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Nutrient Timing for Exercise Recovery

Stephanie Mull is a Registered Dietitian and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics with a Masters Degree in Exercise, Fitness and Health Promotion in guiding people on developing healthy lifestyle habits. She has over 17 years of experience in a variety of settings including acute care, outpatient, fitness, management, and academic. She specializes in nutrition for sports, exercise, and weight management, including weight loss and eating disorders. She is committed to improve health through education about nutrition and exercise.  She is currently a Dietitian for the GWU Weight Management and Human Performance Lab.  You can follow Stephanie on social media at


Athletes who believe in the concept of food is fuel have a distinct advantage.  It increases awareness of nutrient timing and macronutrient balance.  With the ideal balance of nutrients at optimal times, your performance and recovery can improve significantly.  However, if you throw all good eating habits out the window and reward yourself with a post-workout snack that defies sound nutrition principles, then you probably just negated many of the good benefits your workout provided you.  In addition, subsequent workouts can suffer.  Proper nutrition recovers energy stores and repairs muscular damage incurred during training which supports the growth of new tissue. When you exercise, your body pulls glycogen from the working muscles.  Glycogen is your body's storage form of glucose or sugar, which is the primary fuel source during exercise depending on the type and the intensity level.  If you work out at a higher intensity or are involved in anaerobic exercise (short, powerful bursts of energy such as strength training or interval training), then your body primarily uses glycogen for energy.  If you are involved in low or moderate intensity exercise, your body will use fat along with glycogen for energy.  Once you finish exercising, you must replete the used glycogen.  If you don't, you won't have enough energy to do your next workout or the one after that.  Or maybe you will but your performance will be less than ideal and you will fatigue faster.  So the bottom line is that you must have adequate fuel to perform which involves repletion of your glycogen stores!   According to the most recent position stand on nutrient timing from the International Society for Sports Nutrition (2017), recovering depleted carbohydrate stores is a key nutritional goal that can directly impact performance.  This is especially true if exhaustive exercise was performed (>70% VO2 max for >60 min), and rapid restoration of glycogen stores is necessary for subsequent training (<8h).  To jumpstart glycogen repletion, have a meal or snack within 30 minutes of finishing your training.  Research suggests a carbohydrate range of 0.6 to 1.2 g/kg body weight with high-quality protein of 0.25-0.3 g/kg body weight.  Follow the lower end of the ranges if rapid repletion is not needed and exhaustive exercise was not performed.  These ranges translate into approximately 15 to 25 grams protein with 35 to 60 grams carbohydrate.   In the immediate post-workout period, you want quick digestion for fast nutrient delivery to your muscles.  Consuming high-quality protein, such as dairy, eggs or whey, along with moderate to high glycemic index carbohydrates will ensure quick digestion.   Whole foods or supplements can be used depending on your preference.  Research has not shown one to be superior for maximizing recovery.  There is evidence that tart cherry, beet, or pomegranate juice can enhance recovery and minimize soreness post-training due to the high concentration of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.  Should you want to experiment with this functional food, include ~12 oz. post-workout as your carbohydrate source.

When longer recovery between training sessions is available (>24h), you can consume a post-workout snack suitable to your liking and appetite provided total daily carbohydrate ingestion is not restricted.  If you are eating in a calorie deficit to support fat loss, then time a planned meal or snack around your workout to support recovery without worrying about ingesting additional calories.

You need to be cognizant of your total daily energy intake and carbohydrate consumption. In the presence of adequate energy and carbohydrate intake, glycogen stores are less likely to drop to suboptimal levels.  However if energy is restricted to support fat loss or if you are manipulating carbohydrate intake, then glycogen stores could decrease putting your performance at risk.

The critical points to get the most out of your recovery nutrition and maximize your performance are: 1. Optimize the quantity of carbohydrate with protein in the immediate post-workout period based on your training intensity and workout duration. 2. Evenly distribute carbohydrate between meals and snacks. 3. Consume adequate energy and carbohydrate to keep glycogen stores stocked.

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