Know Your Macros: A Recovery Guide for Endurance Athletes
By: Amy Tribolini, MS, RD, LD
You’ve done it! Maybe you finished your long run for the week or your highly anticipated race. You are feeling proud and accomplished but your body is feeling run down. No matter how good your fueling strategy during your run or race is, it is near impossible to end up anything short of depleted. It can be easy to overlook the proper nutrition your body needs to repair, recover, and rebuild.
While there are many factors to consider, let’s start with the basics: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. These substrates are the building blocks of food and athletes have specific needs when pushing their bodies to the next level.
Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. If you have been running more than 3-4 hours, your glycogen stores are likely running on empty. There is a short window of time after finishing your workout or race, when carbohydrate is more effectively absorbed. This window is about 30 minutes. This is why it is very common for runners to begin to imagine, dream, or even fantasize about what they are going to eat at the finish. This is the body’s natural way of cueing the mind to consume carbohydrate-rich foods while the body is still rushing with adrenaline and enhanced blood flow. During this window of time, your cells are more receptive to breaking down carbohydrate to glycogen and rebuilding the body’s stores. The faster your body’s glycogen stores get re-filled, the less muscle soreness you may experience.
It is also important to understand that all carbohydrates are not the same. A research article published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the effectiveness of glucose vs. fructose at re-fueling muscle energy stores. The results showed that glucose was significantly more effective and lead to increased exercise performance the next day. Some handy whole-food, post-run snacks high in glucose include: bananas, grapes, dates, and dried fruits. There are also many sports bars and supplements high in glucose that are easy to take during or after endurance activities.
Protein is another big factor in refueling. While protein is not a primary substrate that is burned for fuel, it is critical to repair the standard muscle breakdown and tears that can occur. If you are in the market for a post-run protein or amino acid supplement, look for ones high in the branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are especially beneficial because they are more rapidly absorbed. Unlike other amino acids, the branched-chain can bypass the liver and be directly transported into the muscles for repair.
Marketing and media have really pushed the idea that more protein is better, but science disproves this theory. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the athlete needs only slightly more than non-athletes. The daily recommendation for athletes is 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The lower end is better suited for endurance athletes while the higher end is more directed toward bodybuilders and power athletes.
Fat is definitely part of a healthy diet, but science has yet to demonstrate that fat consumption is essential for recovery right after a race. Its function may be more to provide satiety and let the brain know that the body no longer has to be in fight or flight mode. Fat is also essential to aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Remember to choose foods high in healthy fats like avocados, nuts, chia seeds or olive oil.
An Important Mineral for Recovery – Magnesium:
Repleting magnesium may aid in preventing stress fractures and demineralization of bones. Magnesium largely exists in muscles and bones where its primary function is muscle contraction and energy metabolism. Ensuring you consume enough magnesium-rich foods after events can aid in longevity
and quick recovery in your sport. Some great whole food sources of magnesium include dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure:
Going into a race or a hard workout well rested, well nourished and well hydrated can be worth more than anything you can do to fix your body up after.
While exercising in moderate doses boosts your immune system, long endurance events, such as ultra-marathons and multi-day events, tend to do the opposite.
Prolonged endurance events can kick out the release of cortisol (a stress hormone), which causes your immune system to kick into high gear. This may be one reason it is common to hear athletes complain of getting a cold after a hard race.
Research shows that consuming sports drinks or carbohydrate-rich supplements during a race can slow down the production of stress hormones leading to less stress on your immune system. This, coupled with consuming adequate macronutrients post-run (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) can really get you out running again quicker with higher performance.
Protein and the Athlete – How Much Do You Need? (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2017, from http://www.eatright.org/resource/fitness/sports-and-performance/fueling-your-workout/protein-and-the-athlete
Rosset, R., Lecoultre, V., Egli, L., Cros, J., Dokumaci, A. S., Zwygart, K., . . . Tappy, L. (2017). Postexercise repletion of muscle energy stores with fructose or glucose in mixed meals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 105(3), 609-617.
Matias, C., Santos, D., Montiero, C., & Vasco, A. (2012). Magnesium intake mediates the association between bone mineral density and lean soft tissue in elite swimmers. Magnesium Research, 25(3), 120-125.
Nieman, D. C. (2007). Marathon Training and Immune Function. Sports Medicine, 37(4), 412-415.
About the Author:
Amy Tribolini currently works as both a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Professor. She lives, trains, and competes as an ultra-runner out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Amy specializes in fueling endurance athletes, athletic performance, and plant-based diets. Amy holds both a Bachelors Degree in Dietetics and a Masters Degree in Human Nutritional Science from the University of Wisconsin
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