The Top 10 Recovery Foods
And our favorite recipes for incorporating them into your post-workout routine
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Sports scientists love to disagree over just about everything, but they have come to a consensus about one topic: recovery meals. Namely, that no matter what type of exercise you’re doing, in order to rebuild your muscles and get ready for another bout of exercise, you need to eat 0.2 to 0.4 grams of protein combined with 0.8 grams of carbohydrates for every 2.2 pounds you weigh, per hour you’ve exercised. The experts are still fighting over when you should eat, but most nutritionists agree that you should eat a recovery meal no longer than 30 to 45 minutes after exercising. Wait longer and it’s too late to stop the body from producing cortisol, a hormone created during exercise that causes muscles to atrophy. That may sound complicated, but it’s not. Even a bottle of Gatorade and a protein bar will get your muscles on the road to recovery. Recovery meals, however, need not be so processed. A slew of fresh options can do a whole lot more for your body. Presenting our list of the ten best recovery foods, with complementary recipes from our favorite athletes, nutritionists, and chefs.
Best For: Instant recovery fuel after a hard day of skiing
Why it works: A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that chocolate milk aided recovery as well as Gatorade. In the study, nine male cyclists rode until their muscles were depleted of energy, rested four hours, then biked again until exhaustion. During the rest period, the cyclists drank low-fat chocolate milk, Gatorade, or Endurox R4. When they got back on their bikes, the cyclists who drank the chocolate milk were able to bike about 50 percent longer than those who drank Endurox R4, and about as long as those who drank the Gatorade. Researcher’s note that chocolate milk contains all the same carbohydrates and proteins that Gatorade does. But, it should be pointed out, chocolate milk is far less expensive. World Cup ski racing star, Julia Mancuso, favors hot chocolate after a day on the hill. “In Europe they bring you steamed milk, and you add the chocolate to it,” says Mancuso. “Not like our usual hot water mixture. Or you can throw a chunk of milk chocolate in hot milk. I do that sometimes.”
The caffeine in chocolate acts as a vasodilator, widening and relaxing blood vessels so that restorative oxygen-rich blood can more easily flow through your muscles. Though hot fluids after exercise aren’t the best idea because they raise the inflammatory response in your body, they can be soothing after a long, chilly day of skiing. That promotes relaxation, a key to muscle recovery.
The Recipe: The Downtown Grocery Hot Chocolate
4 cups whole milk
11 ounces Bittersweet chocolate ~60-70%, Finely chopped
3 Tablespoons Confectioners Sugar
1. Warm milk in medium sauce pan until steaming slightly, take care not to boil over.
2. Slowly wisk in chopped chocolate.
3. Wisking constantly reduce at a low simmer for 4-5 minutes
4. Wisk in Confectioners sugar to your desired sweetness.
The Power Smoothie
Best For: Triathletes trying to keep muscle mass
Why it Works: “Often after a work out I feel less like eating, but more like drinking,” says Ironman champion, Craig Alexander. That’s not surprising. A buildup of acids in your body after intense workouts will often cause loss of appetite, and sometimes even cause nausea. Nonetheless, it’s important to get carbs and protein into your body within 30 to 45 minutes of finishing your workout in order to deliver your muscles the nutrients they need to repair themselves. Alexander’s smoothie recipe is light enough to stomach, and also packs the protein (milk, protein powder, chia, and nuts), carbs (honey, banana, berries, and wheat germ) and anti-oxidants (thanks to the berries) you need to recover properly. The cold shake also helps bring down your core body temperature, helping to reduce inflammation throughout your body, a key step on the way to recovery.
The Recipe: Craig Alexander’s Recovery Smoothie
Add to a blender:
One cup of milk
Half a cup of frozen or fresh berries
One frozen or fresh banana (frozen gives it a better creamier texture and helps with internal cooling after a big session where the body temp is raised)
A teaspoon of honey
A dash of cinnamon
A handful of almonds or cashews
One scoop of Body Science chocolate or vanilla protein powder ($73)
A quarter cup of chia seeds
A quarter cup of wheat germ
Blend and drink.
Best For: Mountain bikers looking to get after it several days in a row
Why it works: Carbohydrates are important to replenish energy stores. The Mayo Clinic endorses pasta as good source of carbs for post-workout recovery—but don’t overdo it on the noodles. Eat about a cup-and-a-half of pasta so that there’s room for the protein and vitamins needed to help with recovery and refueling for another day on the trails. Dave Wiens, six-time winner of the Leadville Trails 100 MTB mountain bike race, whips up a mean Spaghetti alla Puttanesca for dinner during hard blocks of training. “The kind where I’m riding hard for consecutive days,” he says. To balance the meal, Weins makes sure to add salad and mix in some sort of protein. “My favorite is to add prosciutto. Occasionally I’ll make it with chicken or make it without meat and have a small piece of fresh caught Alaskan Sockeye Salmon or a tenderloin or rib steak on the side,” says Wiens.
