Post-run recovery is an important but often undervalued part of training. Stretching, drinking fluids, and adequate nutrition is often foregone in place of beer & wings. And while I’m all for celebration and enjoyment of food, for optimal performance and a more enjoyable training cycle, it’s important to consider a few aspects of recovery nutrition.
Not all types of activity require a focus on recovery nutrition. A recreational runner or walker will fulfil their dietary requirements with their meals. However, exercising consecutive days, multiple times in a day, for a prolonged period (greater than 1 hour), or at a high intensity requires a recovery nutrition plan.
When to Eat Post Run
Research shows that for optimal recovery and performance, it’s best to eat within 30 minutes of completing exercise (1). Endurance runners will need additional meals to further replenish glycogen (carbohydrate stores). After a long training run or race, a great refuelling strategy is to eat a light snack or drink within the 30 minute period, followed by a complete balanced meal 1-3 hours post-exercise.
What to Eat Post Run
Carbohydrates get a bad reputation, but for runners, they’re vitally important for performance and recovery. Carbohydrates are our muscles preferred fuel source during exercise. Muscles store carbohydrates, in a form called glycogen, for release during prolonged activity. Inadequate carbohydrate and glycogen depletion results in fatigue, decreased concentration, and inability to sustain the intensity of exercise (2). Therefore, post-exercise, intake of carbohydrate and replenishment of glycogen stores is the primary goal of recovery nutrition.
Protein is another important part of recovery nutrition. Consuming protein with carbohydrates increases glycogen synthesis (2). Additionally, protein helps in the recovery, repair, and building of muscles.
A rule of thumb is to aim for a ratio of 3 or 4 grams of carbohydrate to 1 gram of protein within the 30-minute post-exercise window. (IE a snack that contains 30 g carbohydrates and 10g protein would have a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio).
Post-Workout Snack Examples:
Banana Peanut butter smoothie (1 banana, ⅔ cup plain greek yogurt, 1 cup chocolate almond milk, 1 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 cup spinach)
Greek yogurt & berries
Rice cake & almond butter
- Fruit and ¼ cup mixed nuts
- Meal replacement supplement such as Ensure, Boost, etc
- Pita and hummus
Following the snack, a well-balanced meal that includes a plate of ½ vegetables, ¼ protein, and ¼ carbohydrates within 1-3 hours is best. This balance is found with a variety of foods including an egg salad sandwich with raw vegetables and hummus, a bowl of vegetable and lentil soup with crackers and cheese, baked chicken breast with sweet potato and broccoli, or 2 slices of pizza with a large side salad.
Managing Post-Run Stomach Upset
An obstacle to recovery nutrition for many runners is experiencing stomach upset or lack of appetite after a run. One strategy to overcome this is focusing on liquids instead of solid food. Smoothies, protein shakes (with carbohydrates), meal replacement supplements, or milk have excellent carbohydrate to protein ratios and are easier to stomach.
If even the thought of a drink post run is too nauseating, remember that meeting overall calorie and nutrient requirements are much more important than timing. For a non-elite athlete, missing that 30-minute window will cause minimal impacts if you focus on adequate nutrition in your next meal.
In addition to fuelling up on carbohydrates and protein, it’s important to also replenish fluid and electrolyte losses. Runners should consume 1.25-1.5L fluid per kg of body weight lost, determined by weighing oneself pre and post exercise (2). For those who do not wish to hop on a scale before and after their run, simply focusing on drinking water with post-run meals and snacks is sufficient.
Generally, electrolyte supplements and sports drinks are not necessary for rehydration unless rapid rehydration is required for an additional exercise event. Electrolytes will be found in the foods eaten during the post-run snack and meals. The addition of table salt to a meal is enough to adequately replenish electrolyte losses and stimulate thirst.
Nutrition is an important part of recovery and your run performance. Meeting your overall caloric and nutrient requirements is the most important aspect of recovery. And while there are guidelines for timing and quantities of nutrients, remember that they are just guides and depending on your goals, lifestyle, or individual tolerance you may need to make individual adjustments.
Kersick CM, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017; 14(33).
Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Nutrition and Athletic Performance Position of Dietitians of Canada, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016; 116(3):501-528