One of the most neglected aspects of recovery is the role of carbohydrates. Regardless of sport, almost all of my athletes reach for a protein shake after their workouts. However, refilling carbs stores is just as important as providing protein to maximise recovery.
Most athletes know that you need plenty of protein for your body to build new muscle, so that is their recovery focus. However, you can increase your gains if you pair that protein with some carbohydrates. First, the insulin spike caused by the carbohydrates tells your muscles to absorb both the protein and carbs from your bloodstream and into your muscles much faster. This accelerates your recovery.
Second, providing the building blocks of new muscle isn’t enough. Your body needs enough energy to actually do the work – and carbs provide a quick, easy source of energy. Whether you are a strength athlete looking to gain muscle or an endurance athlete trying to increase stamina, you will better adapt to your training if you body has enough energy in the hours after exercise.
Another reason to focus on carbohydrates for recovery is to perform well in your next training session. Most athletes get better results when they are able to train hard, recover, and go again the next day. As discussed previously (see Carbohydrates for Exercise: Before) starting your next workout with full muscle glycogen stores is key for performance. By consuming carbohydrates as soon as possible after exercise, you ensure a great next session.
The good news is that, if you have 24 hours between exercise bouts, your body will refill your glycogen stores naturally from your normal diet. Assuming your diet has enough carbs in it (See Macronutrients: Carbohydrates), no special strategy is needed. Particularly in the first 3-4 hours after a tough session, your muscles act like carbohydrate sponges.
However, when there is less than 24 hours between exercise bouts, carbohydrates stores are the limiting factor in performance. The shorter the gap between workouts, the more you need to focus on getting the carbs in. For example, if the gap between workouts is 4 hours or less, you’ll want at least 1g/Kg of bodyweight of carbs per hour. This can be a mix of simple and complex carbs, with some protein and fibre, but lower in fat (to speed digestion).
Remember, it is only when we give our bodies adequate rest and the right nutrition that we get fitter!
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Kerksick et al. 2017. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017; 14: 33. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
Thomas, D.T., Erdman, K. and Burke, L. 2016. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Jan;117(1):146. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.11.008.
Vitale, K. and Getzin, A. 2019. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019 Jun; 11(6): 1289. doi: 10.3390/nu11061289