A hard workout is only as beneficial as the quality of the recoverythat follows. This is amongst the most sacred rules of training. An important component to maximizing this recovery is refueling with the right foods after a high-intensity workout. While running, the body is actually breaking itself down, creating micro tears in the muscle and building up lactic acid, amongst undergoing other chemical, metabolic, and hormonal changes and stresses. Choosing the right foods can help to maximize and speed the rebuilding of muscle and replenish glycogen stores.
As powerful as the following foods may be, none of them are as important as the number one nutrition-related recovery factor: timeliness. The following foods, or any foods for that manner, can only maximize their recovery powers by being consumed at the optimal time: within thirty minutes after the completion of exercise. This half-hour window is key as many studies show that during this time, muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen (stored glucose). Eating soon after your run will also help to minimize potential muscle stiffness and soreness.
If you’re like myself, or many other runners, a long or intense run may actually decrease your appetite in the hour(s) to follow or even promote stomach discomfort. Despite these problems it is still important to consume a small amount (approximately a fistful) of calories to boost metabolism, and to continue to eat small portions throughout the day. One meal following a hard workout is not enough to fuel recovery for the rest of the day.
On the opposite hand, it’s also important not to overestimate the number of calories burned during your run. While it’s important to eat recovery-boosting foods, it’s equally important to find the right balance between optimizing fuel-intake and avoiding eating too many calories. A helpful action is ensuring that you hydrate following a run before you eat. Often times the body can mistake thirst for hunger. By refueling with water or a low-calorie sports drink, this will help you too feel more full and to consequently eat less.
A final tip: the best combination for quality recovery fuel is that of carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source, and are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. Since the body can only store a limited amount, it’s important to replenish those depleted during exercise. Protein is crucial for growth and repair of the broken-down muscle tissue. The magic ratio as you’ll read ahead, is a 3:1 ration of carbohydrates to protein. And now, without further ado:
12.) Eggs: One egg contains about ten percent of your daily protein needs! Egg protein is the most complete food protein short of human breast milk, as it contains all of the important amino acids needed to promote recovery. Eggs also contain vitamin K (for bone health), choline (brain health), and omega-3 fatty acids (healthy fats to regulate metabolism and help regulate joint and tendon health). By choosing free-range, organic eggs one can avoid added hormones and ensure a healthier original source. Serving Tip: Scramble with whole grain toast to improve the carbohydrate to protein ratio and add fiber.
11.) Sweet Potatoes: According to Runner‘s World and numerous other studies, just a 100 calorie serving of sweet potatoes contains more than 250% of the daily value of vitamin A (in beta-carotene), a powerful antioxidant. Amongst many other vitamins and nutrients including vitamin C and iron, sweet potatoes contain manganese and copper. Both these two trace minerals can have an impact on performance as they are important for healthy muscle function. Sweet potatoes’ high fiber content will also help to keep hunger at bay two to three times longer than other starches. Serving Tip: Consume with grilled chicken to add a low-fat, high-protein component.
10.) Avocados: This creamy, green fruit is high in unsaturated fats (the good kind of fat), which promote heart-health and are satiating. These healthy fats can help to regulate metabolism and can be used as a much-healthier substitute instead of mayo. (Tip: Make your own homemade guacamole for a great option to consume with pita chips or crackers as a snack following your workout.)
9.) Low-Fat Greek Yogurt: Yogurt provides protein, calcium, and live cultures that can help to regulate the digestive tract. When shopping for yogurt make sure to look for the live-culture symbol. Choosing Greek yogurt can provide two to three times the amount of protein compared to regular yogurt. Also, look for a ‘light option’ that has less sugar while still using natural sweeteners (look for sucralose or Stevia instead of aspartame or phenylalanine). Serving Tip: Consume with a low-fat granola, fresh fruit, or wheat germ to add additional nutrients and fiber.
8.) Beans: Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you… well you know. What many don’t know however are the nutritional benefits, especially with regards to recover and maintenance that these fibrous legumes provide. Beans are one of the few foods that are rich in both protein and carbohydrates, making them a great post-run option. They also contain resistant starch (a type of carb that passes undigested through your intestine), which numerous studies such as those at the University of Colorado have linked with higher post-meal metabolic rates. This is because the body is forced to use extra energy to break them down. Serving Tip: Throw beans in a broth-based soup to recover from hard runs in cold weather for a warm, low-calorie yet very filling, protein-packed option.
7.) Whole Grains: Yes this sounds sort of like a catch-all, but whole gains (avoid those that are ‘enriched’ by checking to make sure the first ingredients are simply listed as ‘whole grain/wheat/etc.’) are carbohydrate-dense and often contain protein as well as other important nutrients such as niacin and riboflavin. This will help to replenish muscle glycogen stores after big workouts. Great sources include bread, pasta, and cereals (but ensure they’re whole-wheat!). Easy does it though, as some of these foods are so dense with carbohydrates that even a fistful can contain as much as forty grams of carbohydrates. Serving Tip: Toast whole grain bread and spread with an all-natural almond/peanut-butter as an extremely effective pre/post-run snack.
