Nutrition and Carbohydrate Window

by Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD 

Racing to Recovery

Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to get out the door some days or why your Wednesday after-work run with the group often turns into a heavy-legged slog? Many runners attribute their lack of motivation or desire to being weak-willed. Others simply accept a plethora of unfulfilling runs and workouts as inevitable. Poor training days, however, are often linked to poor eating days. Feeling good on tomorrow's run hinges, to a large degree, on what you did following your previous workout. The key to a speedy recovery is to provide your body with the fluids and nutrients it needs before and after exercise. And the sooner you do it, the better.

The Recovery Process

Carbohydrates that runners consume daily (from fruit and fruit juices, vegetables, milk, yogurt, bread, pasta, rice, beans, as well as sweets and snack foods) are converted into glucose or blood sugar and used as energy throughout the day. The body stores glucose that is not used fairly promptly in the liver and muscles as glycogen, which the body can convert back to glucose and use for energy at a later time. Muscle glycogen-the body's preferred fuel during exercise-plays a crucial role when you pick up the pace or intensity of workouts as well as during prolonged exercise. As glycogen stores become depleted, you're forced to slow down, sometimes even to a crawl, just in order to finish.

Chronically low muscle glycogen stores can trip up even the fittest runner, especially those who train daily. Heavy or sore legs, feeling rundown, or a lack of your usual oomph can all indicate insufficient recovery from previous physical efforts. Runners who exercise with low muscle glycogen stores also incur more nagging injuries. Start out with less than a full tank and you'll also likely perceive the workout or race as "feeling harder than it should."

Since it takes the body almost 24 hours to fully replenish muscle glycogen stores, the trick is to capitalize on the "carbohydrate window" that exists immediately following exercise. During the first 60 minutes following your workout, especially the initial 15-30 minutes, muscles convert carbohydrate-rich foods and beverages into glycogen up to three times faster than at other times. Unfortunately, runners often spend this time stretching, socializing, showering and scurrying back to their desk or jumping into the car to pursue their next commitment.

Rehydrate and Refuel

Most of us are aware of the need to rehydrate following exercise, especially when running or racing in hot and/or humid weather. Feeling thirsty, however, isn't the best indicator as to how much you need to drink. Get to know your body by periodically weighing yourself before and after running. To fully rehydrate, drink a minimum of 2 ½ cups of fluid (over the next few hours) for every pound lost. (If you've dropped more than a pound or two, work on doing a better job meeting your fluid needs during exercise.) Being able to urinate frequently-clear to pale yellow in color-also indicates you're sufficiently hydrated.

Optimal Recovery

For optimal recovery, replace fluids and carbohydrates simultaneously, within the first 15 to 30 minutes, especially following intense workouts or prolonged runs lasting 90 minutes or longer. If you like to train by the numbers, consume at least ½ gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. For most runners this equates to 50 to 100 grams of carbohydrate. Numerous options abound: sports drinks (14 to 19 grams per cup), high-carbohydrate or meal replacement beverages (check the label for grams of carbohydrate per serving, some provide as much as 50 grams per 8 ounces), fruit juice (25 to 40 grams per cup) and milk (12 grams per cup). Of course real foods, such as fruit, yogurt, cereal and bagels, serve as other generally easy-to-put-down, well-tolerated options.

To further enhance your recovery, you should pay attention to your sodium and protein needs as well. Drinking a sports drink, judicial use of the salt shaker, or consuming salty foods, such as salted pretzels or popcorn with little or no butter or other fat, soup, canned vegetables, tomato or vegetable juice and pickles will help your body hold on to the fluids you drink. It can also help prevent hyponatremia (low blood sodium level), a potentially fatal condition that can develop during or after prolonged exercise when runners consume large amounts of water but fail to replace sweat-induced sodium losses.

Protein is a vital constituent of recovery, also. Protein is needed to repair and rebuild muscle tissue and may further boost glycogen resynthesis when consumed shortly after exercise. Since runners can't live on carbohydrates alone, it doesn't hurt to experiment with consuming protein within the same crucial "carbohydrate window" following exercise. At the very least, include a source of quality protein at your next meal-dairy foods, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, beans or soy foods, and plan to eat within one to two hours following exercise.
Suzanne has helped numerous athletes in their nutritional recovery. She is the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition.


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