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Exercise & Athletic Recovery: A Three-Part Plan for Optimal Nutrition

Science continues to uncover the important role recovery plays in exercise and athletic performance. Getting the proper nutrition after working out helps enable improvements in subsequent performance.

The Three R's of Recovery Nutrition

Nutrition scientists divide recovery nutrition into three importance parts:

  • Refuel
  • Rebuild
  • Rehydrate

While specific strategies may vary depending on the type of sport or exercise, these three parts are key to any recovery process. Each step plays an important role in optimizing recovery.

Part One: Refuel

Ideally, refueling should take place within the first 15-60 minutes following rigorous exercise or competitive event. And the sooner the better! When you exercise or compete athletically, your body's primary fuel is muscle glycogen. We use carbohydrates to form glycogen, so loading up on carbs can be one of the biggest nutritional advantages for performance endurance.

Once the stored muscle glycogen is depleted during exercise performance, the body starts to burn stored fat, along with proteins and other carbohydrates in order to keep working.

Studies have shown that the level of pre-exercise muscle glycogen is one of the most important determinants of optimal exercise performance. The sooner you consume carbohydrates after exercise performance, the better your body can synthesize and store glycogen. That is because this is the time when glycogen synthase is most active, and when the body is most receptive to the intake of carbohydrates.

Glycogen is found in most tissues of the body - especially in the liver and skeletal muscle. Muscle glycogen is the primary energy source during the first 60-90 minutes of exercise.

Simple sugars or complex carbohydrates are the best choices for refueling. Exercise rapidly burns glycogen, and after working out, the body will accept just about anything due to its dire need for refueling. However, complex carbohydrates allow for a greater volume of calories to be absorbed than simple sugars do.

Minerals also play a number of key roles in generating and utilizing energy, particularly magnesium, calcium, zinc and phosphorous. These minerals are the star players in glycogen formation and utilization. These particular minerals provide the actual energy needed in physical performance, and also support healthy muscle contraction and relaxation.

Magnesium plays the biggest role in supporting the body's energy cycle, and is the most useful in the refueling phase of recovery nutrition. Magnesium acts as a catalyst or cofactor in helping the body convert sugars into glycogen, and ultimately, into the ATP required for refueling in preparation for future exercise and performance.