Recovery for Athletes and Those Who Train Like Athletes

author:  Kelly Gill, MS, RD, CSSD, LD


Have you ever thought about your need to recover after workouts?  Most people with low to moderate intensity workouts, who get adequate sleep and eat mostly a healthy diet, will naturally recover without making extraordinary efforts.

However, if you feel like you’ve hit a wall in your workouts, or you feel increasing fatigue during workouts or otherwise, if you are not experiencing performance gains (like getting stronger, leaner, or better) during your workouts or you are sore after workouts, if you find yourself continuously getting sick, then you may need to start thinking about your recovery after workouts.  Each of those complaints can be the sign of inadequate recovery.

In addition to complaints that could be caused by inadequate recovery, there are other times when adequate recovery should be sought after.  While the average person doesn’t normally work out more than once in a 24 hour period, the athlete who competes more than once within 24 hours (as in a tournament) or is training twice a day needs to make sure they are recovering in the best way possible.  Otherwise, they will not be able to perform at their best.  So, in the case of more than one workout/game/match in 24 hours, adequate recovery needs to be a priority.


The goal of good recovery is to:

  • Replace nutrients that were used
  • Promote muscle repair and growth
  • Boost adaptation to training
  • Support immune function


In other words, if you are recovering well, then you should feel energetic from adequately replaced nutrients, you should feel strong from muscle repair and growth, you should be seeing gains and improvements and experiencing less soreness from adaptation to training, and you should not be getting sick more frequently than usual.


When it comes to adequate recovery, remember the 3 R’s:

  1. Refuel
  2. Rehydrate
  3. Rest



The major nutrients that need to be refueled are carbohydrates and protein.  Your body uses carbohydrates from muscle stores during a workout and those stores need to be replaced.  In addition, protein is broken down from muscle when muscles are being used.  Protein needs to be replaced in order to build back those muscles to be bigger and better.  For more details on having carbohydrates and protein after a workout, see my blog on pre- and post- workout nutrition.

In addition to balancing protein and carbs, following an anti-inflammatory diet will reduce inflammatory markers in the body that can contribute to soreness and internal damage, in general. Following this way of eating will keep you in a healthier state and promote recovery 24 hours a day/7 days a week.  Anti-inflammatory foods are typically minimally processed, whole foods, but it also includes adding things like probiotics and spices.  See my blog on the Anti-inflammatory diet for details.

Some people may take antioxidant supplements to help decrease the inflammatory response induced by a hard exercise session.  Research shows that taking an antioxidant supplement that supplies a large dose of that nutrient will attenuate the inflammatory response.  In other words, the antioxidant supplement will help to stop some of that inflammation.  However, during training, that inflammatory response plays a role in adaptations to training (i.e. getting bigger, stronger, and faster).  So taking antioxidants regularly during training may interfere with positive adaptations from training.  If you take an antioxidant supplement during the training season, you may limit your ability to achieve peak results.  On the other hand, taking antioxidants for fast recovery from back-to-back games or  during twice a day training may be an appropriate way to recover between training sessions/games/matches.  In other words, if you’re in training and your priority is improvement, then avoid antioxidant supplements.  Do note that it is helpful during this time to consume antioxidants from anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables.  Science seems to support the benefits provided by antioxidants in their natural form.  If you are in need of rapid recovery and that is more important than long term performance gains, as in the case of multiple games/training sessions in one day, then by all means, take an antioxidant supplement.  Remember, whenever you take supplements, do your research!  Start by reading my blog on the supplement industry and my blog on specific supplements to take and the ones to avoid.



Your body sweats fluids to maintain internal body temperature in an ideal range.  Sweat can vary in consistency from person to person.  Some people are salty sweaters.  In that case, they may lose a bit more electrolytes than someone who is not.  So, for adequate recovery, fluids need to be replaced, as well as electrolytes depending on the individual needs.  For more details, see my blog on fluids and hydration.



The last R of Recovery is rest.  Sleep is essential for adequate recovery.  Everyone has different needs.  For details, see my blog on sleep.  Rest is an extension of sleep.  It is important to note that rest does NOT replace sleep!  However, if you’re always exerting yourself physically and never allowing for rest, you are at risk for over-training syndrome.  Rest and relaxation are important too, in balance with physical exertion.  Meanwhile adequate sleep is an essential component to proper recovery!


To give life and breath to this concept, I will talk about my son who plays basketball.  When he has practices during the regular season, he stays pretty well recovered just by the natural course of his life and routines – he gets plenty of water/fluids, he eats well, and he gets enough sleep.  These behaviors are just built in to our life; we don’t have to really be intentional about it.  However, when he has tournaments, we have to be very intentional.  For example, if he plays in the morning and then again in the evening, I need to make sure there is time after his first game to make sure he eats well, drinks well, and has some rest.  We do our best to ensure enough time for sleep, as well.  Sometimes that means planning out when and where we’ll eat ahead of time, in order to keep us from making a restaurant run at 10 pm!  Even though he may want to go swimming at the hotel between games, we don’t let him do that!  It’s not prudent!  Instead, his friends have been known to bring their video gaming system from home with extra controllers for teammates.  Even if he doesn’t feel hungry after a game, I may make him eat sooner than he might otherwise choose to eat.  Eating closer to the previous game and further from the next game keeps him from feeling sluggish during that next game.  We make him eat a carbohydrate + protein and a produce item (either fruit or veggie) before his next game.  Then after the last game, if it’s late, we might do a quick bite to make sure he has enough time for sleep.  If it’s early enough, we try to make this last meal a substantial meal to help refuel his losses for the following day’s games.


Refueling, rehydrating, and resting can be fairly easily done in the 24 hour day cycle – or at least worked into the routine.  On the other hand, recovery during tournaments and multiple training sessions per day needs to really become a priority because otherwise, your performance will suffer.  Therefore, if you are performing more than once in a 24 hour cycle or if you are experiencing complaints that relate to inadequate recovery, then you must be very intentional with regards to your recovery.  Remember the 3 R’s; Refuel, Rehydrate, and Rest!

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