The Recipe: Dave Wien’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
5 tbsp olive oil
Garlic (As much as you like and chopped as you like. Wiens uses a whole bulb and doesn’t like to chop it too fine.)
Onions as you like
Crushed dried chili as you like, for heat
Anchovy Paste as you like
2 fresh, or a 12oz can, of chopped tomatoes
½ -1 cup halved or quartered black olives
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 tbsp capers
Prosciutto or meat to suit
Fresh ground parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese to top
Pasta shape of your choosing
Sautee garlic, onion and chili in olive oil until golden in cast iron skillet. Add anchovy paste, tomatoes, olives, capers and tomato paste. Continue stirring over medium heat. Get your pasta cooked just right, we like it al dente, of course. Mix the pasta into the sauce and cook for a couple more minutes and serve hot. We like it with fresh ground black pepper and grated cheese. I’ll usually complement this meal with a Blue Paddle from New Belgium Brewery, but occasionally I’ll have a Moretti or a Peroni for authenticity.
Best For: The gluten-free athlete
Why it Works: Dave Hahn, who has topped out on Mount Everest 13 times (a record for a non-Sherpa), builds up quite an appetite on expeditions. But the long-time guide has to watch what he eats. Hahn suffers from celiac disease, an inability to digest gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye). Eating anything containing gluten gives him severe stomach distress. That means bread, pasta, and even beer are out. Instead, Hahn refuels with carbs like beans and rice. One of his favorite post-climb meals? Chicken chili. The dish has plenty of protein and carbs to regenerate tired climbing muscles, but its namesake ingredient also contains nutrients that help aid recovery. Chili peppers are packed with B vitamins, particularly B6, which helps transport oxygen to all the body’s tissues, including muscles.
The Recipe: Gluten-Free Chicken Chili
12 oz. of boneless chicken breasts and thighs
1 Tbsp. cooking oil
1 4-oz. can of diced green chili peppers
1-1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
2-1/2 cups or chicken broth
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 16-oz. cans of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
Cook the chicken in a skillet until it’s light brown. Place the cooked chicken in a large pot. Stir in the beans, undrained chile peppers, bell pepper, onion, chicken broth, garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin seeds into mixture in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low heat for 7 to 8 hours.
Chicken Fried Rice
Best For: Refueling after long road rides
Why it Works: Four hours on the bike burns about 4,500 calories in a 160-pound man. To recover properly, those calories need to be replaced, and the fat and rice in this dish—given to us by noted sports nutritionist, Allen Lim—contains 605 calories per serving, going a long way in accomplishing that task. It works so well, in fact, that it was the recovery meal most commonly requested by the cyclists Lim worked with during the 2010 Tour de France. “I think it's important to emphasize that there is a lot more to nutrition than the composition of macronutrients like carbohydrate, protein, and fat,” says Lim. “Nutrition is also about being nourished and enjoying what you eat. With that in mind, the fried rice not only fits into the category of healthy and delicious comfort food but it also works as a recovery food for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is calorically dense and the first thing we want to do is replace calories. Second the white rice has a high glycemic index which helps to get those calories in fast.”
The Recipe: Allen Lim’s Chicken Fried Rice
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
2–3 green onions, diced or thinly sliced
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
COOKED 2 cups cooked rice
COOKED 1 cup boneless chicken thighs (2–3 pieces)
1 cup frozen peas and corn
Bring a lightly oiled sauted pan to medium/high heat. Add the garlic and green onions and saute for about one minute. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and soy sauce vigorously and pour into the hot pan. The pan should be hot enough to cause the eggs to fluff. Stir the eggs to cook them quickly. Add the rice and cooked chicken thighs and fry the mixture for five to six minutes. Add the peas and corn and cook until the vegetables heat through and are vibrant in color.
*Recipe courtesy of The Feed Zone Cookbook
Best For: Adding muscle mass
Why it Works: Most people believe that a recovery meal after a lifting session needs to have a higher protein content because your muscles are so taxed. Not true. The same 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio applies. Glenn Lyman, a chef and nutritionist whose client list includes NFL Pro Bowl player Steve Smith, recommends low-fat chocolate milk immediately following your workout. Lyman also encourages athletes to take a glutamine supplement (an amino acid that helps with protein synthesis) from a reputable company like Revolutionary Sports Performance. “Two-and-a-half hours later, seek out a real meal with similar ratios, 4:1 complex carbohydrates to lean protein,” says Lyman. “This one should include slow digesting, fiber rich starches and lean protein with a little healthful fat.” One of Lyman’s go to combinations is garden brown rice with lean ground turkey. Beyond just protein, turkey contains selenium, a nutrient that helps buffer damaging by-products of exercise (peroxides and free radicals) that accumulate in the muscles during training. According to the book Advanced Sports Nutrition by Dan Benardot, “A selenium deficiency may result in muscle weakness and increased recovery time after exhaustive exercise.” Reduce cooking time during the week by making more than one serving on Sunday and warming up the leftovers on weekdays. “I like to make the entire recipe and store it in individual portions for my clients for quick healthful meals during training days,” says Lyman.
