When most people think about recovery (if they ever think about recovery), it’s usually in terms of muscle repair, which generally involves consuming protein and performing lots of stretching and foam rolling. While repair is a key part of the recovery process, there’s another aspect that’s equally important and almost always overlooked: metabolic recovery, or the replenishment of the body’s energy stores.
“What we’re talking about is refueling the muscle,” says Lance Dalleck, PhD, director of the Center for Wellness and Human Performance at Western State Colorado University.
That fuel is called glucose, which is stored in muscles and the liver in the form of glycogen. During exercise, those stores are depleted to produce ATP, the body’s primary unit of cellular energy.
“If you don’t fully replenish those glycogen stores prior to your next workout, your exercise performance will be compromised, and fatigue will set in much sooner,” says Dalleck.
It’s that simple, and the reason many experts believe that when it comes to prioritizing the recovery process, metabolic recovery should occupy the top spot.
“It’s even more important than muscle repair,” says Dr. Scott Schreiber, an integrative medicine specialist in Delaware who’s double board certified in rehabilitation and clinical nutrition. “If you have no energy to repair your muscles, the repair just won’t happen.”
This is where sports drink companies might start grinning and nodding enthusiastically; after all, it’s what they’ve been preaching since Gatorade first hit store shelves more than 30 years ago. But optimizing metabolic recovery requires more than flopping on the couch with a high-carb, neon-green sports drink.
“It requires an intentional approach that combines nutrition, nutrition timing, and rest to ultimately improve performance,” says John Ivy, PhD, chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at The University of Texas, in Austin.
Or as Amy Goodson, sports dietician for the Dallas Cowboys, puts it, “Train smart, but recover smarter.”
How to Get the Most Out of Metabolic Recovery
Consume protein and carbs following your workout
After intense exercise, the body is often in a catabolic state. That is, to support the energy needs of recuperating muscles, it releases hormones to pull fuel from the liver, fat, and the muscles themselves. It’s less of an issue if you’ve maintained a solid nutritional approach before each workout (i.e., eaten a balanced meal within a few hours of exercising), but a degree of catabolism can occur regardless, especially after exceptionally intense training.
In this hormonal environment, the breakdown of muscle protein is taking place.
“Unless something’s done to switch the body from a catabolic to an anabolic state, it can go on for hours,” explains Ivy.
One of the most effective ways to halt this breakdown is by consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein (like that found in Beachbody Performance Recover) during the first 30-to-60 minutes after exercise. That might contradict what you’ve read on many protein powder labels at your local supplement store, which often focus exclusively on protein, but research shows that carbs and protein work synergistically at the cellular level. Carbohydrates help protein reach your muscles faster, speeding growth. Protein, meanwhile, may significantly accelerate the re-synthesis of glycogen, according to a study at the University of Western Ontario.
It gets better. By consuming a carb-protein (CHO+PRO) combo, catabolic hormones like cortisol are reduced while insulin levels are pushed up. This also aids metabolic recovery.
“Insulin is a very anabolic hormone,” says Ivy. “It blocks muscle protein breakdown, and supports muscle protein synthesis and tissue repair by increasing muscle amino acid uptake.”
Don’t worry too much about consuming a specific ratio of carbs-to-protein post workout—studies have yet to settle on an optimal one. Although from a protein angle, research shows 20 grams seems ideal. But where most studies do agree is on the fact that carbs and protein achieve more together than either does alone.
Metabolic recovery results are amplified if you eat a second CHO+PRO meal 90-to-120 minutes post workout, says Goodson. But this time the focus is exclusively on refueling your liver and muscle glycogen stores rather than also on halting the catabolic gobbling of muscle tissue.
As a general rule of eating for recovery, try to consume half of your bodyweight in grams of carbohydrates, and ⅓ to ¼ of that number in grams of protein during your post workout meal. For morning exercisers, that might be a bowl of oatmeal, some scrambled eggs, and a side of fruit. For midday or evening exercisers, it might be salmon, a sweet potato, and some spinach salad, says Goodson. And just FYI, dessert doesn’t count toward your carb quota. The goal here is quality, not just quantity.
You’ve likely never considered water a nutrient, but it fits the definition as a substance that plants, animals, and people need to live and grow. Indeed, by that definition, water is the most critical nutrient of all. It comprises roughly 75 percent of the bodyweight of a newborn, and about 60 percent the bodyweight of an adult, playing a role in nearly every major system in the body. It’s also critical for glycogen storage, with three to four parts water stored for every one part glycogen. And to be turned back into glucose—the form your body uses to produce energy—glycogen must first react with water.
So you get the picture: important stuff, this H₂0.
During challenging athletic events, it’s common for athletes to lose 6-to-10 percent of their bodyweight through sweat, which unless replaced along the way will lead to dehydration, according to a report in the journal Nutrition Reviews.
That’s not good. Even mild levels of dehydration can negatively impact endurance, increase feelings of fatigue, reduce your ability to regulate body heat, torpedo motivation, and increase perceived effort, according to that same report. Its effect on cognition is even worse—just a 1-to-2 percent drop in body water can reduce concentration, alertness, and short-term memory, according to a review in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal.
The best way to rehydrate is to never dehydrate. Drinking an electrolyte-enhanced beverage (like Beachbody Performance Hydrate) will help boost endurance and stamina by helping your body maintain an ideal fluid balance. But if carrying a water bottle as you work out isn’t feasible, begin rehydrating immediately afterward.
Precisely how much water you need is a matter of debate, and depends heavily on age, gender, height, weight, how much you sweat, and exercise intensity and duration. But as a general rule, “try to drink 16 ounces of water for every pound of weight lost through sweat during exercise,” says Goodson.
Whatever you do, don’t wait until you’re thirsty to rehydrate. Along with everything else, dehydration can mess with your perceived level of need, says Goodson. For 25 ways you can drink more water, click here.
Get some (more) sleep
“People often complain about exhaustion from overtraining,” says Brent C. Ruby, Ph.D., Director of the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism. “But it more often comes from bad decisions made in the 22 to 23 hours of the day when they aren’t training.”
And skimping on sleep is among the worst.
Most trainers talk about the need for sleep in the context of muscle growth, pointing to the surge of growth hormone that occurs while you’re in dreamland. But sleep is equally important for metabolic recovery—especially in terms of glycogen replenishment, according to a team of Australian and New Zealand scientists. In their study, they found that just two days of sleep deprivation can reduce muscle glycogen levels by nearly 25 percent.
Most people will rarely go 30 hours without sleep, as the participants in the study did. But the fact remains: sacrificing shut-eye inhibits your body from topping off its fuel stores and performing at its peak.
“Since we need seven to nine hours of sleep to keep the body rested under normal circumstances, aim for the high end when exercising intensely,” says Schreiber, adding that if you regularly struggle to snooze, supplements might help. He suggests talking with your doctor about products like melatonin, magnesium, and 5-htp, which studies have found can help people fall (and stay) asleep.
“Remember, it’s not just the amount of sleep, but also the quality,” says Schreiber.