After Exercise, Recover with Real Food

A sports-nutrition trend gets called out

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In case you haven’t noticed, over the last several years “recovery” drinks have been fighting for shelf space next to energy bars, gels, and sports drinks for sale at REI and your local bike/run/outdoor store. They all claim to speed your recovery—wait, that’s not fair, they usually qualify it by saying “may speed your recovery”—from intense exercise and “may boost” your overall performance.

The idea is that these super simple carbohydrates mixed with a dash of protein flood the body with nutrients that the body’s primed to absorb. The faster the body can convert the carbs into muscle food (glycogen) that is then stored in the muscles, the sooner you’ll bounce back to 100% and go out and train some more. And the more training you can do, the stronger you become, blah, blah, blah.

According to a story in this past week’s New York Times, these recovery drinks are unnecessary for all but the hardest working athletes (i.e. pros or collegiate jocks). The story cites the examples of two researchers at McMaster University in Canada: Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an avid trail runner and adventure racer, and Dr. Stuart Phillips, a rugby player and runner. Here’s the key section:

(N)either researcher regularly uses energy drinks or energy bars. They just drink water, and eat real food. Dr. Taronpolosky drinks fruit juice; Dr. Philips eats fruit. And neither one feels a need to ingest a special combination of protein and carbohydrates within a short window of time, a few hours after exercising.

There are grains of truth to the nutrition advice (that you should reload with carbs and protein immediately after exercise), they and other experts say. But, as so often happens in sports, those grains of truth have been expanded into dictums and have formed the basis for an entire industry in “recovery” products.

Ain’t it the truth? Nutrition products designed for elite athletes become must-haves for the rest of us, even if bowling is the extent of our athletic activity. Heck, even Tiger Woods has a sports drink, now. Who knew golfers needed a special blend of carbs and electrolytes to get them to their John Daly’s (an Arnold Palmer spiked with Absolut Citron) at the club’s bar?

Here’s the best quote from the Times, this from Michael Rennie, a physiologist at the University of Nottingham:

It does seem to me that as a group, athletes are particularly gullible. The idea that what you eat and when you eat it will make a big difference in your performance and recovery is wishful thinking.


The lesson here: Unless you’re doing two-a-day workouts—that includes most recreational triathletes, by the way—don’t bother with the expensive recovery drinks and food. And stop obsessing over the nuanced ratios of carbs-to-protein. Just eat some real food, a chicken sandwich or a chicken salad with a whole-grain roll is perfect. After all, isn’t our ability to eat almost anything the single greatest perk to regular exercise? Why ruin it with an obsession over our “recovery window.” Personally, I’m a big fan of chocolate milk. I get sugar, protein, fat, and the antioxidant benefits of chocolate in a 10-ounce glass.

So what’s your favorite post-exercise meal?

Grant Davis has spent the last decade writing and editing articles about health, fitness, and nutrition. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.