Recovery strategies for sport

Why is recovery necessary?

Hard training and racing affects us in a number of ways. The longer and harder we exercise, the more we need to recover. Some of the key issues are:

Physical Fatigue

Without a ready source of sugar in the form of glucose our muscles tire quickly. Glucose is used for any exercise we do that lasts longer than a few seconds. What is the quickest source of glucose? It is muscle glycogen, which breaks down very quickly when needed, to form glucose. Hard training and racing depletes our muscle and liver glycogen stores. We need to replace them quickly to be able to perform again.

Mental fatigue

Easily forgotten, but adequate sleep is vital to a proper recovery.


Without water we work less efficiently and performance slows. As we exercise our body heats up, we sweat and breathe faster. The harder we go, the more water is lost through sweat and in the air we breathe out. A certain level of water deficit is natural and desirable during many forms of exercise. However, after completing exercise, it is important to return levels of hydration to normal again.

Muscle soreness

Hard exercise causes some damage to muscle fibres. There can be damage to the protein filaments that make up the contractual machinery of our muscles. The fatty membranes that surround the muscle fibres can also sustain damage. Ideally this damage is at a level that stimulates recovery and muscle fibre growth. Correct nutrition, icing, stretching and warm baths can all assist with muscular recovery.

Coughs and colds

As we train and race we cause a certain amount of damage which takes the form of inflammation. This causes our immune system to respond. As the volume and intensity of our training increases, so do the demands made on our immune system. Coughs, colds and other infections can result if we deplete our immune system too much.

Recovery involves taking adequate rest, ensuring we don't get exposed to germs immediately after hard exercise and keeping our body temperature as near to normal or just above as possible.


Primarily on hot days we lose salt in our sweat. Salt is vital to maintain fluid balance throughout our body and provides the means whereby our nervous system is able to function. Without it we can get symptoms of hyponatremia (low blood salt), that affect most systems of the body. They are muscular (cramps, muscle weakness), digestive (nausea, vomiting) and in the head (confusion, headache, fatigue and irritability). Ultimately, if untreated, coma and death can occur.

How can we recover quickly?

First and foremost we need to address the damage we have done. Let's look at each of the above issues in turn.

Physical Fatigue

Replacing your glycogen reserves is the main aim. You can do this by consuming food that can replenish your glycogen stores. The most obvious food choices are those containing carbohydrate such as rice, pasta, bread, potato, sports drinks and recovery drinks. These provide glucose that can be stitched together (polymerized) into large glycogen granules. Protein, fructose and to a lesser extent fat containing foods can also boost glycogen levels, but they must first be processed by your liver. 

  • Protein containing foods such as fish, meat, dairy produce and recovery drinks are a bit slower to pass through the stomach than carbohydrates. However, after being metabolised by the liver in a process called gluconeogenesis, they can provide the glucose needed for building up glycogen granules.
  • Fructose, sometimes called fruit sugar, is found in fruit, as 50% of table sugar, and is often included in many sports drinks. Like protein it can be turned into glucose via gluconeogenesis.
  • Fat containing foods such as fish, meat, dairy, nuts and seeds all contain a small amount of glycerol, which can also be turned into glucose via gluconeogenesis.

I haven't mentioned unhealthy foods such as chips, pastries, cakes and sweets. However, these can all contribute to recovery, as they contain carbohydrates in the form of glucose and fructose as well as fat. In savoury junk you will get protein also.

Mental Fatigue

You should ensure you get enough sleep. This varies depending on who you are, but the more hard exercise you do the more you need to sleep. This may be between 1-3 hours more than you would otherwise need every day.


Water is needed to replace the water we lose when exercising. Most sports drinks suppliers advise that water should be supplied at isotonic concentrations. That means that they contain as many solute particles (sugars, salts, amino acids) as the water inside our body. This is roughly a 6% solution (60g of sugar in 1000g of water). However in reality water absorption depends on what is going on in our gut at the time. Sometimes pure water will be absorbed just as fast. A stronger solution can lead to net loss of water, as the body tries to dilute the solution in the gut.

I would advise letting your body guide you. If you fancy pure water, then that is probably what you need most. If you'd prefer a sugary drink then you may find that that gets absorbed more quickly. In hotter weather when you sweat more, you are likely to be losing proportionately more fluid than energy stores, and so pure water is more likely to be effective. It is also true that dehydration in hot weather affects our performance more, as the rise in your core temperature is the most important factor in decreased performance levels. Tolerance to increased core temperature declines as dehydration increases(1).

Don't drink too much however, as this can be dangerous. Problems normally occur when people drink continuously during training or racing and end up heavier than when they started. You should aim to lose weight after completing any training or racing that lasts over 1 hour. Between 1-3% of body weight is ideal.

Repairing muscles

Muscles are made from protein, and so we need protein to facilitate muscle repair. Fat and carbohydrates can't be converted to proteins as they don't contain the nitrogen necessary. That is why we see a number of recovery products that include protein. Some sports drinks now include protein, the idea being that you top up your protein levels before you finish. This makes sense as the protein can be used to repair muscles while you are still exercising, limiting the damage sustained.

I'd always advise a meal or shake containing protein to be consumed soon after completing hard exercise.


Exercise causes inflammation, which places a stress on your immune system. Foods containing protein and fat are needed to provide the raw materials needed to build up immunity again. Oily fish, such as trout, salmon and sardines are good candidates for recovery as they are anti-inflammatory and contain protein which can be used to build up our army of defensive cells.


Many sports and recovery drinks contain salt. However the amount you need is individually determined by your own genetic make up and the conditions in which you exercise. There is as much as an eightfold difference between the amount of salt in different people's sweat. This means that how salty your drink is an individual matter, and requires some pre-planning. If it is hot, you sweat a lot, and your sweat is salty, then you will probably need a salty sports drink during hard training and racing. You may also benefit from snacks such as olives and cured meats when you finish. Alternatively if you don't sweat too much, it is cool, and your sweat is not salty, you are unlikely to need much salt at all.

Can supplements help?

There are a few that are worth consideration.

Recovery drinks

After exercise you have from 30-90 minutes when your body will make the most of any foods that you eat. If you can't immediately access a good rounded meal then recovery drinks, which typically contain a mix of protein and carbohydrate could be very useful.


Glutamine can help us rebuild our glycogen stores more quickly. However, since it is available in protein as glutamate, its beneficial effects may be duplicated as long as we consume enough protein after exercise. Its effects on our immune system are not as great as often advertised(2).


Branched Chain amino acids are definitely beneficial in muscle recovery(3). However, as with glutamine it is likely that eating adequate protein after exercise may be sufficient to achieve the same benefits. The study cited(3) did not use protein as the placebo which would have been more informative.

DrDobbin says:

Recovery is very important. Don't forget to factor it in when you plan your exercise. The main factors are: 1) Prevent yourself getting cold after exercise; 2) Eat a healthy rounded meal within the first 30-90 minutes after exercise, failing that a recovery shake will do; 3) Get washed and cleaned up.

Above all else, listen to your body. If you find that your body responds well to some things, and badly to others make sure you carry this forward into your recovery strategy. For instance some people may need to take a week off after a long hard race, others may do better to keep moving.  





The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK16
Written by Robin Dowswell, BSc MFNTP
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK16

Robin Dowswell is a Nutritional Therapist working just outside Milton Keynes. He specialises in sports nutrition, and has a keen interest in using diet and lifestyle change to enjoy improved health. Check out his nutrition A-Z to find out about over 50 different foods and supplements as well as information on diets for a range of conditions.

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