Recovering from Hard Exercise: How to Refuel

author : Nancy Clark
comments : 4

What's best to eat for recovery after a hard workout? How many carbohydrates do you need? Do you need protein? What about electrolytes?

What's best to eat for recovery after a hard workout? That's what marathoners, body builders, and fitness exercisers alike repeatedly ask. They read ads for commercial recovery foods that demand a 3 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein, tout the benefits of a proprietary formula, or emphasize immediate consumption the minute you stop exercising. While these ads offer an element of truth, consumers beware: engineered recovery foods are not more effective than standard foods. The purpose of this article is to educate you, a hungry athlete, about how to choose an optimal recovery diet.

Which athletes need to worry about a recovery diet?

Too many athletes are obsessed with rapidly refueling the minute they stop exercising. They are afraid they will miss the one-hour “window of opportunity” when glycogen replacement is the fastest. They fail to understand that refueling still occurs for several hours, just at a slowing rate. Given a steady influx of adequate carb-based meals and snacks, muscles can refuel within 24 hours. If you have a full day to recover before your next training session, or if you have done an easy (non-depleting) workout, you need not obsess about refueling immediately afterwards.

Refueling as soon as tolerable is most important for serious athletes doing a second bout of intense, depleting exercise within six hours of the first workout, including—

  • triathletes doing double workouts,
  • soccer players in tournaments,
  • people who ski hard in the morning and again in the afternoon.

The sooner you consume carbs to replace depleted muscle glycogen and protein to repair damaged muscle, the sooner you'll be able to exercise hard again.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, your muscles will have lots of time to replenish glycogen stores. Just be sure to repeatedly consume a foundation of carbohydrates with each meal/snack, along with some protein to build and repair the muscles. For example, chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie are excellent choices. 

How many carbs do I need?

According to the International Olympic Committee’s Nutrition Recommendations, adequate carbs means:

 Amount of exercise Gram carb/lb Gram carb/kg
 Moderate exercise (~1 hour/day) 2.5 to 3 5-7
 Endurance exercise (1-3 h/day) 2.5 to 4.5 6-10
 Extreme exercise (>4-5 h/day) 3.5 to 5.5 8-12

Example, a 150-lb triathlete doing extreme exercise should target ~500 to 800 g carb/day (2,000-3,200 carb-calories). That’s about 500 to 800 g carbs every 4 hours during the daytime.

What are some good carb-protein recovery foods?

Your recovery meals and snacks should include a foundation of carbohydrate-rich breads, cereals, grains, fruits, and vegetables plus a smaller amount of protein (at least 10-20 grams per recovery snack or meal). Enjoy—

fruit smoothie (Greek yogurt + banana + berries)
 cereal + milk bagel + (decaf) latté
 pretzels + hummus baked potato + cottage cheese
 turkey sub pasta + meatball

Do NOT consume just protein, as in a protein shake or protein bar. Protein fills your stomach and helps build and repair muscles, but it does not refuel your muscles. Your muscles want three or four times more calories from carbs than from protein. If you like the convenience of protein shakes, at least add carbs to them. That is, blend in some banana, frozen berries, and graham crackers.

Keep in mind that recovery calories “count.” I hear many frustrated dieters complain they are not losing weight despite hard workouts. Perhaps that’s because they gobble 300 or so “recovery calories” and then go home and enjoy a hefty dinner. By organizing your training to end at mealtime, you can avoid over-indulging in recovery-calories.

What about recovery electrolytes?

After a hard workout, many athletes reach for a sports drink, thinking Gatorade or PowerAde is “loaded” with sodium (an electrically charged particle). Think again! Milk and other “real foods” are actually better sources of electrolytes than most commercial sports products. These electrolytes (also known as sodium and potassium) help enhance fluid retention and the restoration of normal fluid balance. Here’s how some common recovery fluids compare:

Beverage (8 oz) Sodium (mg) Potassium (mg) Protein (g) Carbs (g)
 Water -- -- -- --
 PowerAde 55 45 -- 19
 Gatorade 110 30 -- 14
 Low-fat milk 100 400 8 12
 Chocolate milk 150 425 8 26
 Orange juice -- 450 2 26

As you can see, after a hard workout, recovery fluids such as chocolate milk, orange juice, or a latte offer far more “good stuff” than you'd get in a sports drink. Sports drinks are dilute and designed for during extended exercise.

To assess how much sodium you lose in sweat, weigh yourself naked pre-post an hour of exercise, accounting for any fluid consumed. Loss of one pound equates to loss of about 700-1,000 mg sodium. If you sweat heavily and lose a significant amount of sodium, you can easily replace those losses with pretzels (300 mg sodium/10 twists), a bagel (500 mg) with peanut butter (200 mg/2 tbsp), Wheaties and milk (300 mg), or a spaghetti dinner with tomato sauce (1000 mg/cup Ragu sauce). Most athletes consume plenty of sodium! 

Recovery can start before you exercise

What you eat before you exercise impacts your recovery. According to research presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, consuming protein before lifting weights enhanced recovery better than consuming a protein drink afterwards. That's because your body digests pre-exercise protein into amino acids (yes, your body can digest food during exercise) and puts those amino acids right into action repairing damaged muscles.

What if you feel like you never really recover well?

If you have to drag yourself through workouts, questions arise:

  • Are you overtraining? Rest is an essential part of a training program; muscles need time to refuel and repair. Take at least one, if not two, days off from exercise per week.
  • Are you anemic? Anemia is common, so have your MD monitor your serum ferritin (stored iron). If your iron stores are depleted, you’ll feel needlessly tired during exercise. An estimated half of female athletes are iron-deficient, as indicated by low serum ferritin stores. (About 14% of all women are iron deficient.) A survey with collegiate male runners suggested about 20% had low serum ferritin. Iron supplements help resolve the problem, alongside a good recovery diet. Eat wisely, recover well, and feel great!

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at See also


Nutrition for Athletes: A practical guide to eating for health and performance.
Prepared by the Nutrition Working Group of the International Olympic Committee, Feb 2010

Campos. Manuel, S Gervais, J Walker, A Olson. Iron deficiency in Division III male cross country and track runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010; 42(5 Supplement):Abstract 2821

Lee, Choi Hyun, J Kim, K Hoon Park, J Lee. Efect of the timing of protein supplement on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010;  42(5 Supplement):Abstract 2862.

Nicewonger, Christine, J Flohr, M Todd, C Womack. The effect of iron supplementation on iron markers and performance in female athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2010; 42(5 Supplement):Abstract 2822


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date: January 19, 2012

Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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