You just finished a hard workout, practice, or competition. You did well fuleing your body before and during activity. Congratulations – what’s next? Recovery, of course!

Eating for recovery is critical to replenish your energy stores and repair the muscle tissue you damaged during activity. Done correctly, “recovery eating” will help you maintain high energy levels, achieve better results from your training and practices, and build the lean muscle mass necessary to increase your strength and speed. Done incorrectly, you’ll feel tired, sluggish, and increase your risk of injury and illness.

So here’s what you need to know about eating to optimize recovery:

Start with how you think about food

Food is grouped into six food categories:

  1. Dairy
  2. Fruits
  3. Vegetables
  4. Grains and Starches
  5. Proteins
  6. Fats

Out of these six, the two food groups that help you increase lean muscle mass and repair damaged muscles are proteins and dairy. The protein group includes all meats, poultry, fish, as well as eggs, cheese, beans, soy, and nuts. The dairy group includes milk, yogurt, and Greek yogurt.

Recovery Eating Tactics

Four eating tactics work together to create the right formula for optimal post-exercise recovery:

1.  Eating a Surplus of Calories

Your body prioritizes the energy from food intake to take care of your heart, lungs, and other organs. Only if there are extra calories left over, will it use that energy to help build muscle. So recovery involves getting enough calories to satisfy both.

2.  Eating Enough Protein

Your body uses protein to enhance muscle growth and repair after exercise – but it also uses protein to support your immune system, support hormone function, and help you digest, absorb, and transport nutrients.

Your body prioritizes its use of protein to first keep you healthy and then to grow muscle – so one of the things you must do to build lean muscle mass, is consume a surplus of protein. 

For most healthy athletes, 0.55 to 0.9 grams of protein per lb. of body weight is optimal. Athletes wishing to increase lean muscle mass, should lean towards 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. Technically, this means that a 150 lb. athlete would need 83 to 135 grams of protein over the course of a day. To keep it simple, you can round up to 1 gram per pound when looking to increase muscle growth.

Important! Eating more protein than your body needs can result in dehydration, so be sure to increase your fluid intake when increasing protein intake.

Also see: Got Chocolate Milk? (a great source to help refuel and repair your muscles) and Sports Beverages – Good or Bad?

3.  Nutrient Timing

Muscle recovery is optimized when you consume a combination of carbohydrates and protein within 30-60 minutes after exercise. During this window of opportunity, you have important hormones and amino acids floating around inside your body. They have to be “fed” in order to bring you back stronger and faster than before.

Think of these hormones and amino acids as little construction workers floating around inside your body. Your job is to give them the right foods to restore energy and to repair damaged muscles and tissue. Ideally, you should start refueling within 30 minutes after activity. After an hour, those construction workers start to pack up and go home for the day. 

In addition to protein, you should consume a source of carbohydrate such as fruits, grains, milk, yogurt or a sports beverage. These healthy sources of carbs cause your body to secrete insulin, which is a growth hormone. This expedites and improves the repair process.

Keep in mind that muscle-building continues beyond the short-term recovery window (30-60 minutes). Proteins that are digested more slowly will further increase muscle protein synthesis. This means that a blend of whey, casein, and soy is the perfect choice after your workout because whey and soy are fast, while casein is slow. 

Some sources to combine for fast and slow proteins are: Lean meats, milk, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, tofu, and edamame.

What might you eat/drink to quickly get in some carbs and protein after exercise?

You might grab low-fat chocolate milk and a peanut butter sandwich or a banana with a Greek yogurt and berries. The important thing is to make sure that you consume both carbs and protein during that window of opportunity of 30-60 minutes, especially if it’s going to be longer than an hour before you have a full meal.

Our Energy Bag section shows you the best sources of carbohydrates and protein and ways to combine them so that you can start the recovery process until you can eat a full meal.

4.  Consistency

This is where most young athletes miss out on the opportunity to achieve peak performance. Consistency means doing tactics one through three every single day. You can’t skip days or only do some of the tactics and expect to see change. Consistency with all eating tactics will help you become stronger, faster, and gain a distinct advantage in your sport.

A side note on immunity:  The notion of consistency with recovery eating tactics also improves and strengthens your immune system. You’ll likely catch fewer viruses and colds. If you do catch a cold, you could recover much faster.

So what should you eat to boost immunity?  “Eat the rainbow” – meaning eat fruits and vegetables of all colors, daily, throughout your day. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, which all boost immunity. Other immunity boosters include legumes/beans, tart cherry juice, and beet root juice.

Other Recovery Tactics

Two additional tactics go hand-in-hand with eating for recovery: strength training and rest. They are really important for muscle rebuilding and repair.

You have to create “damage” to your muscles through strength training so that your body can rebuild those muscles stronger than before. Studies show that if you consume 20 grams of protein within one hour after strength training, you can have an even bigger increase in muscle growth!

Mom always says get your rest – and she’s right! You need a day’s rest in between working the same muscle groups. This mostly applies to weight training the same muscles groups but can also apply to a hard practice or workout. Go easier the next day; or even take a day off. And be sure to include 8+ hours of sleep, which is your body’s optimal time for muscle growth and repair.

Knowing the tactics for muscle recovery – especially eating for recovery – will help you be in top form for the next time you compete and give you the competitive edge!

Tracy Owens

About Tracy Owens

Tracy Owens (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN) is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She has worked in private practice, providing clinical and sports nutrition for over 20 years. Her two sons and two daughters have played AAU baseball, USSSA baseball, Legion baseball, Challenge, United, Premier, Elite and ECNL soccer at Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), USTA tennis, summer swim teams, and high school football, swimming, baseball and soccer. Two of her children played Division 1 soccer at North Carolina State University.

Change Your Nutrition and Change Your Game!