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Does What You Eat Make a Difference to Exercise Recovery?

Exercise recovery is one of the most important components of athletic performance. From a sports nutrition perspective, recovery provides time for the body to fuel up while it cools down. Recovery nutrition allows for:

  • Expedited muscle glycogen resynthesis
  • Muscle protein resynthesis
  • Decreased fatigue
  • Opportunity to rehydrate
  • Decreased inflammatory response

To optimally recover from strenuous exercise, the muscles do best with foods containing both carbohydrate and protein. A 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein is recommended post-resistance exercise, while a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein is recommended post-endurance exercise lasting longer than one hour.

There are countless products, e.g., shakes, bars and powders that target recovery nutrition, but is it necessary to use “recovery products?” Maybe not. A recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism examined the effects of isocaloric sports nutrition products vs. fast foods on glycogen recovery and performance1.

Eleven men competed an intense 90-minute cycling time trial (cycling to exhaustion) and were then fed either a fast food meal of pancakes, hash browns and a small orange juice or a combination of sports nutrition product (e.g. Gatorade, Clif Shot Bloks and ClifKit’s Organic Peanut Butter Bars) with the same number of calories. Two hours later, the study participants had a snack of a hamburger (no cheese), French fries and Coke or a Cytomax Sports Performance Drink, PowerBar Recovery Sports Drink and PowerBar Energy Chews. The fast food meal and the sport supplement meal totaled 1,330 and 1,303 calories, respectively. Both meals had similar amounts of carbohydrate and protein.

Following the meals, the study participants had muscle biopsies and blood tests to determine their glycogen stores, blood glucose levels and insulin response. Four hours after the initial workout, the participants completed a 20K stationary bike time trial.

The two groups had similar levels of glycogen resynthesis, glucose response, insulin response and time trial performance. Since the study was conducted over the course of a single day, it is difficult to extrapolate to the long-term impact of this dietary intervention. However, fast food helped study participants recover as well as more expensive and more researched sports supplements. Why? Recovery is about carbohydrate, protein and fluid. The body wants optimal carbohydrate to help with muscle glycogen and muscle protein resynthesis.

If one opts to consume food vs. sports supplements, it is important to be selective to ensure the proper combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Fast food offers a savory option, which may be welcome after a steady diet of sports drinks, gels and chews during endurance exercise. Pair a small hamburger with a small order of French fried potatoes or scrambled eggs with hash browned potatoes for a tasty, nutrient-appropriate recovery meal that is satisfying and functional. In addition, both French fries and hash browns offer a significant amount of potassium, an important recovery nutrient.

Many people are willing to pay more for sports supplements designed and marketed for recovery. However, food can provide the same amount of calories, carbohydrate, protein and electrolytes. It’s all in the perception. Does an athlete always need to consume something that says “recovery” on it after a workout? No, but at the same time, neither a sports supplement nor a fast food meal may be necessary for recovery after a 5K or other short duration event.

A food-first approach makes fiscal and physical sense for the body. And after a hard workout, forgoing the sports supplement and eating a meal can be a value. You can trim excess calories, fuel your recovery, consume additional nutrients, save some money and not have to worry about eating again until your next meal. Taterade anyone?

  1. Cramer MJ, Dumke CL, Hailes WS, Cuddy JS, Ruby BC. Post-exercise glycogen recovery and exercise performance is not significantly different between fast food and sports supplements. Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015 Mar 26.


Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, CSSD is a Sports Dietitian who has worked with numerous professional, collegiate and Olympic teams. For more information on sports nutrition, please see her book, Bonci, Leslie. Sport Nutrition for Coaches, Human Kinetics, 2009


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