recovery from workouts

Optimizing Nutrition for Recovery

Out of the entirety of the week, your training takes up less than 5% of the total hours and minutes you are allotted on this Earth. What you do outside of the gym matters as much, if not more, than what you are doing in the gym. You are providing the stimulus for adaptation when you train, and you have to recover from your sessions to make progress.

Optimizing Recovery from Strength Training with Nutrition

By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian

Recovery is a critical part of the training process for athletes and the general population alike. While it may seem cliché, the saying that “you don’t grow in the gym” is technically true. In reality, it is the process of recovery from strength training and exercise bouts that causes our bodies to get stronger, bigger, etc.

But that is jumping ahead a little bit. First, we have to answer the question of “what happens to the body during strength training that requires recovery?” From there, we can address the most important aspects of nutrition for recovery:

  • Do we need a specific amount of food to recover from strength training?
  • Is there a specific requirement or macronutrients to optimize the demands of recovery?
  • Does the timing of your nutrient intake matter?

Eating for optimal recovery from strength training sessions completes the cycle of adaptation that begins with what you do in the gym, helping not only to sustain your progress and get the most out of your training but also to improve your performance in the gym.

What Happens to the Body During Strength Training That Requires Recovery?

Let’s keep it as simple as possible…when you lift weights, the body’s muscle fibers are being broken down by the external stimulus, a process (not coincidentally) called muscle protein breakdown.

Thanks to its evolutionary hardwiring, the body seeks to return to a state of balance called homeostasis. (Read more: Stress and Homeostasis.)

The process of returning to a balanced state is initiated by what is called muscle protein synthesis (MPS)—the repairing and building of new muscle fiber tissues. A single resistance training session causes an increase in MPS, lasting for upwards of 24–48 hours after the training session.[1]

It is a result of this cycle—often referred to as muscle protein turnover—that we get stronger, faster, and bigger. Your body gets broken down and repairs itself to a new balanced state, one that is better prepared for a similar dose of strength training. By then repeating the cycle with a higher dose of training—more stress, more weight on the bar—we promote regular muscle growth and strength building processes.

In addition to the muscular side of things, your body must replenish the fuel and fluids that it needs to function and perform as well.

This cycle does not occur without proper nutrition. You are providing a stimulus for adaptation and burning energy with training; you must also provide the resources to get back to normal (and go beyond). If you don’t provide the right AMOUNT and TYPE of resources, you compromise the SPEED and ABILITY for your body to repair itself.

Extreme neglect of your body’s needs can actually make you weaker and smaller. Think about what happens to people as they age or end up in the hospital. As dramatic as it is, starvation in prison camps is a perfect example of what can occur when you do not give the body the right nutrition. At a minimum, you must replate what you lose—to maintain your strength—and, at best, you must exceed your caloric expenditure—to improve muscle building and increase strength.

Thus, your diet is often an indication of seriousness about seeing progress from the work that you are doing in the gym.

Do We Need a Specific Amount of Food to Recover from Strength Training?

Like it or not, your body is a machine. Just like the car you drive around, it requires fuel to perform everything from the daily processes that keep you alive to lifting some iron.

The amount of calories you need is technically referred to as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). There are a number of distinct components that contribute to your TDEE. The largest component is the amount of energy your body needs to stay alive—termed resting energy expenditure (REE) or basal metabolic rate. Roughly 20% of your REE is used to regulate the energy cost of protein turnover.[2]

The other component, known as non-resting energy expenditure (NREE), can be further divided into exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT), non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and the thermic effect of food (TEF).[3] Respectively, these components account for roughly 15%,10%, and 5% of the TDEE.

Despite these estimates, the full energy cost of recovery and muscle growth is still not known. In addition, it is not clear if this energy cost can be met purely from endogenous (i.e., internal fat stores) and/or exogenous sources (i.e., diet).[4]

According to a position statement by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, people who participate in a general fitness program (e.g., exercising 30 – 40 minutes per day, three times per week) can typically meet nutritional needs following a normal diet (e.g., 1,800 – 2,400 kcals/day or about 25 – 35 kcals/kg/day for a 50 – 80 kg individual) because their caloric demands from exercise are not too great (e.g., 200 – 400 kcals/session). However, athletes involved in moderate levels of intense training (e.g., 2-3 hours per day of intense exercise performed 5-6 times per week) or high-volume intense training (e.g., 3-6 hours per day of intense training in 1-2 workouts for 5-6 days per week) may need 50 – 80 kcals/kg/day (2,500 – 8,000 kcals/day for a 50–100 kg athlete).[5]

Keep in mind that these recommendations are at levels designed to provide enough calories to offset energy expenditure.

