We review the basics of recovery nutrition and how to use products for recovery, featuring insights from world-class running coach Greg McMillan.
The Glycogen Window
Proteins and fats support muscle recovery. We have limited carbohydrate stores and if you train for a long time or at a high intensity, you burn through those carbohydrates stores to some extent and need to replenish them.
Within the first 30 minutes after your workout, called the glycogen window, the enzyme that helps restock your stores is ramped up above normal levels. If you take in carbohydrates within that glycogen window, your body is going to restock carbohydrates faster because it can take the enzyme up to 2 hours to go back to normal.
After long or intense workouts, getting carbohydrates with protein into your system will restock the glycogen stores so you can focus on your next meal, usually within two hours after the activity and containing high-quality carbohydrates, fats and proteins. The higher the quality of meals, the better the recovery.
If you don’t eat the right kind of fuel, your body’s still going to want more and that’s when you start overeating. Get something in right after you finish that hard workout and then focus on the meal. Don’t skimp on the meal because when you’re not eating a meal until three or four hours later, you’re still going to feel under recovered the next day.
Recovery Nutrition Tips for Weight Loss
The challenge that runners trying to lose weight have with recovery nutrition is that it’s too often not based specifically on what activity they’ve just done. The actual number of calories burned versus what they estimated are often significantly different. People will eat based on what they just ran and they’ll overeat because they feel like they burned more than they did. This is especially common with new runners. This can be counterproductive if you have weight loss or body composition goals.
Insulin is the most important hormone to manage when trying to maintain or achieve a different body composition. You want to avoid carbohydrates that cause a big spike in blood glucose, which encourages a big spike in insulin. There are two types of carbohydrates that impact insulin – fast-acting and slow-acting.
The fast-acting kind (sugar, white bread, energy gel) cause a spike in your blood glucose level, which stimulates the body to release a lot of insulin to get the blood glucose level back down to a normal level. A slower acting carbohydrate keeps your blood glucose levels much more stable. When you have a big spike in insulin, it inevitably results in more fat being stored.
For your post run recovery nutrition, you’ll want to focus on carbohydrates that don’t give you a huge spike in blood glucose (and insulin). Having something like a shake immediately after a workout replenishes carbohydrate stores while keeping blood glucose stable, so you don’t have the spike and crash that we’re all trying to avoid.