Last week, I outlined the most important nutrition considerations for athletes to be optimally fuelled and ready to perform at their best during matches. This week, I will deal with the most important nutrition aspects for optimal recovery from comp-etitive team-sport performance.
In short, the primary nutrition goals for recovery after matches can be thought of as the three Rs:
1/ Restore depleted energy and fuel (glycogen) stores
2/ Rehydrate: replace lost fluid
3/ Repair damaged muscle tissue
PHYSICAL DEMANDS OF TEAM SPORTS
During intense team sports like Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and soccer, athletes will cover anywhere between 5k-15k.
Irrespective of field position, the type of exercise being performed is high intensity and intermittent, which results in a significant use of energy, particularly glycogen (the body's stored form of carbohydrate).
Additionally, the impact from tackling in GAA, and particularly the nature of tackling and collision in rugby, results in a significant amount of bruising, muscle damage and inflammation that must be taken into account in the nutrition recovery protocol.
ENERGY REPLACING LOST ENERGY IS ONE OF THE PRIMARY CONSIDERATIONS AFTER A MATCH. COMPETITIVE MATCHES THAT ARE GREATER THAN 60 MINUTES RESULT IN ENERGY EXPENDITURE OFTEN GREATER THAN 1,200 CALORIES AND MAYBE EVEN AS HIGH AS 2,000 CALORIES. THIS CAN MEAN AN ENERGY EXPENDITURE ON MATCH DAYS OF APPROXIMATELY 5,000 CALORIES FOR LARGE, MUSCULAR ATHLETES.
If energy deficits are not made up in the 24-48 hours after matches, the rate of recovery will be reduced and there is a greater risk of illness due to immune suppression and hormonal disturbances. Additionally, the ability for the athlete to perform to their best in subsequent training will be impaired.
This is why it is so important that a well-structured recovery plan is in place for athletes. Hydration Dehydration is an inevitable consequence of intense exercise as it is difficult to consume fluids at the rate of loss through sweating during exercise. Rehydration after matches is therefore an immediate priority for athletes.
Depending on environmental conditions, athlete size and match intensity, fluid losses can range anywhere from 1.5 litres up to four litres. These fluids must be replaced at a ratio of 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1kg lost, meaning an intake of more than five litres of fluid in some cases.
As there is much variability between athletes, sports and positions, the practice of weighing in before matches and weighing out afterwards is a simple way to measure fluid losses and guide fluid intake after matches.
A key point here is to be practical with rehydration strategies. Best practice dictates that such recommendations on 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1kg lost are addressed over the six hours after performance.
THE PRIMARY FUEL USED DURING TEAM-SPORT MATCHES IS CARBOHYDRATE IN THE FORM OF GLYCOGEN.
A competitive match will lead to a significant glycogen deficit, hence, carbohydrate is the primary fuel source that must be replaced afterwards, assuming the athlete is training again in the following days.
An immediate post-match recovery protocol will include a fast-digesting source of carbohydrate and a small amount of protein to initiate the recovery process and begin replenishing depleted glycogen stores. This period is when the body has the greatest ability to absorb nutrients and specifically carbohydrate (and protein).
Fast-digesting carbohydrate (eg white rice) will result in faster storage of glycogen compared to slow-digesting carbohydrate sources (eg sweet potato). This is one of the only periods when athletes should consume fast-digesting sources of carbohydrate like simple sugars, sports drinks and even sweet snacks.
In recent years, much has been made about taking advantage of the immediate post-exercise recovery window (30-60 minutes). The intake of fast-digesting carbohydrate foods after matches is important for athletes who have a short recovery time until the next session or match. But if you are not training again within 48 hours, a balanced meal of even slow-digesting carbohydrate and a quality protein source (wild salmon) will suffice.
PROTEIN THE INTAKE OF PROTEIN IS ANOTHER ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF RECOVERY.
The fundamental role of protein after exercise is to promote recovery by helping to repair damaged muscle fibres, but it is also involved in many other functions, such as reducing muscle protein breakdown, facilitating hormone production, and immune support.
The guideline for protein intake after intense performance is between 0.3-0.5g per kg body mass, which is 24-40g of protein for the average 13st male, but a lot more for larger athletes.
Protein requirements can easily be met by eating whole foods like lean meats and fish in the recovery meal, but some athletes do struggle to eat dense food after exercise due to gastrointestinal distress or lack of appetite. In this case, a liquid recovery meal like a recovery drink or whey protein-fruit-based smoothie can be used.
ANTIOXIDANTS AND MICRONUTRIENTS THE INTAKE OF A WIDE RANGE OF MICRONUTRIENTS, WHICH INCLUDE VITAMINS AND MINERALS, IS ANOTHER CONSIDERATION. THESE ASSIST WITH TISSUE REPAIR, SUPPORT THE IMMUNE SYSTEM AND HELP REMOVE TOXINS FROM THE BLOOD AND MUSCLE TISSUE.
The rationale behind using large doses of antioxidants after intense exercise is to negate the negative effects of free radicals (which damage body cells) and promote a faster rate of recovery.
However, rather than large amounts of antioxidants improving the rate of recovery, research has shown that too much antioxidant supplementation can inhibit the natural adaptive response to exercise (ie the benefits you get from training).
So, rather than consuming large amounts of antioxidants in supplement form, it seems more beneficial to consume natural, whole-food sources that contain a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in normal amounts.
Ginger, blueberries, cherries, turmeric, pineapple and garlic in particular are suggested to be excellent anti-inflammatory foods that assist with muscle recovery.
On a final note, a simple and effective recovery meal that is often popular with athletes that I work with is a fresh-fruit smoothie that includes water, ice, banana, blueberries, honey, fresh ginger and whey protein.
This is an ideal meal that provides the athlete with a good source of protein, carbohydrate and essential micronutrients that will promote recovery – and it's tasty too!
Daniel Davey BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS is a performance nutritionist