogen stores by eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrates. In addition, carbohydrates also play a role in immunity by limiting immunosuppression that is associated with high intensity exercise.

Junk food and alcohol increase inflammation

Junk food and alcohol are calorie dense and nutrient poor, meaning they provide little nutritional benefit, and the high added-sugar and saturated fat content of these foods can contribute to inflammation. When the body is already in an inflammatory state from exercise, it is important to eat foods which reduce inflammation such as wholegrains, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin and mineral intake support your immunity and recovery

The immune system requires specific amounts of micronutrients to perform optimally as these nutrients help to maintain structural integrity of physical barriers such as skin against viruses and pathogens, assists in supporting antimicrobial actions of cells and contribute to immune cell defences. Therefore, micronutrient deficiencies are associated with an increased risk of illness. 

Healthy fats ensure healthy hormone production and function

Healthy fats are vital for hormone regulation and are vital to your vitamin and mineral absorption so not eating enough healthy fats can compromise the production of hormones that are important for performance. A variety of hormones change in response to exercise including insulin, glucagon, cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, testosterone and growth hormone. These hormones help to manage blood sugars during exercise, to stimulate energy metabolism, to aid in muscle growth and repair and to maintain immune function. 

Maintaining good hydration to reduce fatigue and cramping

When training or competing, you will lose fluid through sweat, as this is the body’s way of cooling and maintaining core temperature. The physiological effects of dehydration include increased heart rate and fatigue, reduced muscle function, gut related symptoms, heat stress and impaired cognitive performance and skill. Electrolytes are also important in muscle contraction and relaxation therefore, when depleted can cause muscle fatigue and cramping. 

If you don’t rehydrate sufficiently with adequate fluid and electrolytes, performance at subsequent sessions will be compromised.  

Probiotic and zinc supplements to complement a nutritious diet

In the weeks following competition, this is when immunity is most compromised and risk of illness and injury is at its highest. In this period, you could consider taking a daily probiotic (Lactobacillus) to increase the number of healthy bacteria in your gut, helping to boost immunity. Zinc plays an important role in the immune system and evidence shows supplementing with zinc once respiratory symptoms arise, can help to reduce the number of days with symptoms. 

For some more practical suggestions on recovery snacks, check out our recovery nutrition guide HERE

For more personalised advice, book a consult HERE 


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