6.) Almonds: Perhaps you’ve already heard of the superior health benefits of ‘a handful of almonds once a day’. Well proponents of these nutrient-packed nuts are not wrong. Liz Applegate, a Ph.D and writer for Runner‘s World recommends runners should eat a small handful of almonds at least three to five times per week, specifically on days with harder runs. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E (more specifically gamma-tocopherol, a form not found in supplements), a common vitamin in which manner runners lack. Consumption of almonds also helps to lower circulating cholesterol. Additionally, they contain fiber and protein and are lower in saturated fat (the bad kind) than most other nuts such as peanuts.
5.) Quinoa: This super-grain is a staple in the diet of most East-African, elite runners. Is that sufficient reasoning alone? In the case that you need more convincing, I’ll continue. Firstly, quinoa is one of the most protein-rich foods one can consume. It’s complete protein contains all nine essential amino acids, making it an excellent option for muscle recovery. Secondly, Quinoa contains iron, which is an absolutely imperative nutrient, especially for those running high miles, as the body needs more. Iron is the basis of hemoglobin, which assists in carrying oxygen from one cell to another, and supplies oxygen to our muscles to aid in their contraction. Thirdly, quinoa contains almost twice the amount of fiber as other grains. Lastly, quinoa is packed with nutrients that are important for runners and that aid in recovery including lysine (essential for tissue growth and repair), magnesium, riboflavin, manganese, and copper. Serving Tip: Like other grains, quinoa is a versatile base and can be used in many dishes. Search quinoa recipes on the internet for a wealth of healthy options.
4.) Vegetables: You had to figure this one would make the top of the list, right? The laundry list of benefits for vegetables is long, and even though they may not contain high amounts of protein, they contain important nutrients and antioxidants that aid in recovery. Try dense greens such as broccoli, kale, and spinach to maximize health and recovery benefits. Broccoli’s ‘nutritional powerhouse’ of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and phytochemicals are key for peak performance. Kale also contains high levels of vitamins A, B, C, and K, as well as iron and calcium. According to runningcompetitor.com, kale also has strong anti-inflammatory properties and is one of the most antioxidant-rich vegetables. Serving Tip: Having a hard time fitting these greens into your diet? Throw them in a broth-based soup or stack them in a whole-grain sandwich!
3.) Wild Salmon: Salmon is quite possibly the king of all fish or meats. Not only is it packed with omega-3 fats, which are often very deficient in runners’ diets, it also contains high-quality protein (about thirty grams in one serving). These omega-3 fatty acids are essential, as they help balance the body’s response to inflammation, boost heart health by promoting elasticity of blood vessels, and improve the functioning of the nervous system. For maximum health benefits, aim for farm-raised or wild-caught salmon. In case you’re not a fish-fan, grilled chicken provides a high-protein, low-fat option. Serving-Tip: Grill and consume with potatoes or whole-grain bread for a post-run dinner high on carbohydrates and protein.
2.) Fruits: I know listing ‘fruits’ seems like I may be cheating here, but there are too many that are worthy of making the list. Their natural sugars, high fiber, and wealth of vitamins make them a tasty and effective option. Key fruits to look for when choosing an optimal post-run snack include ‘berries’, bananas, and oranges. Dark purple, blue, or red berries such as blueberries, blackberries, cherries, contain high amounts of antioxidants such as anthocyanins which help to clean the body of toxins and may also assist with post-run recovery and muscle repair. Bananas serve as a carb-packed energy-booster. Since the yellow fruit has such a high-glycemic index, their uptake will be rapid and will help to replenish energy quickly. They also contain high amounts of potassium which helps muscles to contract, aids in fluid balance, and assists in maintaining blood pressure.
1.) Chocolate Milk: Coming in at the top spot on the list is good ol’ skim (or 1% if that’s all you can find) chocolate milk. While it may not contain the antioxidants and vitamins of vegetables or fruits, chocolate milk contains the optimal 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein and is packed with protein and calcium, both crucial elements for muscle growth and bone health. A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that chocolate milk aidedrecovery just as well as several other prominent protein shakes and recovery drinks. Consume one cup of chocolate milk within the half-hour optimal time window to maximize its recovery benefits. If possible, search for brands such as TruMoo, which use plain sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.
I know I’ve left of some excellent, worthy alternatives off the list, so please feel free to share with us your favorite recovery foods or recipes that you find most effective after your hard runs by posting a comment below or on our Facebook page!