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Role of Nutrition in Recovery and Adaptation

Some people train to eat, some people eat to train, and the rest seem to be somewhere in between, but what’s the best approach? What if that person is a teenager going through all of the typical changes that happen during those years? And, what if that teenager is also an athlete with additional energy demands? Don’t we just want to make sure they eat something rather than battle what that something is? Most people understand that athletes need to consume additional amounts of macronutrients – carbohydrates, fat, and protein – for glycogen restoration, muscle repair, and muscle growth to occur. Many people also assume that if they are physically active, then the types of foods they eat don’t matter since they will “burn it off” with activity. However, this way of thinking fails to address the whole picture and the systemic interactions within the whole body. Macronutrients are paired with micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – as well as sourced and processed in different ways that can have performance promoting or negating effects.

Recovery and Adaptation

Recovery plays an important role in sports yet is often overlooked or misunderstood. Jeukendrup defines recovery as the restoration of performance capacity to pre-exercise performance capacity, typically in the hours to days following the workout. [i] Recovery in the short-term differs from adaptation in the long-term, which refers to improvements in the muscle, cardiovascular system, and other systems that over time result in performance improvements. [ii],[iii] When a trigger, such as mechanical load, neuronal activation, hormonal adjustments, and/or metabolic disturbances from physical training stresses the body, a cascade of training adaptions begin both the breakdown of old and synthesis of new proteins. [iv] Protein turnover involves the rate of both protein synthesis and breakdown within the muscle, which is essential for the body to repair the muscle fibers damaged during training or competition. [v] Many coaches and athletes simply view recovery as an absence of physical training, which implies a passive approach. However, nutrition and sleep are two areas within the larger recovery category that require active pursuit to maximize recovery as they promote optimal rebuilding of muscle following breakdown during training.

The Role of Nutrition in Recovery and Adaptation

Nutrition affects physical training adaptations through several mechanisms. In the hours following a training session, protein synthesis can exceed protein breakdown, but only in a nourished state. [vi] The combination of a physical trigger, such as exercise, plus protein consumption following that training, results in the immediate short-term recovery through net positive muscle protein synthesis and when regularly repeated becomes a long term adaption in the form of hypertrophy, or increased muscle size. [vii] Another area regarding recovery in the short-term includes glycogen restoration because low levels of muscle and liver glycogen tend to correlate with fatigue. [viii] Carbohydrates supply this stored form of fuel called glycogen in the muscle and liver. Within the hours following the training session, adequate carbohydrate and energy consumption from frequent meals throughout the day allows the muscle glycogen to quickly resynthesize to near pre-exercise levels within 24 hours. [ix] Insufficient carbohydrate intake, particularly for athletes regularly performing strenuous exercise, can contribute to overtraining syndrome, which presents in the form of decreased performance rather than positive long-term adaptations. [x] All macronutrients play important roles in our health and recovery and work synergistically. Athletes tend to focus on the immediate recovery needs involving protein and carbohydrates in order to begin the muscle repair and glycogen replenish processes and future blog post will dig into some commonly eaten foods from all three macronutrient categories and how they may or may not support recovery and performance.

Replacing fluids is another often overlooked nutritional approach to optimizing recovery following hard training, training in heat, or long training where the athlete loses fluids. Simply drinking the exact amount of fluid lost in the few hours following exercise only results in 50-70% fluid balance restoration because increased plasma volume from the fluid triggers increased urine production. Incorporating electrolytes into the fluid, specifically 1.5 L of a sodium-containing drink per each kg of body mass lost, allows the body to completely restore its fluid balance within six hours.[xi] I’ve got a homemade electrolyte replacement drink that takes less than 90 seconds to make and am happy to share with anyone interested!

Another byproduct of strenuous exercise includes the generation of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (RONS), which places stress and damage upon the body without the mitigation of antioxidants. [xii] While an athlete’s need for antioxidants might be in the range of 100-200% higher than for the general public, current literature does not support the use of supplementation and rather finds the optimal bioavailability and function of combined phytochemical and antioxidant compounds from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts superior to supplementation. [xiii] This idea of consuming nutrients through food rather than through supplements recurs throughout the series, which is why finding nutrient dense foods and easy ways to prepare them also provides life skills for people who want to learn how to optimally take care of themselves.

The next post will address why the role of nutrition is even more critical for an athlete during the teenage years since this population has additional nutrient needs beyond the general public to grow, build muscle and bones, and develop the brain. Understanding the best sources of nutrients and how to functionally incorporate them into daily meals and snacks will not only help support the teenage athlete’s likelihood of consuming the foods that will avoid harm in a developing athlete’s body, but that will also allow him or her to acquire life skills while most optimally fueling their bodies for health and performance. Meanwhile, if you or your athlete wants to learn the quickest and easiest ways to strategically incorporate nutrition to optimize recovery, email me at and we can set up a free 15-minute consultation to discuss personal needs and goals to see which plan might work best to achieve those goals.

[i] Jeukendrup, A. (2015). Rapid recovery versus long term adaptation. Retrieved from: [ii] Hughes, D.C., Ellefsen, S., & Baar, K. (2018). Adaptations to Endurance and Strength Training. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 8(6). [iii] Hawley, J.A., Lundby, C. Cotter, J.D., & Burke, L.M. (2018). Maximizing Cellular Adaptation to Endurance Exercise in Skeletal Muscle. Cell Metabolism 27(5), 962-976. [iv] Jeukendrop, A.E. & Gleeson, M. (2018). Sport Nutrition: an introduction to energy production and performance (3rd ed.). Illinois, USA: Human Kinetics. [v] Phillips, S.M., Tipton, K.D., Aarsland, A., Wolf, S.E., & Wolfe, R.R. (1997). Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology Jul; 273 (1 Pt 1), 99-107. [vi] Rennie, M.J. & Tipton, K.D. (2000). Protein and amino acid metabolism during and after exercise and the effects of nutrition. Annual Review of Nutrition, 20, 457-483. [vii] Tipton, K.D. & Phillips, S.M. (2013). Dietary protein for muscle hypertrophy. Nestle Nutrition Institute Workshop, 76, 73-84. [viii]Bangsbo J, Graham TE, Kiens B, Saltin B. Elevated muscle glycogen and anaerobic energy-production during exhaustive exercise in man. J Physiol. 1992, 451, 205–227. [ix] Ivy, J.L. (1991). Muscle glycogen synthesis before and after exercise. Sports Medicine, 11, 6-19. [x] Hawley, J.A., & Leckey, J.J. (2015). Carbohydrate dependence during prolonged, intense endurance exercise. Sports Medicine. 45(suppl 1): S5YS12. [xi] Shirreffs, S.M., & Sawka, M.N. (2011). Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 Suppl 1, S39-46. [xii]Powers S.K. & Jackson M.J. (2008). Exercise-induced oxidative stress: Cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiological Reviews; 88, 1243–1276. [xiii] DACH (2000). Referenzwerte für die Nährstoffzufuhr (Dietary reference intakes). Frankfurt am Main (in German): Umschau Braus; 2000. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung, Österreichische Gesellschaft für Ernährung, Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Ernährungsforschung, Schweizerische Vereinigung für Ernährung.

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