March/April 2016
Refueling your athletes From Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD, CSSD, Portland, Oregon

What athletes do nutrition-wise following hard workouts is just as important as the physical efforts they undertake. It can, in fact, determine the quality of the next day’s training session, as well as positively or negatively impact their abilities to avoid injures and burnout as the season progresses. A lot of poor training days are the result of poor eating days. Done right, a few minutes a day spent on post-workout nutrition can pay off in terms of faster recovery times, fewer injuries and more motivated athletes.

The science of recovery

During the 30 to 60 minutes after exercise, also known as the “carbohydrate window, an athlete’s body is extra primed to restock muscle glycogen stores and start repairing muscle tissue. After exercising, particularly after a hard workout like intervals or a long session of 90 or more continuous minutes, blood flow to the muscles is increased. The body also is more sensitive to insulin at this time. Insulin, a powerful hormone made by the pancreas, shuttles glucose into muscles, where it’s converted into and stored as glycogen until it’s needed for fuel. Along with glucose, insulin also cues muscle cells to pick up protein (amino acids).

If athletes wait much longer to refuel the body doesn’t absorb glucose and other key nutrients nearly as readily. Athletes end up feeling tired and less motivated. They may not feel it right away, but the cumulative effect of weeks and months of hard training without proper refueling wears down even the strongest or most gifted athletes. Longer recovery times, more training time lost to nagging injuries and illnesses, such as colds and other upper respiratory infections, and poor morale can sink an otherwise successful team.

Refueling basics

In terms of refueling, athletes should aim to consume at least a half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, preferably within the first 30 minutes after exercise. If feasible, consuming some protein at the same time makes good sense. It’s not necessary, however, to heavily focus on a specific recovery ratio or formula. The key is to consume three to four grams of carbohydrate for every one gram of protein. For a 150-pound athlete, for example, this means refueling with a snack delivering about 75 grams of carbohydrates and 18 to 25 grams of protein.

Appropriate protein sources can be challenging to keep near at hand. A simple and effective solution is to support athletes by encouraging them to eat a balanced meal that includes lean quality protein-rich foods as soon as possible, ideally within an hour. They include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, cooked beans and soy foods like tofu and tempeh.

Tough workouts leave some athletes feeling queasy or without an appetite. In this case, refueling with an appropriate sports drink or energy bar is a smart choice. Another excellent option is chocolate milk. A liquid food, chocolate milk naturally supplies the desired recovery ratio of 4 grams of carbs to1 gram of protein. It’s also inexpensive, readily available (including fast food eateries), helps with rehydration and most athletes enjoy its familiar taste.


It almost goes without saying that rehydration is a key component of the recovery process. Water supports a multitude of the body’s critical functions. For instance, through the blood it brings nutrients and oxygen to the cells and it flushes waste products out of the muscles. When dehydrated, the body has to work that much harder to perform these functions. As a result, athletes feel more fatigued and their recovery is delayed.

The optimal amount to drink after exercise varies widely among athletes involved in the same sport as well as between sports. It depends on an athlete’s fitness level, his or her individual sweat rate and environmental conditions — temperature, humidity level, wind — as well as sport-specific factors, like the type and amount of clothing and gear worn.

A sound working estimate can be determined by having athletes undertake a simple sweat test. Instruct athletes to weigh themselves (preferably without clothes or shoes) right before and immediately after exercise. For each pound of body weight lost during a workout, the athlete needs to drink at least 20 ounces of fluid to fully rehydrate. Older guidelines called for drinking 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during exercise. Some of the fluid consumed, however, will always be eliminated, thus the higher recommended amount combats obligatory urine losses.

When adequately hydrated, urine will be pale yellow, like the color of lemonade. Darker-colored urine, or if the athlete hasn’t gone for a few hours after exercising, is an indication of the need to drink more. Frequent bathroom breaks and urine that appears clear like water, on the other hand, indicates an athlete is over-hydrated.

The bottom line

Recovery nutrition involves adequately replacing what the body has lost or used up during exercise. All athletes will benefit from fully rehydrating with appropriate beverages. Prompt refueling is most important following intense efforts or prolonged training sessions, as these efforts tax muscles and drain the body’s muscle glycogen stores.

Prompt refueling isn’t going to be as critical following easier efforts (for example, performed at less than 60 percent of max heart rate). Tying workouts into mealtimes, however, is a worthy habit for athletes to practice daily. It’s especially important for those who must make their calories count in order to maintain their leanest, healthiest physique.

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