The Recipe: Garden Brown Rice with Lean Ground Turkey
3 cup brown rice, cooked
1 cup corn kernels, fresh, or frozen
1 cup zucchini, diced
1 cup summer squash, diced
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
1 cup carrot, diced
10 ounces spinach, fresh
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup chicken stock
8 ounces ground turkey, cooked
1/2 cup onion, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons Creole Soul Seasoning
1 green onion, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, fresh, chopped
In a large skillet, over medium-high heat, brown the ground turkey and onion (seasoned with salt and creole seasoning) in 1 tablespoon of oil until cooked through. Drain. Saute all vegetables (except spinach) over medium-high heat, in remaining oil until crisp tender, stirring often about 3-4 minutes. Add chicken stock and bring just to a boil. Add spinach mixing well until wilted, about 1-2 minutes. Toss with cooked brown rice and ground turkey. Garnish with parsley and green onion.
Turmeric and Ginger
Best for: A natural anti-inflammatory for post workout soreness and
Why it Works: Tumeric and ginger have been used for centuries as a painkillers in eastern medicine. Curcumin, the active ingredient in both roots, was shown in a 2011 study by University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science to suppress a sub-cellular switch that triggers an inflammatory response. “Two days prior to the 2007 Hardrock 100 I badly sprained my ankle,” says famed ultrarunner, Scott Jurek. “Turmeric and ginger worked wonders in getting me to the starting line and racing hard. The natural anti-inflammatory benefits are longer lasting, do not delay the inflammatory process, and have no side effects so you can recover faster and keep the body in balance.” For a recovery meal, Jurek, who’s memoir Eat & Run comes out June 5, adds the roots to tofu to make sure he’s not sore after 100 mile runs.
The Recipe: Scott Jurek’s Tofu Scramble
2 teaspoons coconut oil
1/2 cup onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ginger root, minced or 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
2 tablespoons turmeric root, minced or 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup mushrooms, finely diced
1/2 cup zucchini, finely diced
1/2 cup carrots, finely grated
1/2 cup red bell pepper, finely diced
1 1/2 cups spinach, kale or other winter green, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
16 oz package firm tofu
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon paprika
*Optional (for spicy version): 1/2 small jalapeño or 1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder
Cooked whole grains or whole grain bread
Flora Udo's Oil 3-6-9 Blend
In a medium skillet sauté the onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and black pepper in oil over medium-low heat for 2-3 minutes. While the first few ingredients are sautéing, chop the veggies. Add the veggies and sauté for 5 minutes. Crumble the tofu and add to veggies along with remaining ingredients. Saute for an additional 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more salt and black pepper to taste. Serve over a cooked whole grain, corn tortillas or whole grain toast (my favorite is Ezekiel 4:9). Sprinkle Udo's Oil on toast or grains for buttery flavor and extra anti-inflammatory benefit via Omega-3 fatty acids.
Banana and Coconut
Best For: Avoiding post-exercise cramps
Why it Works: Ever cramp after, or during, a tough workout? That’s because your body doesn’t have enough electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and calcium. It’s potassium that prevents involuntary muscle contraction, and the nutrient is found in abundance in both bananas and coconuts. Those also happen to be the two main ingredients in Samoan poi, a classic Hawaiian dish and one of famed surfer Chris Malloy’s favorite post-ride meals while surfing the 50th state’s classic breaks.
The Recipe: Samoan Poi
Mash one pound of ripe bananas in bowl. Stir in the zest of one lemon, seven ounces of coconut milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla. Chill for about 45 minutes in the refrigerator. Then eat.
Best For: Long, slow endurance recovery
Why it Works: Scientists are still debating this one, but the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil appear to help reduce post-exercise muscle inflammation. The conventional wisdom is that omega 3s lower the amount of prostaglandin, a naturally produced compound in the body that can accentuate inflammation. Salmon is also packed with lean protein. Stanford University sports nutritionist and physiologist, Stacy Sims, adds the fish to her endurance athlete’s post recovery meal in order to enhance muscle repair.
The Recipe: Stacy Sims’s Recovery Breakfast
Spread lowfat ricotta or cream cheese on quinoa or sprouted grain flatbread and add two to three slices of Lox.
Best For: Soothing muscles that are sore from high-intensity activities like CrossFit
Why it Works: According to Sims, Manuka honey, which is made from bees that feed on Manuka flowers in New Zealand, possesses anti-inflamatory properties, not to mention the carbohydrates needed to help rebuild muscle fibers. “Active Manuka honey has a high level of non-peroxide antibacterial components, unique to this type of honey,” says Sims. “It can be useful internally (for ulcers, acid reflux) and topically (for blisters, cuts, road rash). It supports the immune system, and thus boosts the acute immunosuppressant response of exercise.”
You can order it online and find it in most health food stores.
The Recipe: Stacy Sims’s Honey Stinger
It’s simple: Sims mixes the honey into non-fat Greek yogurt for a quick and easy recovery meal.