Recovery Nutrition: Recover & Run OR Replenish, Rehydrate, Rebuild

What we eat after an intense run is as important as what we eat before.


We all know the importance of fueling up after a marathon or an intense run but often times you may find yourself giving more importance to your pre-run meals.

Proactive recovery nutrition is even more important if you complete two or more training sessions in one day or two sessions in close succession (e.g. evening session followed by early morning session the next day). To understand what makes an ideal recovery meal or snack, you have to first understand what is happening in the body after exercise and how what you eat can influence how you recover.

What happen to our bodies with inadequate/inappropriate recovery nutrition?

  • Increased fatigue
  • Reduced performance at the next training session or event
  • Suboptimal gains from the session just completed
  • Increased muscle soreness
  • Depressed immune system

The 3 goals of recovery nutrition is to follow the ‘3 Rs of recovery’ after every workout: Refuel, Rehydrate, (Re)build

  1. Replenish the liver and muscle glycogen stores that were used or depleted during activity.
  2. Rehydrate with fluids and replace the electrolytes that were lost in sweat.
  3. Support the growth and repair of muscle tissues that were stimulated during exercise.

What we also need to know is that recovery nutrition is influenced by the type and duration of physical activity, body composition and your individual aims.

Goal 1. Refuel

Post-run carbohydrate intake helps to replenish glycogen – the main fuel that was used during activity. Protein helps to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and spare protein breakdown. But here’s the catch – your muscles will not use protein to build and repair if they don’t first have sufficient energy (fuel) and that fuel comes from carbohydrates. After a run, there are several strategies to maximize muscle and liver glycogen replenishment, especially when consecutive trainings are performed on the same day.

The amount of carbohydrates is determined by the need to replenish muscle glycogen stores, which is related to the need for muscle growth and repair, the time to next run, and the amount of carbohydrates consumed before and after. Because exercise sensitizes muscle tissue to certain hormones and nutrients, the body is most effective at replacing carbohydrate and promoting muscle repair and growth within 60-90 minutes post-exercise, and this metabolic window of opportunity, although diminishes as time passes, will continue to occur for another 24 hours. Moreover, post-run carbohydrate intake must be individualized based on type and duration of physical activity, body composition, training requirements, health/fitness goals, and the respective feedback from training performance in daily recovery.

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, daily carbohydrate needs are as follows:

  • Moderate duration/low-intensity training (e.g., 2–3 h per day of intense exercise performed 5–6 times per week): 5–8 g·kg/body mass/day
  • Moderate to heavy endurance training (e.g., 3–6 h per day of intense training in 1–2 daily workouts for 5–6 days per week): 8–10 g·kg/body mass/day
  • Extreme exercise programs/competition (+6 h per day or high competition frequency during the week): 10–12 + g/kg−1 body mass/day

Below examples each give 30 g carbohydrate:

  • Bowl of oats (45 g)
  • 2 slices of bread
  • ½ serving of pasta or rice (~40 g uncooked)
  • 1 large banana
  • 1 large potato (~150 g)
  • Fruit smoothie (250 ml)
Goal 2. Rehydrate

Another goal during recovery is to replace any fluid and electrolyte loss. Most physically active individuals can sweat from 0.5 – 2.5 L/hour, depending on exercise intensity, duration, and environmental conditions like altitude, heat, and humidity. Moreover, individual characteristics such as body mass, genetic predisposition, heat acclimatization state, and physical fitness, might influence sweat rates. Rehydrating should begin soon after finishing your run, but as a general recommendation, for quick rehydration, it is recommended the consumption of 150% of the weight lost after exercise over a short recovery period, preferably within 4 hours, with some sodium included in the fluid or meal.

If recovery time and opportunities permits, the consumption of sodium-rich foods, such as crackers, nuts, bread, milk, cheese, and soups, may be sufficient to regain the state of euhydration. However, if the recovery time is less than 12 hours, more aggressive rehydration strategies and the use of moisturizing beverages like glycerol might be required before the next training or event. The ideal fluid post-exercise depends on your goals. If you are using fluid mainly to rehydrate, then water or electrolyte drinks are good options. If you are also drinking to meet your carbohydrate goals, then opt for sports drinks as they contain carbohydrates, fluid, and electrolytes to help hydrate and fuel your body at the same time. Dairy-based fluids such as smoothies and flavoured milk are especially handy if you want to protein, carbohydrate, fluid and electrolyte in one go.

Goal 3. (Re)build & Repair

Research has suggested that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) can be stimulated by either a physical allostatic challenge like resistance exercise stimulus or by dietary protein intake, with synergistic effects when protein is consumed before and immediately after exercise, resistance exercise training in particular. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand on nutrient timing, post-exercise ingestion (immediately to up to 2 hours) of high-quality protein food represents a robust stimulus that impacts positively on MPS. Runners might develop and maintain a negative nitrogen balance, which is an indicator of protein catabolism and negatively affect recovery, as a result of insufficient amount of post-run protein ingestion. Over time, this can lead to muscle wasting, injury, disease and intolerance to training. In spite of the anabolic effect of exercise is long-lasting (up to 24 hours), athletes can take advantage of the higher muscle sensitivity to nutrient uptake after exercise due to the likely diminishment over time.

According to The International Society of Sports Nutrition position recommendation on proteins for recovery:

  • Post-exercise recommendations are 0.5 g of a high-quality protein/ kilogram of body mass, or an absolute dose of 40 g.
  • Protein per meal should be between 0.25 and 0.40 g of protein/kg of body mass, or absolute values of 20 g.

Below examples each offers 10 g of protein.

  • 2 small eggs
  • 50 g fish or chicken  
  • 120 g tofu
  • 200 g yoghurt
  • 40 g cheese
  • 60 g nuts or seeds
  • 150 g kidney beans

Beside post-run nutrition, there are many other factors that runners need to consider when trying to recover optimally - sleep, relaxation, adequate recovery between sessions, and the list goes on. That being said, nutrition is undoubtedly one of the most crucial pieces to the recovery puzzle.


Michelle is the founder of Nutrilicious, a Hong Kong based nutrition consultancy company. An avid runner and foodie chef, she appreciates balance in life. Follow her on Instagram/Facebook at @nutriliciousss.


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