I originally posted on this topic back in 2010 (here). But I’ve seen a need to revise it given some of the questions I’ve gotten from athletes who eat a high-fat diet. Along the course of revising those portions I saw the need to revise a few other things so here’s the entire post updated.
Training as if you are trying to become overtrained is necessary for high performance in sport regardless of age. You can’t get there by taking it easy. The process of becoming fit requires that you do workouts that stress the body to a level for which it is not currently adapted. You become tired. This upsets the body and so it manages the situation by adapting and becoming “stronger.” You can’t do such a workout only one time and expect to reap great benefits, however. High fitness requires that you do it repeatedly for some period of time, over and over for several days or a couple of weeks. The key to doing this successfully is building in recovery days when you back off between the hard sessions to let your body catch up. It’s during rest and recovery that the body adapts.
So what is a stressful workout? Essentially, this is a hard workout, one that is either longer than you are used to, highly intense, or both. Such a session should typically require around 48 to 72 hours in order to recover before doing the next hard one. During those two or three days you should do an easy, active-recovery workout or completely rest. Young athletes can often do 3 or 4 such sessions in a week. Most over-50 athletes can generally manage two or three such hard workouts in a week. Both need active recovery or rest days between challenging workouts.
Quick recovery after a hard workout is one of the keys to success in endurance sport. The sooner you are recovered the sooner you can do another such workout. The more hard workouts you can do in a given period of time the more fit you become. The more fit you are the faster you race. So the key is quick recovery.
What can you do to recover quickly after a hard session? The following is what I've told the athletes I've coached to do and in the order they should do them. Not everyone can do each of the following after every hard workout because things like a career and other responsibilities that demand your time may get in the way. Just do the best job you can realizing that some days it will be easier to plug in more of these than on other days.
1. Athletes who eat a high-carbohydrate diet should take in carbs within 30 minutes of finishing a hard workout. Most prefer this in a liquid form. It could be fruit juice, chocolate milk, a blender homebrew you make, or a commercial recovery drink. Something you like the taste of. Depending on body size, your experience, and how hard the workout was you’ll probably need between 200 and 400 calories. You’ll know when you’ve had enough. Don’t take in more than what feels comfortable. According to the latest recovery research, it may also be a good idea to include some protein either as a powder added to your drink or from real food (which is preferable). About 10 grams (40 Calories) is probably adequate. Protein and carbs at this time don’t have to be expensive, exotic, or designed by a “scientist.” If you eat a high-fat diet instead of high-carb, just have your typical snack after the workout such as nuts, nut butter, cheese, avocado, coconut milk, or whatever you like. Again, include some protein, such as a boiled egg or tuna salad.
2. As soon as possible after the workout elevate your legs. For example, lay on the floor with your feet and legs on a chair or against the wall. This will take the load off of your heart and encourage the redistribution of fluids that have pooled in your legs. A few minutes of this is usually enough.
3. Take a nap. This is one that most "normal" people can’t fit in. Pro athletes seem to nap regularly. But then they don’t usually have to rush off to work or to some other appointment. It’s during sleep that the body adapts as anabolic (rebuilding) hormones are released then. Thirty to sixty minutes is probably enough to help speed recovery.
4. Drink fluids to completely satisfy thirst the remainder of the day (there is no “schedule” or precise amount you must drink). Water is the No. 1 choice. Sports drinks are okay immediately post-workout, but as the day wears on these increasingly become poor choices for fluids. Your cells don’t need to saturated with sugar, sodium, and other “stuff” for the remainder of the day.
5. Again, if you eat a high-carb diet, in the first “real” meal after the hard workout include some dietary starch. The best options here are potato, sweet potato and yam. But it may also be okay to eat some grains (bread, bagels, cereal, corn, rice, etc). Some prefer vegetables to grains at this time as veggies are richer in micronutrients than are grains. After that meal return to eating primarily veggies, fruits, and protein while reducing your starch intake. This, again, is because starches are less rich in vitamins and minerals. My concern at this time is long-range recovery. Micronutrients are needed for that. If you’ve done a good job of taking in sugar immediately post-workout and adequate starch in the first post-workout meal then you shouldn’t need any more starch or sugar for the remainder of the day. If you eat a high-fat diet instead of high-carb, eat what you normally have for meals the remainder of the day.
6. The most important form of recovery comes in sleep the night immediately after your hard session. This, again, is when adaptation takes place and you actually become more fit. A full night of sleep is the key. In other words, it’s best to sleep until you awake naturally—not to an alarm clock. That often means going to bed early. Again, a lot of people simply can’t fit an early bedtime into their lifestyles due to so many other commitments. But realize that this is the recovery method that will give you the greatest return on investment.
While this is what I what I have advised those I’ve coached to do in order to recover quickly from a stressful workout, we usually wind up modifying things to better fit their unique situations. This often has to do with the time of day they do certain types of workouts. For example, when doing two sessions in a day they may need to be arranged so that the one that will be more convenient to recover after in terms of meals, sleep, and rest is the harder one.