By Holley Samuel MEd, RD, LD, CPT
Image by Lee Germeroth
Refueling after training sessions is one of the most significant things runners can do to get the most out of their workout by kickstarting the recovery process. While runners may think that fitness gains are made during the training, the recovery period after a workout is where the body rebuilds itself, yielding improvements in strength, endurance, and power. During exercise, the body breaks down. Muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments are stressed under the training load, so one may say recovery is the most critical part of the workout itself when it comes to building fitness in any capacity.
Refueling within 30-60 minutes post-run should include roughly a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein respectively (for every 3g of carbohydrate, eat 1 g protein) and include proper rehydration.
In practice, for every pound of fluid lost through sweat during training, a runner should aim to consume 2-3 cups of fluid post-workout to rehydrate appropriately before returning to future exercise sessions. They may also need to incorporate electrolytes, particularly the electrolyte sodium, which can be found in salty food sources or through a supplement to optimize rehydration. Sodium is the electrolyte lost the most in sweat, though potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride are also essential electrolytes.
Carbohydrates need to be included in post-run fueling to give the body energy to start rebuilding and replenish the glycogen stores required for energy during future workouts. Simple carbohydrates work best for restocking glycogen stores (read more about carb-loading here)
Protein helps muscle repair and promotes the building of lean body mass, making it a key player in post-run fueling. High-quality protein that contains at least 2.5g of the branched-chain amino acid leucine helps repair muscle tissue. While most animal-based proteins have an adequate amount of leucine needed to repair muscles, many plant-based proteins do not. This is why it is important to check nutrition labels on plant-based protein supplements for adequate leucine or combine legume and grain-based sources of plant proteins (for example, beans and rice or pea protein and brown rice protein).
Protein intake to fulfill nutrition needs for various individuals will vary, but typically between 15-40g of protein post-workout is recommended.
***Some master's athletes, plant-based athletes, and pregnant or breastfeeding athletes may require more leucine and, therefore, more protein post-workout to stimulate these same responses.
What To Eat To Support Recovery From Training
While the refueling process continues throughout the day post-run, getting in the post-run meal or snack sooner rather than later will help kickstart the recovery process. Here are some examples of potential post-run meals or snacks that contain the 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein optimal for repairing the body and providing energy post-run:
Greek yogurt parfait with fruit and nuts or seeds (or use protein plant based yogurt alternative)
Protein smoothie with Greek yogurt or protein powder and fruit
Cottage Cheese with fruit
Turkey and cheese sandwich with fruit or pretzels
Egg sandwich with fruit
Oatmeal made with milk or a protein milk alternative with fruit, chia seeds, and peanut butter
Protein shake with 2-3 slices of toast with nut butter or jam on the side
Creatine Monohydrate for Runners
In addition to rehydrating and refueling with adequate carbohydrates and protein, supplementing with high a quality creatine monohydrate supplement has also been found to have recovery benefits in runners in that it helps with glycogen replenishment when taken with adequate carbohydrates. When considering creatine monohydrate supplements, look for those that are third-party tested with the NSF certified or Informed Choice Sport certified labels.
Difficulty Eating Post-Run?
Many runners struggle with low appetite post-run, especially after harder efforts like speedwork and long runs. This can further be exacerbated in the heat or extreme weather conditions due to dehydration. This does not make fueling post-run any less important, and choosing liquid or convenient and palatable sources of recovery fuel can make this process more doable. Runners using creatine supplements as mentioned above could also easily add their creatine powder to any of the following liquid examples. Here are some easy post-run fuel options for runners who struggle with low appetite:
Chocolate milk (add a shake of table salt if you need extra electrolytes- trust me, it’s tasty)
A protein smoothie with Greek yogurt or protein powder and fruit
Sports drink and a protein shake
Drinkable Greek yogurt + applesauce pouches
Chicken noodle soup
A nutrition bar that contains some protein like Perfect Bars, RX Bars, goMACRO bars, Picky Bars