Read the second article in Daniel Davey’s two-part series on nutrition best practice in preparation for games and during recovery. This week, Daniel takes a look at optimum nutrition for recovery.

Recovery nutrition for team-sport performance

In last week’s article I outlined the most important nutrition considerations for athletes to be optimally-fuelled and ready to perform consistently to their best during matches. This week’s article deals with the most important nutrition aspects for optimal recovery from competitive team sport performance. In short, the primary nutrition goals for recovery after matches can be thought of as the three Rs:

  • Restore depleted energy & fuel (glycogen) stores
  • Rehydrate: replace lost fluid
  • Repair damaged muscle tissue 

Physical demands of team sports
During intense team sports like Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and soccer, athletes will cover anywhere between 5-15 km depending on field position. Irrespective of field position, the type of exercise being performed in these team sports is high intensity intermittent exercise, which results in a significant use of energy, particularly glycogen (the body’s stored from of carbohydrate). Additionally, the nature of tackling and collision in rugby results in a significant amount of bruising, muscle damage and inflammation that must be taken into account in the nutrition recovery protocol.
Replacing lost energy is one of the primary considerations for athletes after a match. Competitive matches that are greater than 60 minutes result in energy expenditure often greater than 1200 calories and maybe even as high as 2000 calories. This can mean a daily energy expenditure on match days of approximately 5000 calories for large, muscular athletes. If energy deficits are not made up in the 24-48 hours after matches, the rate of recovery will be reduced and there is a greater risk of illness due to immune suppression and hormonal disturbances. Additionally, the ability for the athlete to perform to their best in subsequent trainings will be impaired. This is why it is so important that a well-structured recovery plan is in place for athletes after all matches.

Brendan Macken
Dehydration of some degree is an inevitable consequence of intense exercise as it is difficult to consume fluids at the rate of loss through sweating that occurs during exercise. Rehydration after matches is therefore an immediate priority for athletes. Depending on environmental conditions, athlete size and match intensity, fluid losses can range anywhere from 1.5 litres up to 4 litres. These fluids must be replaced at a ratio of 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1 kg lost, meaning an intake of more than 5 litres of fluid in some cases. As there is much variability between athletes, sports and positions, the practice of weighing in before matches and weighing out afterwards (both done in minimal clothing such as underwear) is a simple way to measure fluid losses and guide fluid intakes after matches.
A key point here is to be practical with rehydration strategies as clearly 5 litres of fluid is an impractical amount to consume in one go. Best practice at the moment dictates that such recommendations on 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1 kg lost are address over the 6 hours after performance. When performance is in the evening and bedtime often calls before the 6 hour window closes, it is appropriate to continue the rehydration efforts the following morning.
As I explained in last week’s article, the primary fuel that is used during team-sport matches is carbohydrate in the form of muscle and liver glycogen. A competitive team sport match will lead to a significant glycogen deficit, hence, carbohydrate is the primary fuel source that must be replaced after matches assuming the athlete is training soon again in the following days. An immediate post-match recovery protocol will include a fast-digesting source of carbohydrate and a small amount of protein to initiate the recovery process and begin replenishing depleted glycogen stores. This period is when the body has the greatest ability to absorb nutrients and specifically carbohydrate (and protein – see below). The type of carbohydrate is particularly important during this phase.

Fast-digesting carbohydrate (e.g. white rice) will result in faster storage of glycogen compared to slow-digesting carbohydrate sources (e.g. sweet potato). This is one of the only periods when athletes should consume fast-digesting sources of carbohydrate like simple sugars, sports drinks and even sweet snacks. In recent years, much has been made in the media and nutrition literature about taking advantage of the immediate post-exercise recovery window (30-60 minutes) – sometimes called the “window of opportunity”. The intake of fast-digesting carbohydrate foods after matches is certainly important for athletes who have a short recovery time until the next training session or match, but it’s importance may be overstated for those who are not training again within the following 48 hours. If you are not training again within 48 hours, a balanced meal of even slow-digesting carbohydrate (sweet potato) and a quality protein source (wild salmon) will suffice.
It is well-known, particularly by athletes, that protein is the nutrient that supports growth and repair in the body. The intake of protein is another essential component of recovery from matches for the team-sport athlete. The fundamental role of protein after exercise is to promote recovery by helping to repair damaged muscle fibres, but it is also involved in countless other functions such as reducing muscle protein breakdown, facilitating hormone production and immune support, which are each vital for recovery.

The guideline for protein intake after intense performance is between 0.3-0.5 grams per kg body mass, which is 24-40 g of protein for the average 13 st male, but a lot more for larger athletes. Protein requirements can easily be met by eating whole foods like lean meats and fish in the recovery meal, but some athletes do struggle to eat dense food after exercise due to gastrointestinal distress or lack of appetite. In this case, a liquid recovery meal like a recovery drink or whey protein-fruit based smoothie can be used to provide these essential nutrients in a more tolerable form.

Mick McGrath
Antioxidants and micronutrients
The intake of a wide-range of micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals, is another vital consideration for athletes in the post-match recovery phase. Micronutrients assist with tissue repair, support the immune system and help to remove toxins from the blood and muscle tissue. In recent years a significant body of research has emerged looking at the effect of vitamin/antioxidant supplementation on the rate of recovery after intense exercise. This article does not have the scope to cover this topic in detail, but briefly, free radicals or “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) are suggested to damage the body’s cells and lead to an increased risk of certain inflammatory conditions. Under normal conditions, antioxidants (either produced naturally in the body or supplied by the diet) work by reducing the level of free radicals in the blood and muscle. As it happens, exercise increases the rate of free radical production in the body and more so during intense activity. The rationale behind using large doses of antioxidants after intense exercise is to negate the negative effects of free radicals and promote a faster rate of recovery.
Interestingly however, rather than large amounts of antioxidants improving the rate of recovery, research has shown that too much antioxidant supplementation can actually inhibit the natural adaptive response to exercise i.e. the benefits you get from training and playing. For this reason, rather than consuming large amounts of antioxidants in supplement form, it seems more beneficial to consume natural, whole food sources that contain a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in normal amounts that can support the recovery process. Ginger, blueberries, cherries, tumeric, pineapple and garlic in particular are suggested to be excellent anti-inflammatory foods that can assist with muscle recovery.
On a final note, a simple and effective recovery meal that is often popular with the Leinster Rugby squad is a fresh fruit smoothie that includes: water, milk, ice, banana, blueberries, honey, spinach, fresh ginger and whey protein. This is an ideal recovery meal that provides the athlete with a good source of protein, carbohydrate and essential micronutrients that will promote recovery – and it’s tasty too!
Recovery nutrition, like any other aspect of nutrition is not a one size fits all approach. Putting a recovery nutrition plan in place and consistently sticking to it will allow you to recover faster and ensure you are ready to train again in the best possible physical condition during a long competitive season.

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