Recovery While Losing Weight

One of the most common questions brought up when talking about this topic is whether you can gain muscle in a caloric deficit. To date, there is clear evidence that muscle growth can still occur when a resistance training stimulus is combined with a hypoenergetic, higher protein meal plan (calorie deficit + high protein).[6], [7] Surprisingly, this can occur despite the well-observed evidence showing that energy restriction reduces the muscle protein synthesis signals. Therefore, it seems that despite calorie inadequacy, adequate protein intake and a resistance training stimulus can restore MPS to levels observed in energy balance.

But, is there a minimum threshold of calories that you need to eat to recover from your workouts?

This is a very tough question to answer. There are so many factors outside of just nutrition (such as sleep, outside stressors, etc.) that influence our recovery from our training sessions. To date, I am not aware of any studies that answer this question.

Therefore, the best question we can ask to give ourselves the best chances of recovery from a nutritional perspective is “what calorie intake is going to help us maximize weight loss while maintaining lean mass?”

The odds are that, at some point, you have heard that you need a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories: every pound of pure body fat that is metabolized yields approximately 3500 calories, theoretically resulting in fat loss of approximately one pound per week.[8]

Realistically, however, calorie needs vary from individual to individual. Each person has individual variable physiological changes that occur with weight loss (more commonly referred to as metabolic adaptation), making weight loss a non-linear process.

We can start from a general guideline such as 500 calories per day from an estimated maintenance calorie level (determined from an equation such as the Mifflin–St. Joer), but we need to adjust based on observed outcomes. And, we must consider the scale of the calorie deficit. For example, 500 calories for a male who is consuming 3000 calories a day to lose weight is much less than 500 calories coming from the 1500 calorie baseline diet of a small female.

Adding to this, what we have seen from previous studies is that…[9]

  1. The size of this caloric deficit and the length of time it is maintained will determine how much weight is lost.
  2. The tissue lost during the course of an energy deficit is influenced by the size of the energy deficit. While greater deficits yield faster weight loss, the percentage of weight loss coming from lean body mass tends to increase as the size of the deficit increases.

Instead of just aiming to lose a certain amount of weight per week (i.e., 2 lbs. per week), adjusting based on outcomes, with the goal of losing between 0.5 to 1% of bodyweight weekly, is most likely a superior method for maintaining both performance and lean mass levels. Depending on the person, this calorie range could be as low as 250 calories or up to 500 or more calories below their total daily energy expenditure.

Furthermore, the best way to monitor the outcomes is not only going to be on the scale. Instead, it would ideally be a mix of body composition measurements (such as weight, but preferably body fat) and performance measures.

Based on these factors, with time, you can find the optimal calorie level for you to optimize body composition and performance. But, it should be clear that optimizing nutrition for recovery while losing weight is a narrower, more individualized goal than prioritizing muscle building and strength gains without the added factor of fat loss.

Is There a Specific Requirement of Macronutrients to Optimize the Demands of Recovery?

When it comes to recovery, I like to separate nutrition into three main areas: protein, fuel, and fluids.

PROTEIN

Not surprisingly, the main focus beyond overall calorie intake is protein intake. Dietary protein, and the amino acids that it is broken down into, is required to promote growth, repair damaged cells and tissue, synthesize hormones, and for a variety of metabolic activities.[10]

If we are breaking down muscle tissue during training, it makes total sense that we need to provide building blocks, not only to repair muscle tissue but also to build more muscle as well.

As I previously mentioned, higher protein diets (even when in the context of a calorie deficit) have been shown to be superior for maximizing fat loss while sparing as much muscle mass as possible.

When it comes to recommendations, I would like to share a few of the latest suggestions distributed by the International Society of Sports Nutrition:[11]

  1. For building muscle mass and for maintaining muscle mass through a positive muscle protein balance, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most exercising individuals.
  2. There is novel evidence that suggests higher protein intakes (>3.0 g/kg/d) may have positive effects on body composition in resistance-trained individuals (i.e., promote loss of fat mass).
  3. Recommendations regarding the optimal protein intake per serving are mixed and are dependent upon age and recent resistance exercise stimuli. General recommendations are 0.25 g of a high-quality protein per kg of body weight, or an absolute dose of 20–40 g.
  4. These protein doses should, ideally, be evenly distributed, every 3–4 hours, across the day.
  5. The optimal time period during which to ingest protein is likely a matter of individual tolerance.
  6. While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily protein requirements through the consumption of whole foods, supplementation is a practical way of ensuring intake of adequate protein quality and quantity, while minimizing caloric intake, particularly for athletes who typically complete high volumes of training.

