After a long run, you will have depleted the majority of your stored carbohydrate, ie your muscle and liver glycogen. This happens even if you do manage to keep up the generally accepted recommendation of an intake of 60g of carbohydrate each hour, as you simply cannot match energy expenditure with calorie intake during your run. So it is really important post-run to eat carbs, especially for those with a high glycemic index. Carbs initiate an insulin response, which in turn lowers your blood-sugar level by driving carbohydrate back into the muscles, where it is stored again as glycogen.
Fast-release protein is also needed by the body. If you do not fuel adequately with carbohydrate during your long run, your body can actually start to break down your lean muscle mass to convert the protein into energy. Taking in protein after exercise helps to prevent this. It also supports the repair of any damage to muscle tissue that has occurred due to the training load.
Ideally, you want a protein with a complete amino acid profile so that your body has all of the building blocks it needs for muscle-protein synthesis. Examples include whey and soy protein – these are both rapidly digested, meaning the amino acids are available for use as quickly as possible, which helps to speed up the recovery process. Whey protein is particularly useful as it has a high leucine content. Leucine is an amino acid that stimulates the rate at which the body produces new muscle protein.
For something you can actually eat, this could translate to a chicken-salad sandwich. And yes, sports nutrition-recovery shakes offer this balance of high GI carbohydrates and high-quality proteins and are simply a convenient way to ensure you take it on board, particularly if you have finished a race or don’t have access to a kitchen right then.
If you are away from home, don’t have any products handy or need to make a last-minute purchase from the petrol station on the way back from a long run, you can also make some educated choices to try to not impede your recovery. Avoid anything too high in fibre or fat, such as nuts or chocolate, as these can be slow to digest. Avoid anything that has a lot of mayonnaise or cheese in it, as it will have a high fat content. Baked crisps can be a source of carbohydrates, aren’t too high in fat and will deliver some salt, too. Low-fat flavoured milkshakes, or even a hot chocolate made with milk, may be an option if you don’t have the appetite for solid food.
Hydration is, of course, really important, too. The general rule of thumb is to have 150% of the fluid volume post-training that you lose during training. Try and include some salt with your food, or use an electrolyte drink to help replace electrolytes, particularly sodium, which is lost through sweat. An intake of electrolytes also helps to retain the fluid you are ingesting in the body.
Emma Barraclough is the senior sports nutritionist for Science in Sport scienceinsport.com.
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