Cyclists everywhere should now focus on recovery nutrition. Whether you live in warmer climates and are at the start of your race season, or are still training in colder weather but heading outdoors for longer rides, optimal recovery nutrition is essential. Between each ride or workout, your body needs to adapt to the physiological stress placed upon it so that you become fitter, stronger, and faster.
Nutritional recovery performs several important functions including:
- (1) restoring your muscles and liver with fuel expended during training,
- (2) replacing fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat,
- (3) supporting your immune system in handling the stress imposed by training, and
- (4) providing nutrients needed for manufacturing components such as muscle protein.
How much you need to focus on these various recovery goals depends on the nature of your workout, which can affect the level of fuel depletion, the entire sweat loss deficit, level of electrolyte depletion, and potential for muscle damage. For quicker recovery turnaround time, such as less than 12 hours before the next workout, speedy nutrition replacement is essential. For example, during a long or high intensity ride, you could deplete about 50 g of liver glycogen, 150 to 250 g of muscle glycogen, 5 g of sodium chloride, 50 g of adipose fat and 50 to 100 g of muscle fat. While adipose fat is plentiful even in the leanest cyclist, muscle and liver glycogen, fluid and electrolyte stores should be back up to full levels when you train again. During certain phases of your training cycle, it is also important to pay attention to replenishing muscle fat.
Recovery really takes place from one training session to the next. At times this might be eight hours, 12 to 14 hours, or a full day of 24 hours. What is important is to get off on the right food recovery wise, and that first means paying close attention to nutrient intake in the hours post-training.
After a tough ride many of us are hungry and more than ready to consume plenty of food and fluid. Fortunately, much has been made of the rapid muscle glycogen synthesis recovery period within 30 to 60 minutes post-training, which is followed by a slower rate recovery phase for the rest of the day. High rates of muscle glycogen synthesis are dependent on a steady supply of carbohydrate during both phases of recovery. Just how much carbohydrate you need at specific intervals depends on the extent of the fuel depletion, and how soon you plan to train again. Aggressive recovery strategies after a moderate ride followed by another training ride in 24 hours are not as essential as a high intensity or very long ride, followed by another workout in 12 hours.
The amount of carbohydrate that you consume immediately after training is the most important step towards replenishing muscle glycogen.
Within 30 to 60 minutes post-training:
- Aim for 1 to 1.2 g carbohydrate per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight immediately after easy to moderate training (Example: a 160-pound (72.6kg) athlete would aim for 73 to 87 grams of carbohydrate).
- Aim for up to 1.5 g of carbos per kilogram of body weight after high intensity training or longer training sessions. (109 grams for the 160-pound athlete)
- Focus on carbohydrate foods with a high glycemic index, such as bread, bagels, processed cereals, and white rice to enhance glycogen synthesis.
- Use sports recovery supplements for convenience as needed. Real foods and fluids both facilitate muscle glycogen restoration.
Hydration and sodium
Despite your efforts to drink on the bike, you likely will finish a ride with some type of fluid deficit, particularly after strenuous rides or in hot conditions. When fluid losses are large, you should have a focused plan to rehydrate after training. Checking your body weight pre and post-ride can provide some rough idea of the fluid deficit that you incurred when training. Every kilogram of weight lost is roughly equal to 500 ml sweat loss, but because of ongoing sweat losses and urine losses, you should consume 720 ml of fluid for every kilogram decrease in body weight.
It is important to have a recovery and daily hydration plan. While thirst and urine losses regulate fluid intake well under normal conditions, under conditions of hard exercise, heat, and altitude, thirst may be an inadequate stimulus. Restoring fluids can take anywhere from 4 to 24 hours, and really depends on how much of the fluid you do consume is retained, and distributed within body fluid compartments.
Sodium intake combined with fluid intake is essential. Sodium helps drive fluid into body compartments, rather than have high volume drinking simply produce more urine, and actually helps to reduce urine losses. Sodium in foods and fluids also stimulate thirst. Cool fluids and flavored fluids also seem to encourage drinking. Aim for several hundred milligrams of sodium from the foods and fluids you consume after training. Check recovery drink supplement labels for sodium content.
Within 30 to 60 minutes post-training:
- Consume 750 ml of fluid for every pound of weight loss during training. For high fluid deficits you may need to consume the equivalent amount of fluid losses over several hours.
- Consume foods and fluids that contain some sodium. Aim for over 500 milligrams of sodium in this recovery period.
Muscle repair and rebuilding
Early research led many athletes to believe that glycogen synthesis was enhanced by the addition of protein to the carbohydrate recovery meal. Later studies refuted this claim and demonstrated that adequate amounts of carbohydrate as described above was essential. Adding small amount of protein should not interfere with glycogen replenishment, but large amounts could crowd out the needed carbohydrate.
However, after high intensity rides, a substantial amount of muscle protein breakdown may occur. Essential amino acids consumed from high quality protein foods promote muscle building. Having modest amounts of protein, at 20 to 25 g or so, with the carbohydrate foods, further enhances this effect due to insulin secretion, a muscle building hormone.
Intense training does suppress the immune system, with many immune parameters being disturbed or decreased in the hours after working out. One of the best immune protectors is actually carbohydrate, consumed both during and after training. Having carbohydrate around training seems to reduce the stress hormone response to hard exercise, while also supplying glucose to fuel the activity of many immune system white cells. Other nutrients have been proposed to aid the immune system after exercise, such as the antioxidants vitamins C and E, and the amino acid glutamine, though not all studies support this. Many recovery supplements contain these nutrients.
The big picture
Of course recovery really lasts until the next training session. Having appropriate amounts of carbohydrate, fluid, sodium, and protein immediately after training just gets the process started. Your total carbohydrate and protein intakes at subsequent meals and snacks should match your training for that day. Longer and harder rides increase carbohydrate and protein requirements. For example, total carbohydrate requirements can range anywhere from 5 to 10 g per kilogram of body weight daily. Elevated protein requirements can level off at 1.8 g per kilogram of weight.
Longer rides lasting over four hours can also deplete muscle fat stores, which are an important fuel source over long distances. Consuming adequate amounts of healthy fats that day, about 1 g/kg should replenish stores within 24 hours.
Continue to focus on daily hydration until the next training sessions. Moderate amounts of sodium intake should facilitate rehydration and may be prudent in hot weather training (unless medically contraindicated).
Depending on your level of fuel depletion and the timing of your next ride, it might be helpful to focus on munching at regular intervals. Very high rates of glycogen synthesis do occur in the four to six post training when large amounts of carbohydrate are consumed every 30 minutes. When you have longer recovery times available to you, such frequent feeding it not necessary. High quality proteins can be included at subsequent meals and snacks to meet training protein requirements, as can healthy fats.