What Your Exercise Recovery Diet May Be Lacking

image of woman drinking an exercise recovery diet drink after working out

What is your exercise recovery diet like after a workout? You probably already familiar with the basics of exercise recovery. When you work out, particularly at a high intensity, you lose fluid, sometimes quite a lot of it. This fluid needs to be replaced both during and after your work out. Since your body is more than 70% water, skimping on hydration can leave you feeling tired and even negatively impact your mood. That’s why water bottles are such hot sellers!

Still, many people don’t do an adequate job of rehydrating. One way to determine whether you’ve consumed enough water after a sweat session is to note the color of your urine. If you’ve adequately replaced lost fluids, your urine should be pale yellow or lighter. Another way is to weigh yourself before work out and immediately after. For every pound that you’re down, drink 1.5 glasses of water.

There’s More to the Exercise Recovery Diet Equation

Hydration is only part of the exercise recovery diet equation. During a workout, muscle glycogen is the main source of energy muscles use to contract and replenishment comes in the form of carbohydrates. That’s why you need carbs after a workout, especially if you work out more than one time a day. That’s why it’s a common practice to eat a carbohydrate snack within an hour after a workout. Some studies suggest there’s a window period where muscle cells are primed to take up glucose and convert it to glycogen. By getting carbohydrates into your system during the window period, recovery will be quicker. Right after a workout, the enzymes that synthesis glycogen are primed and ready to go. So, you can potentially boost muscle recovery by eating a carb snack quickly.

Regardless of when you consume them, you need carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores. One reason you feel so tired after a workout is because your muscles are glycogen depleted. Not only does failure to replace lost glycogen contribute to fatigue, it can also lead to muscle breakdown as your body uses protein from muscle tissue to make glucose and replenish glycogen. That could jeopardize the muscle tissue you’ve worked so hard to build. Cortisol is also commonly elevated after an intense workout and getting carbs on board helps suppress its catabolic effects. Cortisol negatively impacts your immune system and can increase your risk of catching one of the many upper respiratory viruses that circulate throughout the year.

During recovery, your body also needs protein to repair damaged muscle tissue and help build new muscle. Again, it’s best to get a dose of protein right after a workout. A good ratio of carbohydrates to protein is around 3 to 1. You don’t need protein supplements to meet your bodies for protein. Real foods can adequately supply your body with these macronutrients.

Don’t Forget about Micronutrients

We focus on replenishing macronutrients, like protein and carbohydrates, after a workout for good reason, your body needs them after exercise. But, let’s not underestimate the role that micronutrients play in exercise recovery. Micronutrients are compounds like vitamins and minerals that your body needs in small amounts to support energy metabolism and other functions that your body performs. Micronutrients play a role in supporting immune health as well as almost every aspect of healthy bodily function. We know that intense workouts can temporarily suppress the immune system. That’s why people who run marathons are at higher risk of developing upper respiratory infections after the event. Consuming carbohydrates and ones that are rich in micronutrients help reverse immune suppression.

In fact, micronutrients may be the missing element in the average exercise recovery diet. We know that most people don’t get the recommended 5 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily and this includes athletes. Fruits and vegetables are a rich source of micronutrients that support immune health and reduce oxidative damage. Exercise places stress on your body and leads to a temporary rise in inflammation. However, some degree of transient inflammation may be important for muscle adaptations and growth, but you don’t want ongoing tissue inflammation and damage. That’s where eating a fruit and vegetable rich diet is beneficial.

Also, after a workout is one time that eating foods that cause a rapid blood sugar response may be beneficial. That’s because these foods trigger the release of insulin and insulin helps replenish muscle glycogen stores by helping glucose enter cells. One of the best ways to stimulate insulin release after a workout, get glucose into cells, and supply your body with micronutrients is to eat fruit. Some fruits even have properties that support muscle recovery such as watermelon. Watermelon boosts the production of nitric oxide and that increases blood flow to the muscles you just worked.

Studies also show that beetroot juice aids in muscle recovery and may actually reduce delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMs. Beets, beetroot juice,  and fruits like watermelon, increase production of nitric oxide. Beats are also rich in natural chemicals that fight oxidative stress. We know that muscles produce free radicals during a damaging workout and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables help to mitigate this damage. Other good fruits to munch on after a workout are berries. Their deep red and blue pigments harbor phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory properties. Tart cherries, in particular, may offer exercise recovery diet benefits. A study among marathon runners found that those who drank tart cherry juice five days before, during, and after a marathon had reduced markers of muscle damage. So, what you eat matters!

The Bottom Line

Skip the granola, protein bars, and shakes and make whole food sources of carbohydrates part of your recovery diet. These foods are rich in micronutrients that your body needs for recovery. Plus, fruits are a good source of water too to help you rehydrate. Who needs sports drinks and sports bars when you have an abundance of fruit and other micronutrient-dense foods to help your body recover and rebuild. Just make sure you’re getting carbohydrates AND protein.



Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 17 No. 11 P. 8. November 2015.

J Endocrinol Invest. 2008 Jul;31(7):587-91.

Nutrients. 2016 Aug; 8(8): 506.


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Can Probiotics Help with Exercise Recovery?

Do You Really Need More Exercise Recovery Time as You Age?

5 Things You Might Be Getting Wrong about Rest Days

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