Most athletes know that protein is extremely important for recovery. But carbohydrates are just as important.
The athlete's body has one primary goal in mind after each workout and that is to replace glycogen storage. Eating carbohydrate as part of the recovery meal increases plasma glucose and insulin concentration, and makes it possible for the body to resynthesize glycogen at a higher rate. This is in addition to what protein is doing for the muscles.
However, this will hit home for many of you: Eat carbohydrates for recovery so you don't crave them all day. Our bodies are pretty amazing. If you don't eat enough of something, your body will demand it. But, instead of eating whole-grain toast, oatmeal or a fruit smoothie, you'll end up at your co-workers candy jar at 3 p.m. Your body doesn't care how it gets the carbohydrates as long as it gets them.
However, from an overall health and performance standpoint, eating more complex carbohydrates as part of the recovery meal will serve three purposes: 1) replacing glycogen storage, 2) providing essential nutrients to the athlete's body, and 3) making the athlete faster/stronger over time.
Next time you grab that quick protein shake for recovery, think about how you can add an adequate amount of carbohydrates within the recovery window.
More: 5 Gluten-Free, High-Carb Meals for Runners
Carbohydrate Recommendations For Recovery
The U.S. Olympic Committee Sports Dietitians and The Australian Institute of Sport both agree that daily carbohydrate needs increase when training volume increases. This is the essence behind nutrition periodization. As a matter of fact, it's recommended that athletes consume between 1 and 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight (0.45 to 0.68 grams per pound) for recovery. The actual number depends on length and intensity of the workout.
For a 130-pound female athlete, that equals 59 to 89 grams of carbohydrate. Translation: If she ran 30 to 45 minutes, she would need to eat 59 grams of carbohydrate afterward. If she rode 3 hours, she should eat 89 grams of carbohydrate as part of the recovery meal.
More: Top Marathon Recovery Foods
Best Recovery OptionThe true recovery window is about 30 minutes. In a perfect world, the athlete would recover each training session with a full meal. This meal would provide adequate protein and carbohydrate for recovery, and it would contain some additional calories from fat to qualify for a meal.
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