FUEL

When I speak of fuel, I am referring to the other primary macronutrients—fats and carbohydrates.

For most of our clients, focusing on overall calorie and protein intake will make a significant impact on the results they achieve. These are the biggest foundational bedrocks of a nutrition plan to provide most of the leverage in optimizing body composition and recovery.

As stated by the International Society of Sports Nutrition in their 2017 position stand on body composition, “a wide range of dietary approaches (low-fat to low-carbohydrate/ketogenic, and all points between) can be similarly effective for improving body composition.”[12] In other words, if you have your protein and overall energy levels in check, the amounts of carbohydrates and fats that are consumed can vary based on individual preferences.

Most recommendations typically focus on maintaining an adequate fat intake while emphasizing carbohydrates to fuel performance and protein to build and repair lean body mass. Typically, these suggestions sit within the range of fat intake, providing 20-35% of overall calorie intake. With the exception of very-low-calorie diets, this generally provides an adequate intake of essential fatty acids while not pushing out the other macronutrients.

From there, carbohydrates will fill in the rest of one’s caloric needs. Generally, the more active someone is, the more carbohydrates will be emphasized. For the majority of our readers who are primarily doing strength training, training 3-5 times per week, and/or for 30-90 minutes, carbohydrate needs won’t be very significant.
From my experience, most individuals do well by avoiding the extremes of a low-carb or low-fat diet, while maintaining a high protein intake and keeping calories in check. But, it really comes down to individual preferences. Here are some of the things to ask yourself to determine what works best for you:

  • What foods give me the most energy?
  • What foods do I like?
  • Are there any foods I have to avoid?
  • Can I imagine going without [“X” food] for an extended amount of time?

Within basic parameters, you want to make your diet as sustainable, realistic, and enjoyable as possible.

FLUIDS

People often forget that one of the most important performance-enhancing substances for athletes is water. Exercise performance can be significantly impaired when 2% or more of body weight is lost through sweat. For example, when a 150-pound individual loses more than 3 pounds of body weight (~2%), resistance training can be significantly decreased. Further, weight loss of more than 4% of body weight during exercise may lead to heat illness, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and possibly death.[13] That is why many high school, college, and professional athletes weigh themselves before and after training sessions.

It is unlikely that the majority of lifters will be sweating so much that they lose more than a couple of pounds during a training session without training for very long sessions or in the oven heat of a garage gym in summer. But, water is still a very important consideration to keep in the back of mind when considering recovery between sessions. Because individual sweat rates, fluid losses, and urine rates vary so much between individuals, it can be hard to give recommendations for fluid intake. While most individuals think they can avoid problems by drinking when thirsty, I have found that thirst tends to be a suboptimal method to maintain the best hydration levels. Instead, more emphasis should probably be put into monitoring and adjusting fluid intake based on urine color. Generally, the lighter the color, the more hydrated you are.

Here is a helpful table to use to guide you on when to drink more.[14]

Seeing as preventing dehydration during exercise can be one of the most effective ways to maintain exercise capacity, it would be wise to make sure that you are entering sessions hydrated and making sure not to neglect the fluid portion of the puzzle when you think about maximizing recovery nutrition.

Does the timing of my meals/nutrient intake matter for recovery?

One of the age-old clichés is the gym bro who brings his shaker to the gym, fills up his shaker, and then immediately consumes a fast-acting whey protein shake the millisecond that the last rep is done. If the shaker was forgotten or there was something that would prevent protein from being consumed immediately after training, the gainz would all be lost, and the session would be worthless.

Thankfully, in 2013, a great review paper came out from authors of the ISSN debunking and dispelling one of gym culture’s greatest myths—the “anabolic window.” Theoretically, consuming the proper ratio of nutrients around workouts (primarily focused on the post-workout period) initiated the rebuilding of damaged muscle tissue and restoration of energy reserves in a fashion that enhanced both body composition and exercise performance.

Heck, people even used to think that the timing of nutritional intake may actually have been more important than the overall daily intake of nutrients.

But, after reviewing studies on the topic, this paper determined that these claims were often exaggerated (due to primarily being acute studies) and that the importance of specific nutrient timing was of less importance than once thought.[15] The biggest conclusions were that:

  • The overall amount of nutrients you eat over the course of the day is more important for body composition and performance than specific nutrient timing strategies.
  • It is the context of the scenario that often matters most.

