Last weekend my recovery meal after the Tour de Cure ride consisted of a double cheeseburger... yummy, but not ideal! The experts all seem to agree that our bodies are extremely receptive to, and demanding of, food during the first 30 minutes after an intense workout. But what should we look for in a meal during that critical post-race window?
Since our muscles are pretty drained after a workout, restoring their lost energy is critical, at least if you'll be training again that same day, or even the next day. Give your body some high-GI carbs that it can easily convert to muscle glycogen and you will be re-energized more quickly. The consensus seems to be that we need about 0.54 grams per pound of body weight. For me, at about 150 pounds, that means 81 g. If you won't be training for a couple of days or more you should cut back on the size of this meal, especially if you are trying to lose some weight.
Intense exercise also stresses our bodies in several ways; muscle tissue damage, the release of free radicals, lost electrolytes and an increase in our blood acidity. These stresses can trigger our bodies to adapt, and thus become more fit, but prolonged stresses can also cause problems. In fact some studies suggest that extreme athletes live shorter lives because of the repeated stresses our bodies are subjected to. Let's look at each of these stressors individually:
Muscle tissue damage
If you examine your muscle fibers under a microscope after an intense workout, you will see that they are literally frayed from the muscular friction. Fortunately our bodies know how to repair this and after a little soreness we are stronger for it. All we need is some protein in our diet to help it along; about 10-20 g in our recovery meal, and between 0.45-0.73 g per pound of body weight daily total (about 68-109 g daily for me) seems to be enough. But keep in mind that some foods, like wheat and beans, contain anti-nutrients that block absorption of protein. So stay away from grains, soy and peanuts, and get your protein from egg whites, lean meat, fish and poultry (or even whey powder) instead.
These are harmful byproducts of intense exercise. Fortunately exercise improves our bodies' ability to fight free radicals, but diet is important too. We can fight free radicals with antioxidants. Vitamins C and E seem to be very helpful, but many others have only recently been studied and merit attention, including polyphenols, resveratrol, flavonoids and carotenoids.
Sodium and potassium are the main electrolytes we lose, but magnesium, calcium, iron, copper and zinc are also important electrolytes. Without them we can literally die, quickly.
Lactic acid is well known by athletes, and can induce fitness, but excessive blood acidity can cause problems. Fortunately many foods can lower blood acidity. Keeping blood pH in balance will improve your fitness and health.
OK, the envelope please...
Dates are one of the very best sources of antioxidants in any food and fight free radicals (berries are great too). Raisins are perfect for lowering blood acidity (spinach too). Egg whites are a great source of easily-absorbed protein (or eat a lean meat, fish or poultry for additional nutrition). Bananas replace potassium (sweet potatoes are great too) and salted seeds and nuts replenish other minerals as well (avoid peanuts due to their protein-blocking).
That's not one food, but several, as you should expect now that you better understand the complicated results of intense exercise. But it's pretty easy to combine these into simple snacks and meals. My favorites:
Raisins and brazilnuts for on-bike eating, after the intense part is over. Provides high-GI carbs, antioxidants, blood-alkaline, and electrolytes.
Dates, and blueberry juice with whey protein powder, for post-ride meals. Provides moderate-GI carbs, antioxidants, blood-alkaline, electrolytes and protein.
Egg-white scramble with spinach and bell peppers, for later on as our GI needs decrease. Or have some lean turkey with the veggies. Provides tons of protein, electrolytes, blood-alkaline and low-GI.
OK, that's enough for now, but I could go on, trust me!