Age-group triathletes will often be training just as much and as hard as the elites – but with the additional pressures of work and running a busy life on top. Therefore, both after training and racing, effective recovery is essential.
When we consider recovery we need to think about what we’re trying to achieve. Most triathletes think about ‘metabolic recovery’ – energy and carbs – which is to restore glycogen levels. However, I’m more interested in the functional recovery of an athlete, in getting them back to a physiological state that means they can race or train again.
Metabolic recovery is pretty easy and often triathletes associate fatigue and inadequate recovery with not having enough energy or not having eaten enough. But in fact, it’s more likely that the muscle has not recovered structurally and functionally – something I’ve had to take into account when working with cyclists on events such as the Tour de France, especially as they go into the third week.
Not taking in the right balance of protein and nutrients can have a detrimental effect on recovery, even if you’re taking in enough calories to maintain weight. The knock-on effect is you won’t be able to return to training or racing as soon as you could. Those important nutritional elements are:
The body doesn’t store protein so we need to take in regular amounts to maintain the amino acid pool. Hard exercise increases protein turnover (breakdown and also build-up). Taking 10-20g of protein several hours before a race or hard session will ensure the body’s amino acids are primed and ready to support protein synthesis. Eggs do a great job for this – a lightly cooked three-egg omelette will provide about 21g of protein. Taking 20-30g of protein straight after the race again provides the amino acids needed for recovery. Recent research indicates that additional luecine (a branch chain amino acid) promotes protein synthesis. Unfortunately it’s difficult to get adequate amounts (about 2g) from food, so protein shakes with added luecine are the easiest way.
In the past, athletes have been advised to take large amounts of easily-absorbed carbohydrate immediately after exercise. However, I like to be a bit more intelligent about this. The high carb argument is based on an assumption the athlete has depleted the glycogen stores and that repletion is critical for the next session. If an athlete is doing something like an Olympic-distance race there’s a good chance that they will be depleted afterwards, and a high carb intake could be a good idea. However, if they’re not training again for three days or so, then that’s plenty of time for the glycogen stores to gradually replenish without going crazy post-session.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Hard exercise increases the stress hormones in the body such as the cytokines. These are a part of the body’s natural immune system and are important for adaptation. But if we produce too much, it increases protein breakdown and reduces protein synthesis. The omega-3 fatty acid EPA helps to modulate the stress response – it doesn’t switch it off, but it dials it down. It’s difficult to get the required amounts of EPA from diet alone, so a supplement providing 1-2g of EPA a day is a good idea. It takes about two weeks to be fully incorporated into the body’s cells.
Foods high in antioxidants, such as tart cherry juice, may reduce muscle soreness and inflammation after hard training.
Pro athletes compete week in and week out, so it’s rare they’ll have a blow-out. After a race they’ll often have a recovery shake providing 20-30g of protein, mainly from a dairy source including about 20g of whey and 30-50g of carbs.
Meals will generally include good quality protein such as chicken, fish or lean beef, some carbs from rice, pasta or potato and plenty of salad and veg – chicken fajitas with peppers, guacamole and dirty rice (cooked with meat and spices) are a favourite. But when they do have something that’s a treat, in my experience, it will often be good old pizza and ice cream. So my advice? Keep the blow-out as a treat after your A-race, when you’ll really deserve it!
3 things to avoid post-race
Excessive alcohol actually reduces recovery as it can slow down the recovery of micro-injuries caused by the muscle oscillation in the run phase. So if you want to speed up the recovery, keep off of the beer.
Chips and mayo
While this certainly provides plenty of carbs, it’s also high in fat, which will slow down gastric emptying and delivery of nutrients to the body. Plus, it’s unlikely you’ll fancy so much grease after racing!
Green salad and tomatoes
This may look really healthy, but you need protein and carbohydrate to help aid recovery. So add some chicken and new potatoes to make sure your healthy option salad packs a recovery punch