A recovery meal plan is an essential component of a winning training regimen. What you choose to eat and drink after a workout affects your body’s recovery process, and therefore your ability to perform at your highest level especially during the most intense portions of your schedule when you have very little time between sessions to refuel.
When does a recovery diet matter?
A recovery diet comes into play when there is a short period of time (i.e., less than one day) between intense training sessions or competitions. During the regular season, with league matches taking place once a week (and usually once per day), your body will typically have enough time to recover before your next session if you follow a nutritionally sound eating plan. However, as you begin to ramp up toward playoff season, you may be increasing the intensity and/or frequency of your training. Come playoff time, you will need to compete in multiple competitive matches on consecutive days. Your recovery diet plan will play a key role in keeping your energy stores high enough to continue to compete at a high level.
Your first order of business following an intense workout is to replace the fluids you lost during exercise. While the goal is to minimize your level of dehydration by implementing your personal hydration plan before and during exercise, you will still need to replenish some fluids after your workout. The goal is to rehydrate your body; try drinking (or eating) in smaller amounts over an extended period of time (several hours) to avoid that "sloshing" feeling in your stomach. Some good options for rehydration include:
• Sports drinks
• 100% fruit juice
• Watery fruits, such as cantaloupe or watermelon
• Watery soups, such as vegetable or chicken noodle
A good way to know whether you are hydrated is to check your urine: the more frequently you have to go and the lighter the color, the better hydrated you are.
Note: Some athletes believe that beer is a good post-workout recovery beverage, but that isn’t true. Beer doesn’t help to rehydrate you (it has a diuretic effect) and it’s a poor source of carbohydrates. If you like to meet up with friends to share a beer after a match, go ahead, but be sure to have some food and water too. Water will actually help to rehydrate you and the food will keep you from absorbing the alcohol into your bloodstream too quickly.
Consuming carbohydrates is critical to your recovery and subsequent level of performance. Carbohydrates supply your muscles with fuel (i.e., glycogen) to use during exercise. Multiple, intense exercise sessions can deplete your body’s glycogen stores and negatively affect your performance on the court. Additionally, some evidence suggests that consuming enough carbohydrates during recovery can help to keep your immune system healthy.
The goal is to consume carbohydrates quickly (within the first 15 minutes) after a workout; that’s when the enzymes responsible for replacing glycogen are most active. To optimize glycogen replacement, continue to consume approximately 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight every hour after exercise for 4 to 5 hours. Choose carbohydrates that can be easily digested and absorbed quickly (i.e., foods with a high glycemic index); either liquid or solid foods are fine. Some good carbohydrate-rich choices include:
• Sports drinks
• 100% juice
• English muffin or bagel with jelly
• Cereal with banana
Protein is a plus
It is also important to replenish protein immediately after exercise. Recovery research suggests that protein may help to enhance glycogen replacement, and it also promotes muscle rebuilding, which is important because vigorous exercise causes muscle protein breakdown. A good plan is to choose carbohydrate-rich foods that include protein (at least 6 grams). Some good carbohydrate plus protein choices include:
• Oikos Greek yogurt with fruit (or fruit flavored)
• Flavored milk
• A peanut butter and banana sandwich
• A turkey sandwich with veggies
• An energy bar
Get enough electrolytes
In general, recovery foods and drinks contain more than enough electrolytes to replenish your stores following exercise. However, if you compete in a match that lasts 4 or more hours in hot, humid conditions, you may need to take extra precaution to keep your sodium levels in check. Choose sports drinks and salty snacks (e.g., pretzels) during the match. Aim to consume between 250 and 500 milligrams of sodium per hour.
Keys to Recovery
• Practice makes perfect. There is no "one-size-fits-all" recovery plan. Each person’s body reacts differently to food. The key is to practice during training so you have a plan to set in motion during the playoffs. If you will need to compete multiple times in one day, try to simulate that during your training so you know what foods are practical and effective for you.
• Plan ahead. Prepare your food and drinks ahead of time, so you aren’t tempted to skip a meal (or two) after a workout or competition. Also, if you are headed to an all day competition, think about all of the things you might need to keep your food safe and appetizing. If you will be at a competition all day, bring a cooler and ice packs to keep your dairy products and drinks cold.
• Start topped-off. You can’t make up for a nutrient-poor diet simply by making good choices post-exercise. Challenge yourself to follow a nutritionally sound eating plan all of the time. That will make your job recovering for your next match much easier.
Clark, N. (2008). Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Fourth Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.