Top endurance athletes use hydration, nutrition, and sleep to help them recover from intense exercise (J Funct Morphol Kinesiol, Mar 2022;7(1):22). When you exercise for endurance, you use up glycogen, the sugar that is stored for energy in your muscles, and you damage muscle fibers. You will recover faster from intense exercise by:
• Eating a high-carbohydrate meal as soon as possible after you finish a competition or intense workout (Nutrients, Mar 22, 2022;14(7):1320; J Exercise and Nutrition, May 2022;5(2); Nutr Rev, 2018 Apr 1;76(4):243-259; Int J Sprt Nutr and Ex Metab, 2010;20:515-532).
• Adding protein to that meal hastens recovery even more (Sports Science Exchange, 2002;87:15; Physiologie Appliquée, Nutrition et Métabolisme, February 2008; J Strength Cond Res, Aug 2010;24(8):2192-202).
• Taking caffeine-rich foods and drinks such as coffee or chocolate may help muscles replenish their stored sugar sources faster (J of Applied Physiology, 2008;105:7-13).
• Drinking lots of fluids is also necessary for a faster recovery (J Hum Kinet, July 28, 2021;79:111-122; Eur J Sport Sci, 2014;14:S69-S76; J of Sports Sciences, January 2004).
• Going to sleep soon after you finish intense exercise hastens recovery (Int J Sports Med, Aug 2019;40(8):535-543; Int J Environ Res Public Health, 2021;18:11698). Intense exercise damages muscles, which causes your pituitary gland to produce large amounts of human growth hormone (HGH) that helps repair injured tissues, and you produce the largest amounts of HGH when you sleep (J Pediatr, 1996 May;128(5 Pt 2):S32-7). A ninety-minute recovery nap after you exercise also improves your ability to reason and think (Sleep, April 12, 2019;42(1):A71-A72).
Train by Stressing and Recovering
All training for sports that require strength or endurance is based on “stress and recover”. You take an intense workout to damage your muscles so that when they heal, they will become stronger and have greater endurance. You know that you have caused Z-line muscle fiber damage because you will feel Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) 4-24 hours after you stop exercising. Then you exercise at a very low intensity for as many days as it takes for muscles to heal. Only when your muscles feel fresh again do you take your next intense workout.
As long as your post-intense-exercise meal contains lots of protein and carbohydrates, it doesn’t matter much what you eat (Am J Clin Nutr, Jan 2017; Med Sci Sports Exerc, Oct 2008;40(10):1789-94). Hamburgers, French fries and other fast foods helped athletes recover just as quickly from hard workouts as sports nutrition products such as Gatorade, PowerBars or Clif Bars (Int J of Sprt Nutr and Exe Metab, March 26, 2015).
The fastest way to get muscles to heal is to have your body produce lots of insulin, which you will get when you take in any source of carbohydrates. You must also provide a supply of protein to repair the damaged tissue. Insulin drives sugar into cells to be used for energy, and it also drives protein building blocks called amino acids into the muscle cells to help them heal faster. Add salt on hot days, when your muscles feel excessively fatigued or you develop cramps (Can J Appl Physiol, 2001;26 Suppl:S236-45). See Recovery: the Key to Improvement in Your Sport
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.