Recovery – be it from training or from a match, is paramount when it comes to practical sports nutrition and elite athletes. Professional athletes will often train twice per day, and many will have some type of competition to prepare for on a weekly basis. Being unable to recover completely from either a match or from training will leave the immune system compromised, and match-day performance impaired.
High Quality Raw & Organic Foods
In order to optimise recovery, it is important that the basics are in place as a foundation. Basics meaning a good, healthy, varied diet, full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and limited in sugar and other foods which can cause inflammation in the body. Sports nutrition is too often only thought of as nutritional strategies around and during training and competition. Whereas, in reality, it should be part of a generally healthy lifestyle. Supplements such as whey protein are great, but make sure the basics are in place first.
Anti-inflammatory foods are believed to be great for general health and wellbeing, as well as for sports performance and recovery. With this in mind, include turmeric, ginger, garlic and cacao in the diet whenever possible. Pineapple is a great anti-inflammatory thanks to its bromelain content.
Conversely, an athlete should potentially avoid nightshade fruits if inflammation is an issue. Sugar in large amounts is also thought to promote inflammation and have a negative impact on gut bacteria. High GI carbohydrates such as white, refined sources should ideally only be consumed after training, and in small amounts immediately before and during training and competition.
Oily fish is well known for its health benefits, and specifically its anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its omega 3 content. Omega 3 consists primarily of 2 substances known as EPA and DHA. It is specifically EPA that is thought to have the superior effect on inflammation. Whilst omega 3 reduces inflammation, omega 6 is now thought to increase it in moderate to large amounts. It is therefore important to manipulate and potentially reduce the amount of omega 6 in an athlete’s diet.
Fried foods should be fried in fats that are solid at room temperature, such as coconut oil. Some other oils are thought to turn rancid when used in frying, which can in turn be unhealthy for the body.
Foods in there Raw/Original State
As often as possible, consume foods that have not been processed. Salt is a great example of this principle. Table salt is bleached and refined, and contains sodium & chloride. Himalayan salt however, contains at least half a dozen electrolytes in significant quantities, including magnesium, which is fantastic for recovery and muscle soreness.
On a daily basis, athletes should consume at least 2 litres of water, with a pinch of Himalayan salt and/or coconut water. Drinking coconut water and drinks with different salts has been known to cause stomach cramps in some sensitive individuals if it’s something that they are not used to. Therefore, drink a small amount first to gauge your tolerance.
Nutrition Before, During and After
Recovery starts before training or a competition. Only by preparing properly, can recovery be optimised.
Water and carbohydrate intake are the primary concerns in terms of nutrition on a match-day, or during training. NEVER try something for the first time on the day of a competition. We are all different and some people will not react well to standard nutritional strategies. For example, some people experience a ‘rebound’ effect if they consume lots of sugary/high GI carbs at half-time of a football match, which actually impairs performance.
Drink around 500ml of water around 90 minutes before exercise, and top this up with small amounts sipped up until training or a match begins. Ideally the water should contain a small amount of sodium and should be around 5% glucose or maltodextrin.
Where possible consume 150 to 200ml of water/sports drink every 15 minutes. Drinking little and often is the best way to ensure that as much water as possible is actually absorbed by the small intestine. The addition of salt and glucose also increases absorption by something known as ‘active transport’ – basically as the sodium and/or glucose move across into the ‘body-proper’, they pull water molecules across with them. Consuming glucose during prolonged bouts of exercise has also been shown to enhance cognitive functioning and to minimise a decrease in immune-system function that would otherwise occur.
After a game, you should drink 150% of the fluid that the body has lost. So if you weigh yourself before a game and then after – and you have lost 1kg of body weight, you should consume 1.5L of water, over the course of several hours. Again, ideally this would be a sports drink with sodium and glucose. Too much water and no electrolytes can actually lead to conditions such as hyponatremia.
Again recovery starts with preparation. Studies have shown that carbohydrate-loading with 8g of carbohydrate per kg of body, per day, allowed football players to compete at a much higher intensity, and end the game with muscles that had not depleted of carbohydrate (muscle glycogen). 8g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight is a lot of carbohydrate and calories. For an 80kg athlete this would be 640g of carbohydrate, giving 2560 calories. This is not something to do all of a sudden, it is something to work up to and experiment with. Body fat should also be monitored when consuming such high amounts of carbohydrate.
In terms of recovery, insulin levels are increased for up to 2 hours after exercise. Ideally an athlete should consume a large amount of carbohydrate, preferably high GI carbohydrates, within 30 minutes of exercise cessation.
To give an example, post-rugby match, a 200lb player should look to consume at least 50-100g of carbohydrate within an hour of the final whistle. Ideally some of this carbohydrate should come from whole-foods such as a ripe-banana, but realistically some of this carbohydrate would come from sports supplements.
In order to enhance recovery, consider supplementing with a carbohydrate drink or powder and creatine. BCAAs and HMB are also important for athletes looking to recover from a match, and perform ‘well’ in the gym two days later. You can make your own ‘recovery shake’ or buy a specific recovery drink that contains all the necessary ingredients.
Creatine is best taken post-exercise when insulin levels are highest. Ingesting with high-GI carbohydrates is generally recommended. There’s much discussion over how much to consume, but taken post-exercise, around 5 to 10g is generally recommended. It is important to be hydrated when taking creatine, and do not take any if you have any pre-existing kidney conditions. Many people advocate consuming 2g-5g per day, regardless of whether you are training or competing or not. Again this is down to the individual and is something to trial yourself.
Whey Protein & BCAAs
After a resistance training session, an increase in protein synthesis should be capitalised upon by consuming whey protein and BCAAs. BCAAs, specifically leucine, have been shown to increase protein synthesis and thereby enhance recovery, and potentially enhance strength and progress in the gym. Protein and BCAAs are also ideal in a post-match drink, as protein-synthesis is an important element of recovery whenever high intensity exercise has been undertaken.
Since its drop in price over the last few years, HMB has made somewhat of a comeback. There is a significant amount of research supporting its muscle sparing and power enhancing effects. HMB should be consumed daily if maintaining muscle mass and strength is a concern. There is also research to show that HMB can ‘enhance recovery by attenuating exercise induced skeletal muscle damage in trained and untrained populations’.
Recovery can only be optimised if an athlete’s daily diet is varied and nutritious enough to provide a general sense of wellbeing, and a decreased amount of inflammation. Hydration and carbohydrate consumption are key to performance and recovery alike, and supplementation has been proven to enhance recovery via various mechanisms, such as replenishment of the substrate for the ATP-PC system in the case of creatine.