Sports Nutrition for Optimal Recovery

A key element of training is recovery. In order to fully reap the benefits of training, recovery must be optimized. Some common ailments from intense training that can setback athletes are: decreased immunity, muscle soreness, depleted nutrient stores, muscle damage, and inflammation. You probably know where I’m going with this…. nutrition can help with all of these! The best nutritional strategy for aiding in recovery is nothing fancy – it’s a healthy, well balanced diet.

Achieving a well balanced diet should be the immediate focus before looking for the next best thing in recovery nutrition or the supplement aisle. A well balanced diet provides the necessary building blocks to take your performance to the next level.

A well balanced diet for optimal sports performance recovery includes:

Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth during the recovery period. Adequate protein also plays a role in immune function. Factors surrounding protein intake that must be dialed in for optimal recovery are timing, amount, and source.

Carbohydrates during recovery are essential for rebuilding glycogen stores, which allow for quicker return to optimal performance in subsequent training. Optimal carbohydrate intake has also been associated with improved immune function and lower incidence of soft tissue injury. Factors surrounding carbohydrate intake for recovery are duration between next event or training session, timing post training, amount, GI tolerance, and source.

Healthy Fats help round out a balanced diet promoting satiety and decreases in inflammation. Increasing our intake of healthy fats (ie. nuts, seeds, fatty fish, avocado, olive oil) and decreasing our intake of unhealthy fats (saturated fat from animal products and trans fats in some processed foods) can decrease baseline inflammation in our bodies which in theory allows our body to recover more quickly from training.

Fluid in the recovery period is essential for rehydration and important in reestablishing fluid and electrolyte balance. Inadequate rehydration and/or electrolyte balance is a common contributor to decreased performance in subsequent training sessions and events.

Antioxidants from eating plenty of fruits and vegetables helps the body repair from the oxidative stress and damage caused during exercise. More than two-thirds of Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables – so most likely, this is an area to improve before looking into additional supplemental sources. Add a variety of deep, vibrant colored fruits and vegetables into each meal to ensure you’re meeting your antioxidant quota.

Once this well balanced nutrition is dialed in, there are a few further additions to enhance recovery nutrition that may be worth looking into with your sports dietitian and/or coach.

Tart Cherry (ies) are an abundantly rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Because exercise causes oxidative stress, inflammation, and muscle damage it has been proposed that these compounds in tart cherries may help athletes recover faster by reducing muscle damage and pain levels, improving recovery, bolstering the immune system, and improving sleep. Click here to learn more about tart cherries and performance.

Omega 3 fatty acids from marine (fish) sources have shown some promise in reducing inflammation, supporting the immune system, and aiding in muscle repair. The doses of omega 3 studied are fairly large and would require eating 5 oz of salmon daily or taking a megadose supplement. Omega 3 at this ingested level can have a blood thinning effect, which may need to be taken into consideration with some athletes and their physicians.

Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin because it can be synthesized in our skin when exposed to sunlight for short periods without sunblock. Despite this fact, we still see a high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency it all types of athletes and training climates. New research is emerging that vitamin D may also play a role in muscle regeneration. In the face of vitamin D deficiency, muscle recovery and repair may be impaired. Yet another reason to check periodic serum 25(OH)D status for all athletes.

Curcumin is the anti-inflammatory component of the spice turmeric and has been used for over 4500 years as part of Ayurvedic medicine. Studies have demonstrated that curcumin may inhibit proinflammatory agents in the body. Much of the research in curcumin uses higher amounts than could realistically be consumed in the diet. Although research in athletes is lacking, the mechanism of action seems promising.

Collagen is a main component of connective tissue in the body. Consuming collagen and vitamin C may be beneficial to promote collagen synthesis in cartilage, ligaments, bone, and tendons. Although the research is promising, research specific to athletes on how this impacts recovery are lacking. However, if a sports injury or underlying arthritis is limiting to an athletes training by prolonging recovery time between hard training days, this supplement may be worth a trial. Click here to learn more about collagen and sports performance.

More to come on the practical application of these supplements in future posts. Stay tuned….

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For help developing your personalized sports nutrition plan and determining which additional food supplements may benefit your recovery the greatest, contact me to get started!


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine’s Position Paper: Nutrition and Athletic Performance

Heaton LE et al. Selected In-Season Nutrition Strategies to Enhance Recovery for Team Sport Athletes: A Practical Overview. Sports Med. 2017;47:2201-2218.


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