How Nutrition Helps You Recover

  Jul 23, 2017  |  #Marathon Training

Hello! I hope you had a wonderful weekend! It was brutally hot here so we opted for ample time indoors. We did find some shade on the trails and took a family run on Sunday morning (Tater included)!

Lots of water was necessary but it was a great little 4 mile run, which leads perfectly into our topic of how nutrition helps with recovery.

PS – the Nathan hydration backpack is amazing!

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery

I received a question from a reader in marathon training about the best things to eat for marathon training, so I figured I’d make a post about it! Even though I’m not currently in a high training state, I love sharing eats on running, long run days and all and I love working with runners.

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I’m sure most of us have experienced workouts where we knew we didn’t eat the right thing beforehand. We may have felt bloated, lethargic, or just “off,” if our meal was eaten too close or too far away from our workout. Or, if we didn’t have the right proportion of carbohydrates, fat and protein.

Well, it’s similar after a workout too. Nutrition can definitely play a role – eating the right thing and at the right time can have a tremendous impact on how we feel the following days and how our muscles recover. Making sure you’re eating enough comes into play too.

How Nutrition Helps with Running and Recovery || Marathon Training || Nutrition and Running

The Macronutrients

Immediately after exercise, our muscles are primed to assimilate and build protein from amino acids from the blood. After exercise, our muscles are also most efficient at absorbing carbohydrates. The amino acids replenish and build protein stores, while the carbohydrates refill our glycogen stores.

Carbohydrates also stimulate insulin, an anabolic hormone that helps with muscle building and bringing carbohydrates into the muscles.

Ideally, you want a 3:1-4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. I’ll say that again – you want MORE CARBOHYDRATES THAN PROTEIN. Your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at once, so loading up your smoothie with 50 grams of protein is pretty futile.

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery

We used to tell athletes to refuel within 30-60 minutes of exercise, but recent research has shown that the time window may be much longer. I also talk a little more about the window in this Women’s Running article.

Amino Acids After Exercise

Muscles will continue to take up carbohydrates over the next 24 hours but just not as quickly as soon after. So, while you don’t have to kill yourself to get food in immediately after, I would recommend trying to get it in sooner rather than later – your body needs it!

Try to get good quality protein too, and pick sources with essential amino acids (EAA). EAA is not the same as protein, and refers to amino acids that our body can’t make, especially leucine.

1 cup of greek yogurt has 5.7 grams of EAA (1.2 g leucine), while 1 oz skinless chicken breast has 3.9 grams of EAA (.8 g leucine), compared to 1/2 oz of almonds which only has 0.9 grams of EAA (.2 g leucine).

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery

Conclusion: After exercise, you want a combination of protein + carbs to replenish and rebuild your muscle stores. 

So, what does this translate to?

  • Chocolate milk
  • Oats with milk/yogurt and fruit
  • Fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt
  • Fish/chicken/beef with veggies and a grain
  • Peanut Butter/yogurt toast
  • Greek yogurt cup with berries/cereal
  • Sandwich (turkey, tuna, chicken, etc) or wrap with some fruit

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery

The Micronutrients

The main vitamins we think of with exercise are Vitamins C, E and beta carotene, which are all antioxidants. You get these nutrients through a balanced diet as well. In this post about recovery foods after exercise, I talk about some of my favorite recovery foods, many of them with a high antioxidant content.

Foods high in Vitamin C include oranges, red peppers, strawberries, kiwi, mango, kale, brussel sprouts and broccoli.

Carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, kale, spinach and apricots are high in beta carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A) and very good for recovery as well.

Other things shown to help with recovery include turmeric and tart cherry juice, which can decrease inflammation and improve recovery time.  I love this protein powder with both turmeric and tart cherry in it.

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery

Conclusion: If you’re eating adequate fresh fruits/veggies, you’re probably getting a good amount of antioxidants. Some fruits/veggies are also high in water too!

The Electrolytes

When you sweat, you lose water but also minerals like potassium and sodium. Electrolytes for runners are important to replenish because they help the water “stay” in our system.

Otherwise, we’d just be drinking water and peeing it out. They also regulate blood pressure, pH, and nerve and muscle function. Some muscle cramps may be a mix of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance.

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery, recover

Fluid needs vary by person, activity and time of year, so it’s nearly impossible to offer one-size-fits-all recommendations. Furthermore, some of us are heavier or saltier sweaters than others.

