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Recovery nutrition for runners

If you are an avid athlete, you have undoubtedly noticed the latest hype surrounding recovery nutrition. The sports supplement industry is bombarding us with commercial recovery foods and fluids that generally offer some combination of carbs and protein. Questions arise: how important is proper nutritional recovery? And how essential are these products to your performance? The purpose of this article is to help you refuel appropriately after your workouts and optimize your performance. If you are a fitness exerciser - an athletic person who works out three or four times a week for 30 to 60 minutes - you can be less focused on recovery nutrition than the athlete who works to fatigue one or two times a day. Your body does not become depleted during fitness workouts, plus you have plenty of time to refuel before your next exercise session. But if you are an athlete who exercises to exhaustion, does double workouts and needs to rapidly recover from one exercise bout to prepare for the next one, your recovery diet deserves full attention. A few examples include: soccer players in a weekend tournament, swimmers competing in two events at a meet, triathletes doing two-a-day workouts and yes, even the compulsive exerciser who spends too much time at the health club. You will be able to perform better during repeated bouts of hard exercise if you have planned your recovery diet and have the right foods and fluids readily available to adequately replace calories, carbohydrates, protein, fluids and sodium.

Calories
If you are tired, time-crunched and without a nutrition recovery plan, you might have trouble consuming enough calories (as well as carbs) and fail to replace depleted glycogen stores. A simple solution is to quench your thirst (and abate your hunger) by drinking less water and more cranberry, grape or any other appealing fruit juice. Juices provide the fluid you need, as well as carbs and calories. If you are trying to lose weight by restricting calories, your best bet is to fuel adequately by day to ensure strong workouts. Then, have a lighter dinner and fewer evening snacks. Do not try to restrict by day and exercise on empty; you will have poor workouts.

Carbohydrates
To replenish depleted blood sugar and muscle glycogen stores and recover from the demands of strenuous exercise, your should plan to consume carbohydrates as soon as tolerable, preferably within 30 minutes post-exercise. Muscles rely on carbs for fuel, so think again if you are on an Atkins-type low carb diet. Athletes who weigh 100 to 200 pounds (45 to 90 kilograms) need 75 to 150 grams (300 to 600 calories) of carbohydrates repeatedly every two hours, for six hours. The trick is to plan ahead and have the right foods and fluids readily available for frequent snacking. Otherwise, you may neglect your recovery diet by mindlessly eating nothing - or whatever is around: donuts, burgers, hot dogs, nachos, chips, and other high fat choices that fail to refuel your muscles. If you have trouble tolerating solid food, experiment with liquid recovery foods, such as chocolate milk or fruit smoothies - excellent sources of carbs and fluids, as well as a little protein.

Protein
Consuming some protein along with the carbs stimulates faster glycogen replacement. The protein also optimizes muscular repair and growth. Yes, you can buy commercial recovery foods, but you can just as easily and appropriately enjoy cereal with milk, fruit yogurt, bagel with a little peanut butter or any other sports snacks that offer a foundation of carbs with an accompaniament of protein (for example 40 grams carbs, 10 grams protein).

Fluids
If you have become very dehydrated (as indicated by scanty, dark urine), you may need 24 to 48 hours to totally replace this loss. Because thirst poorly indicates whether or not you have had enough to drink, throughout the day sip on enjoyable (non alcoholic) beverages until your urine is pale yellow (like lemonade), not concentrated, dark (like beer). Fruit juices, smoothies and milk shakes offer both nutritional and health value, more so than sports drinks. For example, orange juice contains up to 20 times more potassium than sports drinks. Preventing dehydration during exercise is preferable to treating dehydration post-exercise. To determine your fluid needs, simply weigh yourself naked before and after an hour of hard exercise during which you drank nothing. The weight loss reflects sweat loss. You can then develop a schedule for drinking adequate fluids during exercise to minimize sweat losses and hasten recovery. A two pound per hour loss equals 32 ounces or 1 quart. This can be prevented by drinking 8 ounces every 15 minutes of exercise.

Sodium
When you sweat, you lose some sodium (a part of salt). You are unlikely to deplete your body's sodium supply unless you sweat hard for more than 4 to 6 hours. Most athletes easily replace sodium losses within the context of a standard American diet that offers 6 to 12 times the amount of needed salt. But if you eat primarily "all natural" or unprocessed foods, and simultaneously add little or no salt to your meals, you might consume inadequate sodium. This can hinder fluid retention. Eating salty foods (soup, pretzels, salted crackers, table salt) is an appropriate part of a recovery diet for most healthy athletes. Sports drinks are only a weak source of sodium compared to munching on salty snacks. That is, 8 ounces of sports drinks offers only 110 milligrams sodium; a handful of pretzels (0.5 oz) offers 250 milligrams. If you need to rapidly recover to prepare for a second bout of exercise within an hour or two and are worried about digestive problems, consuming a tried-and-true sports drink might be a safe choice. But if you can tolerate food, you will be able to refuel and rehydrate better with higher carb fluids (juices) along with salty snacks: crackers, pretzels - whatever else tastes good and digests comfortably. Foods with a moderate to high glycemic index (such as sugary sweets, white bread, soft drinks, honey) are among the best choices. They rapidly enter the blood stream and are readily available for fuel.

Rest
You are not "being lazy" if you take a day off after a hard workout; you are investing in your future performance. Your muscles need time (plus adequate carbs and calories) to refuel and heal. Daily hard exercise optimizes glycogen-depletion, dehydration, needless fatigue and injuries-but not performance!

Credits - WorldwideRunning.com would like to thank Nancy Clark for the permission to reprint the article "The Athlete's Kitchen: Recovery from hard exercise" by Nancy Clark. Text © by Nancy Clark. Boston-area sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD, counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her private practice in Newton, Massachusetts (tel. 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling "Sports Nutrition Guidebook" and her food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players are available at NancyClarkRD.com. For workshops and online education, visit NutritionSportsExerciseCEUS.com.


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