Exercise & Athletic Recovery: A Three-Part Plan for Optimal Nutrition

Posted: February 25, 2021

Science continues to uncover the important role recovery plays in exercise and athletic performance. Getting the proper nutrition after working out helps enable improvements in subsequent performance.

The Three R’s of Recovery Nutrition

Nutrition scientists divide recovery nutrition into three importance parts:

  • Refuel
  • Rebuild
  • Rehydrate

While specific strategies may vary depending on the type of sport or exercise, these three parts are key to any recovery process. Each step plays an important role in optimizing recovery.

Part One: Refuel

Ideally, refueling should take place within the first 15-60 minutes following rigorous exercise or competitive event. And the sooner the better! When you exercise or compete athletically, your body’s primary fuel is muscle glycogen. We use carbohydrates to form glycogen, so loading up on carbs can be one of the biggest nutritional advantages for performance endurance.

Once the stored muscle glycogen is depleted during exercise performance, the body starts to burn stored fat, along with proteins and other carbohydrates in order to keep working.

Studies have shown that the level of pre-exercise muscle glycogen is one of the most important determinants of optimal exercise performance. The sooner you consume carbohydrates after exercise performance, the better your body can synthesize and store glycogen. That is because this is the time when glycogen synthase is most active, and when the body is most receptive to the intake of carbohydrates.

Glycogen is found in most tissues of the body – especially in the liver and skeletal muscle. Muscle glycogen is the primary energy source during the first 60-90 minutes of exercise.

Simple sugars or complex carbohydrates are the best choices for refueling. Exercise rapidly burns glycogen, and after working out, the body will accept just about anything due to its dire need for refueling. However, complex carbohydrates allow for a greater volume of calories to be absorbed than simple sugars do.

Minerals also play a number of key roles in generating and utilizing energy, particularly magnesium, calcium, zinc and phosphorous. These minerals are the star players in glycogen formation and utilization. These particular minerals provide the actual energy needed in physical performance and also support healthy muscle contraction and relaxation.

Magnesium plays the biggest role in supporting the body’s energy cycle, and is the most useful in the refueling phase of recovery nutrition. Magnesium acts as a catalyst or cofactor in helping the body convert sugars into glycogen, and ultimately, into the ATP required for refueling in preparation for future exercise and performance.

Part Two: Rebuild

In the process of performing an athletic event (whether it be endurance running, cycling, weight training, football, hockey, basketball, or sprinting), muscle tissue is exposed to potential damage. Catabolic hormones (ie. adrenaline and cortisol) remain high after exercise and continue to break down muscle tissue. Catabolism means to break down. Without proper intake of protein, this catabolic condition can continue for hours, resulting in increased muscle soreness and poor subsequent performance.

In order to rebuild muscle, athletes must take in high amounts of protein throughout the day, and especially immediately after exercise. Protein drives the body to rebuild and repair damaged muscle tissue, and stimulates whole body protein synthesis. The amount of protein required varies depending on the type of exercise, and how long it is performed, but generally 20 to 40 grams of protein should be consumed. Studies have shown that whey protein is a good post-workout protein because it contains a strong amino acid complex, and can rapidly release them into the bloodstream.

Creatine is also involved in building muscle and providing fuel for muscle contraction. Clinical studies have shown that adding creatine to the diet can increase muscle mass in individuals performing weight resistance training.

In the cycle to produce ATP, both creatine and magnesium play important roles. Studies have shown that magnesium creatine chelate (available from Albion as Creatine MagnaPower®) is more effective compared to creatine monohydrate given with magnesium oxide. A clinical study concluded that positive changes in peak torque of quadriceps were found to be significant only in the group receiving magnesium creatine chelate. This group had greater increases in intracellular water. An increase in intracellular hydration is associated with increased muscle growth. (Brilla,LR, et al, Metabolism, vol.52, No.9 2003, pp1136-1140). Phosphorous is also important for ATP formation.

Other minerals are also involved in rebuilding muscle. Magnesium and zinc can both have a positive impact on testosterone production, which contributes to muscle growth.

Part Three: Rehydrate

This part of recovery is aimed at replacing body fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat during the performance of exercise. Athletes should consume plenty of fluids. It is a good idea to drink a glass of water an hour before exercise.

But, water alone is not enough. It is also important to get electrolytes to achieve a proper balance within the body. What are electrolytes? Generally speaking, they are particles that carry a positive or negative charge. In the body, electrolytes are the essential minerals found in body fluids, ie. blood, sweat and urine.

When electrolytes are consumed and dissolve, they are converted into positive and negative charges. These charges help balance nerve impulses (including breathing and heartbeat) and regulate the flow of water/fluid in and out of cells. Electrolytes are critical in keeping the body functioning properly. The main electrolytes involved in rehydration for sports recovery are:

  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Sodium

Sodium and potassium are key minerals that can be lost during exercise through the sweat glands. Sodium and potassium both play roles in muscle contraction. To initiate muscle contraction, nerves release acetylcholine which binds to receptors, that in turn cause an influx of sodium ions that depolarize the cell membrane. This releases calcium, which then works with enzymes that help to enable the muscles to contract. Potassium channels open up after a short time, allowing potassium to flow and repolarize the cell membrane. Normal ionic charges are re-established by pumping sodium out of the cell, and potassium in. It is important to have a balance of these minerals, as an excess loss of sodium or potassium can lead to muscle cramps.

Remember that electrolytes are essential in ensuring proper function of muscles and the nervous system. Drinking water is important, but electrolytes must be replenished to achieve the rehydration needed for balanced sports recovery and continued performance.

Conclusion

Refuel. Rebuild. Rehydrate. Incorporating these three parts in the recovery phase of any athletic performance plan or workout program will help to ensure that your body is getting the nutrition it needs to perform at its best over time. The better the recovery nutrition program, the better the body will be when embarking on the next physical event.