You can have a training plan complete with speedwork, easy days, tempo runs, long runs, and strength training, but if you miss one other key aspect of training, you won’t see the improvement you work so hard for. What’s the one key aspect that many runners overlook? Recovery. Thankfully, there are simple steps you can take to recover better after your runs – including adjusting your nutrition so that what you eat and when you eat improves your recovery rate.
Why Does Recovery Matter
Whether you are running 400 meter repeats on the track or a 12 mile long run, your muscles experience microtrauma. In order to see the full benefits of the workout and improve, your muscles needs to recover. It’s in that recovery process that the adaptations necessary for building speed or endurance occur. Sleep, rest days, and cutback weeks are all part of the recovery progress – and most immediately, nutrition after your run plays a vital role in recovery.
The worst thing you can do for your recovery after a run is to skip a meal. While many runners hope to lose weight, skipping your post-run snack or meal will not help with weight loss and could deter your running goals by delaying the recovery process.
Foods for Recovery
Recovery bars and drinks can be useful if you are on-the-go and unable to eat a real meal within the vital 30-60 minute recovery window, but ultimately you are better off eating real foods. Bars and shakes may provide the carbohydrates and protein you need for recovery, but real foods will provide antioxidants and nutrients as well—which will improve post-exercise recovery by reducing inflammation.
Tart Cherry Juice
A 2010 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that marathon runners who consumed tart cherry juice before and after the race experienced less inflammation and better recovery in muscle function than the placebo group. You don’t have to run a marathon to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits. Drink a serving of tart cherry juice (natural, no sugar added) after a hard speed workout or long run in order to recover better. If you don’t like the tart taste of the juice itself, add it to a smoothie. Since even the no sugar added variety is high in sugar and low in fiber, stick to one small serving after a hard workout – no need to sip on cherry juice all day long.
That’s right – your favorite fruit may just be one of the best foods for boosting recovery after a hard run. According to a 2011 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, daily consumption of blueberries reduces oxidative stress and increases the amount of anti-inflammatory cytokines (regulators in the body that promote healing) in runners.
Spices such as ginger and turmeric also have anti-inflammatory effects on the body and have been linked to the reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). While these spices have benefits for overall health, including improved digestive function and lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, sprinkling a small amount of turmeric into your post-run smoothie is not going to make or break your recovery.
Some studies, including a 2015 study in European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that the compound in turmeric known as curcumin reduced pain associated with muscle soreness in the 24-48 hours after exercise. Other studies, such as a 2015 study in Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, concluded that while turmeric does reduce inflammation, it does not fully diminish all aspects of exercise-induced muscular damage. This is not to say to avoid turmeric—research indicates a whole host of health benefits—but know that current research is not 100 percent conclusive on the actual impact of turmeric on post-exercise recovery either way.
Ultimately, no one food will make or break your recovery and training. However, the regular inclusion of anti-inflammatory foods in your dietwill aid naturally in your body’s response to inflammation and therefore help you recover more effectively from your workouts. This means you will respond optimally to your training.
Timing Your Meals for Recovery
When you eat after a run matters just as much, if not more, than what you eat. Running uses glycogen (stored carbohydrates) for energy and causes micro tears in your muscles. If you take the right steps to replenish your glycogen stores and start the recovery process for those micro tears, you will improve as a runner. So what are those right steps?
The best thing you can do to replenish your glycogen stores and jumpstart muscle recovery is to eat within 60 minutes of completing a run. The 60 minutes after a run are often referred to as the “recovery window,” because that is when your muscles are primed to absorb and process carbohydrates into glycogen and protein for muscle repair.
Ideally, you want to eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein after a run. There’s no perfect post run meal or snack—you could choose anything from oatmeal with fruit and nuts to a turkey sandwich. If you are not very hungry after your run, opt for a small snack such as fruit and yogurt. The harder the workout, the more carbohydrates you will need, so be willing to adjust your post-run snack or meal based on the day’s workout.
Recovery nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated—by making a few smart choices, such as eating within 60 minutes and picking a few foods that fight inflammation, you can recover better and keep running.