This is the third part of a three part series on race day nutrition. Parts one and two looked at pre-race and mid-race nutrition respectively. In this blog I will discuss nutrition strategies for optimal recovery after your race.

Race day is a big day for us runners, it’s a chance to prove to yourself and others that your training is paying off and a time to put all your hard work to the test. For some it’s a chance to have a bit of fun and race with your friends, for others it’s time to focus and test the limits of what you can do. Whatever race day means to you, it will be a challenge, it will be physically exerting and it will leave your body in need of some rest and recovery. But is there anything we can do to speed the recovery process up? The short answer is ‘yes’, and here’s how.

Kenya Experience Founder, Gavin Smith, racing Cardiff Bay 10K.

The first 24 hours after a race is an extremely important time to consider what you eat and when you eat it. The fuel you put in your body can make a significant difference to how well and how quickly you recover. There are three main things to think about to think about in terms of what you put in your body after a race – rehydrating, refuelling and recovering, let’s start with the former.

Water makes up about 65 percent of your body weight and plays an extremely important role in maintaining normal body functions, most of which you never even think about during a normal day. Keeping your blood volume and pressure at the right level, carrying nutrients into cells, removing waste products and maintaining normal body temperature are just a few of the functions that water is responsible for in the human body.  During a race your body loses essential fluids and electrolytes that need to be replaced almost immediately. Of course, the amount of fluid you lose during your race will vary depending on the weather conditions, temperature, length of race and the intensity of running. Nevertheless, rehydrating should be your first priority after a race and you should aim to consume plenty of fluids within the first few minutes of finishing.

  • Try to have a bottle waiting for you near the finish line so that you can rehydrate as soon as possible after your race.
  • Consume a sports drink or gel as well as water in order to replace lost electrolytes and minerals.
  • As well as immediate rehydration, consuming fluids after a race also contributes to the recovery process by allowing easier transportation of nutrients to the muscles and removal waste products from the muscles. Try to remember just how important post-race rehydration is.
  • Try not to forget to drink plenty throughout the day after your race too. It’s easy to have a drink straight after your race and feel like the job is done. But on the inside, your body will be craving water for the next 24 hours in order to get everything back to normal again. Have a drink of water with your meals, before bed and in the morning after the race.

In chronological order the next thing to think about is refuelling. If you managed to have a sports drink straight after your race as part of your rehydration strategy then you are already well on your way to replenishing your energy reserves. Carbohydrate is the main source of fuel for your body when it comes to endurance running. Your body stores carbohydrate in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscles and when you run you use these reserves as a source of energy. Simply put, depleting these reserves means you need to replace them after your race (or even during, see part 2!).

It is during the first 30 minutes after your race that your muscles will be most permeable to nutrient uptake, so it is generally advised that you try to take on some easily digestible and absorbable carbohydrates as soon after your race as possible. Something like a banana, cereal bar, carbohydrate sports bar/drink, or if you can stomach it something more substantial like some bread with jam or peanut butter would be ideal. Of course, eating immediately after a race for some people is a tall order, so a high carb sports drink or smoothie would also do the trick and may be easier on the stomach. Again, try not to think the job is over once you’ve had a post-race snack. Once your stomach has settled and you can handle eating something a bit more substantial, try to eat meal with plenty of complex carbohydrates. Your body will still be trying to replace the energy reserves you used during your race, so it’s important to give it the fuel it needs, particularly during the first 30 minutes, but also throughout the next 24 hours.

Myles Edwards (A Scottish 1500m National Champion) getting some much needed fuel in after a hard workout in Iten, Kenya!

On another note, don’t get too caught up in the ‘eating time frames’. Don’t think that if you haven’t managed to eat some carbs in the ‘30 minute window’ after your race that all hope is lost and you’ll never recover in time for your next run. The human body is remarkable and will still do a great job at replenishing reserves; if you have some food available and can stomach it soon after your race then great, this will be beneficial, but if you feel more comfortable waiting until your stomach has settled then it’s not the end of the world.

Finally it’s time to think about kick starting the recovery process. This means protein. During a tough race your body undergoes a lot of wear and tear in the form of damaged muscle fibres and as most of you will already know, it’s protein that is primarily responsible for the growth and repair of muscle. Consuming protein also has some other beneficial effects for enhancing the recovery process such as speeding up the uptake of carbohydrates and hence aiding with replenishment of glycogen reserves in the muscles and liver. Protein also helps to reduce the effects of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol.

Just like we discussed with consuming carbohydrates, it is advised that you take on protein as soon after your race as possible. Again, it is in the first 30 minutes after a race that your body will be most permeable to nutrient uptake, so taking on some protein during this time will get the recovery process going and allow your body to start working it’s magic. For convenience and easiness on the stomach, a protein drink is a good option. It’s easy to pack in a bag and have as soon as you’ve finished the race, it’s quick and easy to digest, and you might even get lucky and find one that tastes nice. There are actually lots of ‘recovery shakes’ available that contain a mix of carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes and minerals so you can consume all the right ingredients for speedy recovery in one drink.

Knowing exactly how much protein you need is a bit tricky. A quick google of how much protein you need after a race will probably leave you kind of confused. There are hundreds of suggestions from people claiming they know exactly how much you should consume and when you should consume it. You’ll probably discover that you need ‘x’ grams of protein per ‘y’ kilograms of body weight per ‘z’ minutes of race time… While there is some scientific backing to some of the calculations you’ll find online, my opinion is that this is simply over complicating the matter. As I’ve eluded to already, I’m a believer in the fact that the human body is a master optimiser and will nearly always find a way to do what’s best for it. There a ways to help your body recover, which is the whole point of this article, but exact calculations aren’t really necessary. My advice is that you try to consume a good portion (anywhere between 15-30g) of protein as soon as you can after your race and back it up with a well balanced meal within the next few hours. That will be plenty to help your body do it’s thing.

A typical post-workout meal for Kenyan athletes, Beans and chapati. Beans are high in protein while the chapati boosts up the carb count.

Just remember that once your race is finished, the work isn’t over! Sure, give yourself a bit of a break (mental and physical) from running, but continue to think about how you are allowing your body to progress.  A lot of my recent articles have ended with “but make sure you find out what works for you”. I think this is no different. Try experimenting with different recovery products – drinks, powders, bars etc, or try some other foods after training that are high in protein. See which ones sit well in your stomach and see which ones leaving you feeling the best the next day.

I hope this article has given you a good idea of how to help your body recover after a tough race!


About the author

Callum Jones is an engineering master’s graduate of the University of Bristol and middle distance runner who has spent long periods of time training in Kenya.  He began working for the Kenya Experience in October 2017.

“I’ve been an aspiring distance runner for the last 10 years and worked hard to improve my times year after year.  Training in Iten was an incredible experience for me, it really took my running and love for the sport to a new level and opened my eyes to a whole new mentality towards training. Working for Kenya Experience is fantastic as I can offer my knowledge of the sport and insight into the Kenyan running culture with our guests.”

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