Tips from an elite runner: nutrition principles for recovery

The strategy behind this Pan Am medallist's food regime

Rachel Hannah was the top woman finisher at Toronto’s oldest, continuously-held road race, the Race Roster Spring Run-Off in High Park, on April 9 with an 8K time of 27:48.8. She holds the bronze medal in the women’s marathon from the 2015 Pan Am Games.

I recommend every athlete – amateur or elite – see a registered dietitian to receive guidance that is designed to meet their energy and nutritional needs and performance ambitions and goals. That being said, here are some general guidelines.

Recovery eating is all about refuelling, rehydration and rebuilding in order to restore muscle and liver glycogen, also known as stored carbohydrates.

Defining ‘well balanced’

Refueling starts with a well-balanced diet, which I define as being:

  • predominantly plant based: at least half of your plate should be covered with leafy, non-starchy vegetables and opt to snack on fruits and vegetables and healthy fats
  • rich in whole grains and dairy products
  • containing very few or no processed foods
  • focused on healthy sources of fat such as avocado, olive oil  and nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, and pumpkins seeds

Protein preferences: lean meat and fatty fish

When you choose meat, choose lean cuts of meat such as chicken and turkey. Aim for less than 18 ounces of red meat intake per week.

Fish is a high quality source with a large amount of protein for the caloric content. Aim to have 2 servings (6 to 8 ounces) of fatty fish per week. I encourage my clients to opt for salmon, arctic char, trout, mackerel, anchovies and sardines.

Signs of healthy hydration

Adequate hydration helps to replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat and avoid dehydration, or over-hydration, which can lead to hyponatremia (when the level of sodium, an electrolyte, in your blood is abnormally low).

It’s tricky to define exact hydration targets since everyone’s fluid needs depends on individual sweat rate, exercise levels, and climate. But there are three simple signs that indicate proper hydration:

  1. a moist mouth (not feeling thirsty)
  2. urinating every 1.5 to 2 hours during the day
  3. urine is the colour of light straw

Protein muscle repair formula

Adequate dietary protein intake helps with protein synthesis for repair and adaptation.

Recent recommendations have underscored the importance of well-timed protein intake for all athletes. It is important to provide enough protein at optimal times to support tissues with rapid turnover that occur as a result of exercising regularly.

The overall general ranges for protein intake are 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.  I discuss the importance of portion size and timing of protein intake in more depth here[insert link].

Choose a customized approach, avoid pitfalls

Overall, recovery eating can often be misunderstood if we apply a one-size-fits-all approach. The best strategies largely take into account the workout that day, the food consumed before the workout and the overall fitness goal.

That’s why it’s important to approach every post-workout meal understanding your own activity level and intensity that day. This helps you avoid common pitfalls such as adding excessive calories or choosing nutrient-poor food and beverages.

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