As one great lay article summarizing the scientific paper wrote, “the ‘anabolic window of opportunity’ is actually a whole lot bigger than we used to believe. It’s not a tiny porthole that you practically have to squint to see through. It’s a huge, cathedral-like opening.”[16]

So, when does it matter, and when doesn’t it?

Firstly, I would answer the question with one notion before moving onto a more specific response: when wouldn’t it make sense to eat after working out? What would be the advantage of purposefully delaying or skipping out on fuel if optimizing recovery is a concern? But, I digress and will return to the question at hand.

Instead of putting out a paragraph of words, take a look at this diagram that details the basic conclusions of when there should be a greater emphasis placed on nutrient timing details:[17]

Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Continuum-of-nutrient-supplement-timing-importance_fig1_262644021 [accessed 12 Feb, 2020]

When it comes to specific recommendations, here is a great recap from the most recent position stand on nutrient timing:[18]

 

  • Protein

 

      • Post-exercise ingestion (immediately to 2 hours post) of essential amino acids, (approximately 10 grams of free form) or as part of a protein bolus (of approximately 20–40 grams of protein), has been shown to maximally stimulate MPS.

 

  • Carbohydrates:

 

    • Outside of situations where rapid recovery is truly needed, and daily carbohydrate intake is matching energy demands, the importance of timed carbohydrate ingestion is notably decreased. If rapid restoration of glycogen is required (< 4 hours of recovery time), then the following strategies should be considered:
      • Aggressive carbohydrate refeeding (1.2 g/kg/h) with a preference toward carbohydrate sources that have a high (> 70) glycemic index
      • The addition of caffeine (3–8 mg/kg)
      • Combining carbohydrates (0.8 g/kg/h) with protein (0.2–0.4 g/kg/h)

For 90+% of our readers, specific nutrient timing strategies are going to be a more advanced consideration, one that should be placed after focusing on total overall daily intake. That means that you do not have to rush home to chug a protein shake after your last rep or drive like a maniac to get home to cook dinner. And, you do not have to drink or eat sugary or liquid carbohydrates just to speed up absorption.

Instead, focus on nailing the foundational principles, and let things like nutrient timing be factored in when you have the other considerations dialed in first.

Conclusion

Out of the entirety of the week, your training takes up less than 5% of the total hours and minutes you are allotted on this Earth. What you do outside of the gym matters, arguably, more than what you are doing in the gym. You are providing the stimulus for adaptation when you train, AND you have to recover from your sessions to make progress. How you eat, alone, can have significant impacts on your health, but training without meeting your body’s basic nutritional needs leads to just wasting time in the gym.

While the recovery piece of the puzzle does contain factors like sleep and stress, your nutrition will play a large role in how well you recover. My hope is that this article shined some light on the topic of nutrition for recovery and maybe helped you to gain some knowledge (and hopefully provided some application pieces) to help you “optimize” your nutrition for recovering and making continual progress toward your goals.

References

[1] Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, 131.

[2] Bier, D. M. (1999). The role of protein and amino acids in sustaining and enhancing performance. 5-The energy costs of protein metabolism: lean and mean on Uncle Sam’s Team. Institute of medicine (US) committee on military nutrition research.

[3] MacLean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(3), R581-R600.

[4] Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, 131.

[5] Kreider, R. B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Campbell, B., Almada, A. L., Collins, R., … & Kerksick, C. M. (2010). ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 7(1), 7.

[6] Josse, A. R., Tang, J. E., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2010). Body composition and strength changes in women with milk and resistance exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 42(6), 1122-1130.

[7] Longland, T. M., Oikawa, S. Y., Mitchell, C. J., Devries, M. C., & Phillips, S. M. (2016). Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 103(3), 738-746.

[8] Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 20.

[9] Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 20.

[10] Kreider, R. B., & Campbell, B. (2009). Protein for exercise and recovery. The Physician and sportsmedicine, 37(2), 13-21.

[11] Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., … & Smith-Ryan, A. E. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 20.

[12] Aragon, A. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Wildman, R., Kleiner, S., VanDusseldorp, T., Taylor, L., … & Stout, J. R. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports

[13] Maughan, R. J., & Noakes, T. D. (1991). Fluid replacement and exercise stress. Sports Medicine, 12(1), 16-31.

[14] https://dripdrop.com/blogs/news/chart-dehydrated

[15] Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 10(1), 5.

[16] https://www.precisionnutrition.com/nutrient-timing

[17] Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 20.

[18] Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., … & Ivy, J. L. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(1), 17.

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