After a race, be it a hard 10k, triathlon or bike race, you’ll find yourself staring at a table of post-race food. Typically you see bananas, oranges, bagels and the occasional pizza and beer. Many athletes won’t think twice about what they eat, they just know they are hungry and have earned those calories. But are those the right calories? Could you be doing something better to speed up the recovery process? Those are the questions many athletes are asking and quite frankly, it can be confusing.
To state the obvious, races are hard. You push yourself to your limit and expend a lot more energy than you do during training. As such, the stress on the body is greater which elicits certain responses. Let’s consider what is going on after you cross the line:
- Central nervous fatigue and high levels of oxidative stress
- Depleted glycogen
- High core temperature
- Elevated heart rate
- Blood pooling in extremities therefore less available for digestion
On a normal training day, you’re likely to have favorable conditions and your recovery nutrition set up to your needs and likes. You can walk into your kitchen and take in quality carbohydrates and perhaps some hydration and protein along with it. My personal go-to is a banana, Ultragen, 2 Optygen HP’s, and some fish oil. I follow that up roughly 60 minutes later with a larger caloric dense meal.
The Mind/Body Disconnect
The interesting thing is that what your brain thinks and body needs may be two different things. The subconscious and inherent intent is to down calories. Athletes tell themselves, “I’m starving and I need to get in calories because I just redlined it for two hours”. While there is warrant to devouring everything in sight- the pizza, the cold beer, bananas and fruits to get in calories- it seems that the most favorable option may be a mix of both some post-race decadence as well as some high quality nutrients you are used to using on training days.
Race Day Environment
For starters, post race presents a lot of different scenarios that are far from a typical day of training. You may experience extreme temps, not have prepared adequately with enough fuel or enough sodium, raced over more hills than you’re used to… the list goes on.
When the environment is very different you’re going to want to treat your body as such. You’ve likely pushed your body to the limit and are in a complete state of not only muscular fatigue, but nerve system fatigue as well. To sit there and down three slices of pizza, two bananas, the sugary hydration drink, beer, etc… only seems to be doing your body a disservice.
The Right Mix
Most athletes we see experience an optimal recovery cycle post-race when they marry the concepts of both nutrient and caloric dense foods. By that, I mean getting in something that is similar to your normal recovery habit along with getting in some calories that are going to help the body start to restore glycogen & promote re-stabilizing bodily functions.
Here are some tips to avoid serious GI distress and stay ahead of the curve on race day recovery with nutrition:
- As you finish your race try to get your feet up, find a chair or nice patch of grass to get off your feet.
- Find some cold water; most the time there’s a water trough with iced water. This will of course provide fluids but equally important it’ll begin to cool your inner, core temp & get blood re-circulated.
- if you normally use a recovery drink, have it in your bag and add to the cold water– it’ll be a welcomed signal recognized by your body to start recovering.
- Steer clear or really fatty foods or even high protein foods.
- As you begin to catch your breath, go for the banana and a single slice of pizza, not 5. These simple carbohydrates will be easy to digest and provide for the immediate need of restoring glycogen.
- Apparently beer is a good hydrator (compared to water) due to the ascorbic acid and carbohydrate. However, my recommendation is to save this for your afternoon lounge on the porch and don’t drink it right away.
It’s really the K.I.S.S. principle when it comes to post-race nutrition. No matter what race you are doing, find the right mix using your everyday recovery and some post-race foods provided. Use high glycemic foods for the first 90 minutes following your race. Plan for a quality, nutrient dense meal 2-3 hours post race which will help your body re-stabilize blood sugar and drive cortisol down, allowing for a steady stream of nutrients into the recovering muscles.
Because of the level of muscle damage, try adding a green smoothie or high antioxidant fruit salad to begin the rebuilding process. This would be a more likely time to enjoy the beer, have the ice cream, or other indulgence.
As the saying goes, “the foods that are bad for us are good for us post-exercise and the foods that are good for us are bad for us post-exercise.” While this sounds good it is not entirely true. Nutrients are as important as calories and getting in a balance of both will set you up well for a quick recovery.