by Jill Merkel, MS, RD, CSSD
The three components for optimal athletic performance are training, nutrition, and sleep. Typically, people hone in on the training aspect, whether they hire a coach, take an instructor-led fitness class, or find a training plan online to follow. It is relatively easy to complete a workout and check that task off for the day. The nutrition piece is a bit more complex because it’s not just one good choice that equals success but rather it’s being consistent and making good decisions most of the time.
Refueling after a workout is an important component for athletes and avid exercisers. As a sports dietitian, I often tell my clients that the physical workout breaks the body down and the nutrition component builds the body back up. It’s really a combination of training AND nutrition that allows you to see the results you are aiming for.
Carbohydrates, protein, and fluids are the key pieces of recovery nutrition. Higher intensity and longer duration workouts require more carbs to replenish what was used. Protein needs are based on body size and stay relatively the same regardless of the workout although they will change slightly based on your goals. Fluid needs are individualized based on sweat rate, if you’re a salty sweater, and the training conditions such as temperature, humidity, indoor/outdoor, etc. A good starting place is a 2:1 carb to protein ratio. For example, if you need 20g of protein, a 2:1 carb to protein ratio would be 40g carbs + 20g protein. If the workout was high intensity or of long duration, that ratio may change to 3:1 or 4:1 meaning the amount of carbs could go up to 60g or even 80g while the protein would stay the same. Some recovery nutrition examples include chocolate milk, Greek yogurt with fruit and granola, smoothies made with frozen fruit and Greek yogurt (or protein powder), or scrambled eggs with toast and 100% fruit juice.
The fluids piece of recovery becomes even more important as the temperature outside continues to rise. Going into a workout adequately hydrated, drinking during the workout, and replenishing fluids after the workout are all important. There is no benefit to performing a workout while dehydrated. Consuming salty foods before a workout can also help your body retain the fluids drank. Goldfish crackers, pretzels, soups, and jerky are examples of good pre-workout foods. Additionally, drinking fluids that contain carbs and sodium such as a sports drink can also help your body retain the fluids. Consuming foods with high water content can also be a useful strategy. Many fruits and vegetables have a high water content such as watermelon, strawberries, grapefruit, cantaloupe, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumber. Increasing your intake of these foods during warmer months can help you to stay hydrated.
The general rule of thumb for hydration is to drink half of your body weight in ounces of fluids per day. For example, a 150-pound individual would need to drink a minimum of 75 ounces of non-caloric beverages throughout the day. This does NOT include what is needed during and after a workout. Also, be mindful of how humidity affects your body and hydration status. When humidity is high, your body has a harder time cooling itself down, which can lead to increased body temperature and potential dehydration and overheating. Make sure to take the humidity into account when you are preparing for a workout during the summer months.
An easy way to monitor your hydration status is to look at your urine. The color of your urine is a good indicator of your hydration status. Aim for a pale yellow color and you should be needing to use the restroom every couple of hours if you are adequately hydrated. Another option is to weigh yourself before and after a workout. For example, if you go on a two-hour training run, weighing yourself before and after can allow you to see if you consumed enough fluids during that workout. Keeping a training journal where you make note of how much you drank or ate, what the weather and humidity were, how you felt, etc. can help you identify patterns and areas for improvement.
If you are looking to improve your athletic performance and enhance your recovery, refueling post-workout is going to be a key aspect to your training. Post-workout is a crucial time when your body is primed for nutrition and consuming carbs and protein will allow your muscles to absorb those nutrients and use them for recovery.