Recovery nutrition is slightly different for male and females, however both males and females should be eating as quickly as possible after a training session or race for optimal recovery, digestion, immune health and hormone health. Let’s discuss why.
When you exercise, regardless of whether it is aerobic or strength training, your body uses glycogen to fuel the majority of the training session. This glycogen will come from the food sources you eat before training sessions as well as the stored glycogen in your muscles and liver.
After training, your body is primed to make move carbohydrates (glycogen) back to your muscles, to replace the used glycogen stores. Your body does this from the carbohydrate-rich foods you eat after you finish your training session. This newly stored glycogen will then be used as energy for your body during the rest of the day and in your next training session.
Post-training nutrition recovery window
In both males and females, glycogen storage rates are at their highest within 60 minutes after a training session has finished. However, males can continue to store carbohydrates reasonably effectively for up to 18 hours post-exercise! But if you’re doing AM and PM training sessions, you wouldn’t want to wait this long, otherwise you’ll enter your next training session with depleted glycogen stores and reduced energy.
On the flip side, if females delay eating after training, less carbohydrate/glycogen can be stored – females really need to aim to get carbs coming in the first 60 minutes after exercise.
Missing this recovery window results in a decrease in glycogen stores, which leads to lower energy levels for the rest of the day and a reduction in sports performance in your next training session or race. When we’re tired and low in energy, we’re also more likely to crave sweet treats and other high sugar snacks.
Cortisol levels and stress
Regardless of the above information on glycogen storage rates, I always encourage both male and females to get carbs coming in as quickly as possible after exercise. This is because cortisol levels (our stress hormone) become quite elevated during exercise. After exercise both males and females need to stabilise their cortisol levels as quickly as possible, by consuming some good quality carbohydrate-rich foods (oats, fruit, starchy veggies, rice, legumes).
High quality starchy carbs bind to the excess cortisol and clear it from the body. The longer you wait until you eat some starchy carbs after training, the higher your cortisol levels will rise. You want to avoid elevated cortisol levels after training because this kills off your good gut bacteria, which will then reduce the body’s ability to digest and absorb protein, carbs and iron-rich foods at your next meal.
Elevated cortisol levels after exercise also interfere with the balance of the female sex hormones progesterone and oestrogen, both required for optimal sports performance, a healthy menstrual cycle and needed in ideal levels to promote fat burning. Elevated cortisol also weakens the immune system, some studies suggest athletes need to aim to eat within 10 minutes of finishing exercise to support optimal immune function!
After exercise you need to focus on more than just carbohydrates – protein is just as important! After exercise, the body is in a catabolic state (breakdown state),where the muscles and immune system are being broken down. To stop this breakdown state we need to eat food ASAP (within 30 mins) to turn the body into a building and repair state, and we need to eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein, both are equally important. If this catabolic state is not turned into a building and repairing state, the immune system will become compromised, the muscles will not repair and rebuild properly, and the clearing of lactic acid will be reduced.
Protein’s main purpose after exercise is to rebuild and repair our muscles and our immune system. One of the most import amino acids to be getting in post-exercise is leucine! Leucine is needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in both males and females. Similar to carbs, the amount of protein required after exercise differs for both males and females.
Females need to be getting in 30g of total protein and 2.5-3g of leucine, within 30 minutes of finishing exercise. Whereas, males still need approx 25-30g of total protein but only need around 2 – 2.5g of leucine and again they have a longer nutrition recovery window. Males could push their protein intake out to 2 hours post-workout from a muscle recovery point a view, but for optimal immune function I still recommended males aim for 25-30g of protein within 30 minutes.
Common protein sources, including Leucine levels:
|Protein Source||Total Protein||Total Leucine|
|40g of good quality whey protein powder*||30g||2.5g|
|130g of beef, chicken and or lamb||25-30g||1.8g|
|100g of salmon||25g||1.7g|
|½ cup of Greek yoghurt||12g||1.2g|
|2 large eggs||12g||1g|
|¼ cup of pumpkin seeds||10g||1g|
|250ml of cow’s milk||9g||1g|
|1 cup of organic tempeh||31g||2.4g|
|1 cup of lentils||18g||1.3g|
|¼ of a cup of hemp seeds||11g||0.7g|
|1 cup of cooked quinoa||11g||0.5g|
|¼ cup of almond||7g||0.5g|
3 quick ways to get protein and carbs in after exercise:
- A smoothie with 1 heaped scoop of good quality whey protein powder, fruit of choice, some hemp or pumpkin seeds and milk/almond milk
- A main meal with meat or fish or organic tempeh in it with some starchy veggies or coloured rice
- 40g of whey protein powder mixed in water, and 2 dates or 3 dried figs – perfect for recovery when on the go!
In summary, I always recommend both female and males aim to eat a mix of protein and carbs with in 30 mins of finishing training. This ensures the body is adapting to your training load, repairing and rebuilding your muscles correctly, supporting and repairing immune function and reducing raised cortisol levels.
This will also ensure female hormone levels are balanced, meaning the body will be less inflamed, produce more energy and be more primed to burn fat instead of hold on to it. For both males and females eating within 30 minutes of training will ensure you have energy for the rest of the day, avoid the mid-afternoon slump, ensure you go in to your next training session with fully stocked glycogen stores, support optimal immune health, hormone health and promote fat burning and muscle building.