According to Nancy Clark, the ranges of electrolytes lost in 2lb (or 1 L, 1qt) of sweat are:

  • Sodium – 200-1,600 mg
  • Potassium – 120-600 mg
  • Calcium  – 6-40 mg
  • Magnesium – 2-18 mg

If you’re a heavy sweater, it may benefit you to add more salt to your foods, or consume sodium containing fluids/foods before, during and after exercise.

This doesn’t have to just be sports drinks – there are plenty of salty foods, including soups, tomato sauce, pizza, pretzels, breads, bagels and popcorn. You can replenish potassium through fruits, veggies and yogurt.

More about electrolytes here.

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery, recover


You’ve probably heard that checking your urine is the best way to tell if you’re hydrated vs dehydrated, and that’s true. You want a pale yellow color. Additionally, symptoms of headaches, chronic fatigue and lethargy are also signs of dehydration.

Dehydration is cumulative and it stresses the body. When we don’t have enough fluid on board, our body temperature rises, our heart rate increases, and exercise feels harder.

You don’t want to be in a fluid deficit before you start exercising, so try to drink sufficient fluids beforehand. For example, you wake up dehydrated so having 16-24 oz of water before a morning workout is recommended.

Ideally, you want to replace the fluids you lose through sweating. Now in the summer, that’s probably a lot more (more on summer hydration and winter hydration). A good way to tell how much water you’ve lost through exercise is to weigh yourself before and after – a pound of sweat loss is about 16 oz of water. You want to replenish what you lost plus some.

You don’t want to lose more than 2% of your body weight (about 3# for a 150# person).

Water is best, but there is a place for sports drinks, and even milk products too! I love NUUN tabs that help me drink more water and also add in electrolytes.

How Nutrition Helps with Running Recovery, recover

Want More Reading?

Check out these posts:

If you’re looking for more running or specific sports nutrition resources, Nancy Clark has some great books. I have the Sports Nutrition Guidebook and the Food Guide for Marathoners, and love them both.

I hope this is helpful – if you have more specific questions or would like to work together, I work with lots of runners on food choices, hydration and making sure you’re eating enough!

This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for your support.

What’s your favorite pre/post run or exercise snack?


43 responses to “How Nutrition Helps You Recover

  1. Hi Sarah!

    Do you have any tips for pre-workout snacks?

    Being that I’ll be starting law school in two weeks id really like to fine tune my morning workout routine, as I’ll only have so much time in the morning. I’m an early riser and lately I’ve been eating breakfast and hour before a workout, but I won’t have an hour to wait around until my workout so I don’t get an upset stomach.

    Whether it’s running or workout videos, 30-60 minute workouts, do you even suggest eating a small snack before? Was thinking a small apple or melon or crackers…but I’m not really sure. I really love bananas, and have heard they’re a good pre-workout snack but I eat at least a half of one every day with my breakfast along with berries and some carb, and sometimes ill have some banana and peanut butter as a snack before bed, but the fear of food I’m still trying to kick is telling me that 1+ bananas a day is too many. I’m a work in progress, especially when it comes to bananas and I suppose carbs in general. Is there such a thing as too many?

    1. 99.9% of the carbs I intake come from unprocessed foods like fruits and veggies with the occasional whole grain bread/wrap if that makes any difference…

    2. Hi Ashley – technically, you don’t need a snack before a workout less than an hour because you have enough glycogen stores. That being said, if you’re hungry, I always tell clients to eat. Personally, I wake up starving and need to eat something carbohydrate based before a workout or run. You could try dry cereal, half a banana (you don’t need to worry about overdoing bananas), or a piece of toast with peanut butter – it doesn’t have to be huge, but it gives you some energy to fuel the workout! Hope that helps 🙂

  2. Hi Sarah! I’m so happy I stumbled on this post, because it is so darn thorough. I love how you talked about salt and sweat ratios for people — that’s something that isn’t discussed enough. Great work here! Sharing now! 🙂

  3. Hello! I love your blog! I really look forward to all of your informative posts. They are definitely some of the best out there! So I need to loose weight and was thinking of training for a half marathon to accomplish this. However, as you mentioned earlier they are two goals that can’t really be accomplished together. Should I just focus on smaller distances at a faster pace? More along the lines of intervals? Or strength training and hiit ?So confused. Especially because my personal trainer zealously opposes any sort of steady state cardio. Any advice for me? Thank you!

    1. Hi Mari,
      Since training requires a lot of energy and extra nutrients, I don’t recommend my clients try to lose weight while training – something is likely to suffer, whether it be the running or the person. I don’t specialize in weight loss with my clients – rather I focus on intuitive eating principles. If you’re interested in more information, feel free to email me: [email protected].

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