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Recover and Refuel: The Art of Post-Exercise Nutrition

When you're demanding a lot from your body, you should fuel your muscles with a carbohydrate-rich sports diet before strenuous exercise and refuel afterward. By eating carbohydrates after rigorous training bouts and competitions, you'll invest in your ability to train and compete at your best. Otherwise, you'll feel chronically tired and jeopardize your performance. Athletes who neglect their recovery diet include:

  1. Those who eat much protein, such as eating a post-competition banquet that focuses on steak rather than extra potato, rolls, and other carbohydrate-rich foods.

  2. Those who eat greasy, fatty foods, such as "eat-and-runs," who survive on whatever's convenient… often burgers and French fries, tuna sandwiches with extra mayonnaise, hot dogs, donuts, etc.

  3. There are too few carbohydrates, such as potato chips, peanut butter, cheese chunks, ice cream, cookies, and other handy goodies.

  4. Too few total calories, such as weight-conscious athletes who mistakenly think that carbohydrates are fattening and thereby diet on low-fat cottage cheese, cans of tuna, sliced turkey, and other lean proteins. Their supplemental foods (e.g., salad greens, broccoli, apples, and rice cakes) generally offer too few carbs to replace their depleted glycogen stores.

To integrate an optimal recovery diet into both your post-competition and daily training meals:

#1. Focus your recovery meal on carbohydrate-rich foods since only carbohydrates are stored as glycogen. For example, pancakes (carbs) are far superior to omelets (protein/fat) for a post-marathon breakfast since your muscles don't store the protein and fat in the omelet as glycogen.

#2. Eat these carbohydrate-rich foods within one to four hours after a hard workout. That's when your muscles are most receptive to replacing the glycogen. This recovery meal is essential if you're doing double workouts during training or double events, such as at a swim meet.

#3. Eat at least 200-400 calories of carbohydrates within two hours of the hard workout—0.5 grams carbohydrate/pound body weight – such as two cups of orange juice and a banana, a bowl of cereal with fruit for breakfast: a dinner with double servings of rice and vegetables / single serving of chicken. Juice is an excellent recovery food if you don't have an appetite after a hard workout. The fruit sugars will replace the carbohydrates as well as quench your thirst. Repeat this "dose" two hours later.

#4. Eat carbohydrate-rich foods for at least two days after exhaustive endurance exercise to replace depleted glycogen stores adequately. Your muscles need time to carbo-reload.

#5. Rest your muscles to allow them to store (rather than burn) glycogen. Rest is an important part of both the training and recovery program. You aren't "being lazy" if you take a day off. You're investing in your future performance.

#6. Eat wholesome fruits, vegetables, and juices containing potassium, a mineral (electrolyte) you lose in sweat. Some excellent potassium-rich choices include oranges or orange juice, bananas, raisins, dried apricots, potatoes, and winter squash.

#7. If you crave salt, sprinkle a little on your food or select a salty food such as soup, pretzels, or salted crackers. Although you lose a little bit of salt when you sweat, you are unlikely to completely deplete your body's supply unless you work extremely hard under sweltering conditions for a long time. You can easily replace salt losses via a hearty recovery meal. American foods typically contain 6-12 times the needed salt; hungry athletes consume far more!

#8. Drink enough fluids to quench your thirst – and then more. If you've become dehydrated (as indicated by 6+ pounds of weight (sweat)loss), you may need 24-48 hours to replace this fluid. Since the thirst mechanism may inadequately indicate if you've had enough to drink, you should keep sipping fluids until your urine is clear-colored and a significant amount. Dark-colored urine is concentrated with metabolic wastes. It indicates that you're not yet in water balance.

#9. Drink natural juices more often than commercial sports drinks. Natural juices have far more potassium, vitamins, and carbohydrates—all nutrients that enhance recovery—than fluid replacement drinks that are more dilute and intended for use during exercise. (One glass of orange juice contains 20 times more potassium than many popular fluid replacers, plus more carbohydrates and vitamins.) After exercise, you want full-strength juices or other nourishing carbohydrates plus water.

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