Keys to recovery

Asker Jeukendrup’s point of view

If we want to recover as quickly as possible after a hard day of training or racing there are a number of things we can do.
When we only have a few hours to recover before our next performance, and we want to be as prepared as possible, there are a number of methods we can use to optimize recovery in the available time frame. Nutrition plays an important role but there are also other methods such as cold water immersion (ice bath), contrast water therapy (intermittent cold water and hot water, usually 1 min each for about 15 min), massage, stretching and wearing compression garments. It is important to note that the evidence for nutrition to be effective is greater than any of the other methods mentioned!


There is of course also a large psychological component to recovery to make sure the athlete is ready for the next performance. This also needs to be addressed in an appropriate way. In my view, it is more important to spend time and attention on the basics (good nutrition) than it is to spend time and money on gadgets and magic potions. Here we will not discuss the evidence (or lack of evidence) of all available methods, but we will focus on the few essentials you must get right!

First lets define recovery. In this context recovery refers to short term recovery only. This is recovery within a period of a few hours (say 6-24 hours).

During exercise, the athlete may have become dehydrated, may have become glycogen depleted, and may have become sore (possibly with some muscle damage). With nutritional strategies we can tackle each of these but there are different time courses. We can restore fluid balance within hours, glycogen restoration may take at least 24 hours in some cases and repair will take even longer but we can start the process early.


It is recommended to start exercise in a state of euhydration (sufficient fluids, not too much, not too little). The best measure of this is probably body weight. If you have regular body weight measurements over a longer period of time you will know what a normal hydrated weight is. In order to achieve hydration after exercise, it is often recommended to ingest 150% of the fluids you lost in the 5 hours following exercise.

In other words, the athlete would need to drink 600ml/h (for 5 hours) for every 2 kg lost.

This recommendation is based on the fact that if you drink fluids rapidly this will stimulate urine production and not all of the fluid is retained. Adding sodium can also help retention. This sodium can come from a drink or the foods that you would eat in the hours after exercise.  Important: Such an aggressive hydration strategy is only needed when large amounts of fluids are lost and there is another workout lined up a few hours later. If the next performance is not until 24h after a much more moderate drinking regimen can be adopted.


During most activities both muscle and liver glycogen are used. Glycogen stores are important because below a critical level, they are related to impaired endurance performance, especially at higher intensities. In a 2h window very little muscle glycogen is resynthesized. This is because ingested carbohydrate is preferentially stored in the liver. When glucose is absorbed, it will enter the liver first and can be stored or passed on to other tissues. Initially it will be mostly stored and as liver glycogen stores fill up more glucose is passed on for other tissues (the muscle).




The process of complete muscle glycogen synthesis will take 24 hours in very well trained individuals and will take longer for those who are less well-trained.

Glycogen restoration may also take longer when there is muscle damage or carbohydrate intake is modest. Within a 4-6 hour window carbohydrate ingestion can results in significant elevations in muscle glycogen and in a number of studies (not all) this has resulted in better endurance performance in the second exercise bout.

To achieve muscle glycogen synthesis carbohydrate intake is critical. The advice is usually 1.2 g/kg/h for 3-4 hours post exercise to maximize glycogen synthesis.

For a 70 kg person this is roughly 85 g of carbohydrate. The amount of carbohydrate you will find in the following recovery foods that also contain protein.


  • 400-500 ml of milk-shake or fruit smoothie
  • 500 ml of a sports drink and 2 bananas
  • 3 energy bars
  • 2 slices toast/bread/bagel with jam, banana or honey topping plus 2 cereal bars
  • Fruit salad with 200 g of yoghurt and honey
  • Chicken panini
  • Rice cakes
  • 300 ml of a protein shake with an energy bar

Repair of damage and soreness

There are a number of proposed strategies to reduce muscle soreness. There are suggestions that antioxidants can help. For example, tart cherry juice has been proposed as a strategy and protein has been suggested as well.  There is some evidence for all of these. However, as discussed in a previous blog, ingesting large amounts of these may actually interfere with training adaptation. So, this is a strategy that should be used only when there is a focus on rapid recovery and this is far more important than long term adaptation. Although we talk about protein a lot as a recovery food, it does not actually help much with recovery within 24h.


Protein intake is important, but the effects of protein intake are more long term and may not be noticeable the next day. Some studies have suggested that protein intake can reduce muscle soreness but not all studies confirm this.

Recommendations for protein intake will be discussed in a future article but a rough guideline is 20-25 g of protein within an hour after training /racing followed by regular protein containing meals every 3-4 hours thereafter.

The food options listed above provide this amount of protein.

Professor Asker Jeukendrup is one of the world’s leading sports nutritionists/ exercise physiologists who spent most of his career as a professor at the University of Birmingham (UK). Dr Jeukendrup authored 8 books and over 200 research papers and book chapters. His expertise stretches from exercise metabolism and sports nutrition to training and overtraining. He is currently a (visiting) professor at Loughborough University and director of his own performance consulting business “Mysportscience” and communicates science through the popular website Asker works as Performance Manager for the Dutch Olympic team and is Head performance Nutrition for the Lotto Jumbo Pro cycling team. He also works with FC Barcelona, and other elite football clubs. Asker practices what he preaches and completed 21 Ironman races including 6 time the Ironman world Championship in Hawaii.