This article was written by Katie Elliott, MS, RD, Sports Dietitian and USAT Coach with Elliott Performance & Nutrition.
How you recover is just as important as how you train. Simply put, triathletes break down muscle fibers swimming, biking, running and strength training. It is largely repair of affected muscle fibers that allows us to come back stronger and ultimately get faster. In order to optimize repair and recovery, you need to pay attention to both sleep and nutrition.
We are beginning to uncover just how important sleep is to performance. In the journal SLEEP, researchers detailed the results of their study showing that athletes who slept poorly had noticeable declines in split-second decision making abilities (think cycling safety and “go, no go” decisions to chase a passing racer). We also know that sleep affects metabolism, appetite and ultimately body composition, which are important factors to triathletes. In addition, lack of sleep negatively affects immunity, which can predispose an athlete to illness. Poor sleep is also associated with decreased production of glycogen (glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate that is used during exercise). Finally, lack of sleep may also cause decreased muscle protein synthesis, which dampens the results of training and negatively affects recovery. In other words, prioritize sleep and think twice before skimping on zzzz’s for early swim, bike and run sessions.[i]
Nutrition also plays a big role in how you adapt to training and, ultimately, perform. When you exercise, you use carbohydrate to fuel activity. There are only 1,600 to 2,000 calories worth of stored carbohydrate in the muscles and liver. You have to replace what you used during training to continue to improve in subsequent workouts. In fact, the body takes up carbohydrate more effectively in the hour after exercise because it needs to make sure there is enough on board for future, global use. The body also needs amino acids from protein for repair. While there are some amino acids that we can make in the body, we have to get others from the foods we eat. All amino acids do play a role in recovery, but leucine (a branched-chain amino acid), is particularly important for athletes. Leucine stimulates the system that initiates repair and is most strongly associated with muscle adaptation.
Within the hour after a quality workout, a long training session or a day with multiple workouts, have a meal or snack with carbohydrate and protein (generally speaking, consume a 4:1 or 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio). To figure out your exact needs for carbohydrate, multiply your body weight in kilograms by 1-1.2 grams. Plan to include 15-25 grams of protein with at least 2.5 grams of leucine.
A 25-year-old, 140-pound (63.6kg) person needs 64-76g of carbohydrate and 15-25 grams of high-quality protein (containing all the essential amino acids) with at least 2.5-3 grams of protein coming from leucine. Keep reading for Masters athletes.
Recovery Meal Ideas
A few examples of my favorite recovery snacks:
In terms of recovery, it is best not to put all of your protein into one meal. Rather, you should plan to have equal amounts of protein at each meal throughout the day to keep blood amino acid concentrations high. This will help with continued repair throughout the day and night. 15-25 grams of protein at all meals and snacks is ideal (if you are a Masters Athlete, see below).
Rehydration is another key component of recovery nutrition. The average athlete loses 1.2 liters of sweat per hour of exercise. While taking in fluids offsets some of these losses, athletes rarely replace 100% of losses during training. If you fail to rehydrate after a swim, bike or run, you put yourself at a disadvantage for subsequent workouts. For every pound that you lose during training, drink 16-24 ounces of fluid. You can weigh yourself before and after a workout to determine your total weight loss from sweat. Fluids are best absorbed with electrolytes. Plan on drinking water alongside meals or adding electrolytes (like Nuun or Precision Hydration non-caloric effervescent tabs) for maximum fluid absorption.
In recent years, we’ve discovered that Masters Athletes need to do things a little bit differently when it comes to recovery nutrition. Basically, there is evidence that Masters athletes don’t recover and rebuild muscle as well as their younger counterparts.[ii] Studies suggest that middle-aged and older athletes need more protein to recover and rebuild than their younger counterparts. It takes more, and the right type of, protein to effectively signal the muscle rebuilding cascade to get going. Researchers believe these changes in the muscle repair process begin in our 40’s or 50’s.[iii]
While 15-25 grams of protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis in younger athletes, Masters athletes need 35-40 grams to trigger the same response post-exercise. Again, timing is important. After strength training, interval training, a long session or one of multiple daily workouts, you should have a recovery meal 30 minutes to an hour post-exercise. Just like their younger counterparts, Masters Athletes should take in 2.5-3g leucine post-workout. In addition to getting enough protein post-exercise, masters athletes should continue to eat equal amounts of protein at each meal throughout the day (protein pacing).
It can be hard to consume 35-40g of protein at each meal throughout the day. Breakfast is the meal that poses the greatest challenge because Americans like carbohydrate-rich options like cereals and toast in the morning. Below are a few suggestions and recipes to make this challenge easier
Tactics to increase protein intake at meals:
** (I generally add plain Greek yogurt to boost protein/replace sour cream as well as some sautéed bell peppers).
Double Cocoa Banana Cream Overnight Oats
In addition, here is my personal favorite smoothie recipe (I eat this at breakfast and for recovery meals):Katie’s Chocolate Covered Strawberry Smoothie
~35-44g protein depending on type of milk used
No matter your age, nailing recovery consistently will maximize your training benefits with regards to performance. Remember, races can, and generally are, won by small margins. Paying attention to details that matter (like sleep and nutrition) can significantly move the needle as you try and achieve your personal triathlon goals. If you are willing to pay attention to the details, that big dream can become a big reality.
Katie Elliott, MS, RD, Sports Dietitian and USA Triathlon Coach
Website link: www.elliottperformanceandnutrition.com
Instagram Handle: @elliottnutrition
[i] Sleep, Athletic Performance & Recovery. 2019. The National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-athletic-performance-and-recovery.
[ii] Doering et. al. (2016). Lower Integrated Muscle Protein Synthesis in Masters Compared to Younger Athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise. Retrieved from: http://ow.ly/9oRb30p57Vl.
[iii] Ryan, Monique. (2019). The Importance of Protein for Masters Athletes. Velo News. Retrieved from: https://www.velopress.com/the-importance-of-protein-for-masters-athletes/.
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