A quick poll of my running contacts reveals a bizarre array of post-run drink choices in the name of rehydration and refuelling. Here's a selection: Tea, coffee, cordial, plain milk, chocolate milk, energy drinks, water, cola, lemon squash, banana smoothies, shandy, beer and wine.
Is one better than another? Perhaps it doesn't matter anyway, given the hard workout you've just put your body through?
The answers are yes and no respectively, according to Sydney nutritionist Kira Sutherland.
First off, some useful information: “The most vital time to be eating is within 30 minutes of finishing training because your body's primed to make more stored carbohydrates (glycogen),” Sutherland says. “The longer you wait from the time you train to the time you eat, your body drops off its ability to make as much glycogen as it could have, had you eaten sooner.
“Glycogen is your stored carbs, your fuel tank. It's what you use during training and you want to restock it. Also, insulin, which is a hormone that helps take food into the cells, is really active and potent after training, so it's the best time to eat your carbohydrates as they're going to get turned into glycogen and not body fat like everybody fears.”
OK, so get yourself eating/drinking within half an hour of training. But how do the liquid favourites rate?
“The science says you should be eating at a 4:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, although some people who are trying to lean down prefer a 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio,” Sutherland says.
“Research has realised that the added sugar in chocolate and the sugar from the milk is a perfect 4:1 ratio, so that's why there's a big push for chocolate milk at the moment. Is it the healthiest thing you can have after training? No, because it's not bursting with vitamins. But it is going to help with recovery, replace fluid, replace carbohydrates and it gives you that little bit of protein that you need after training anyway.”
Sutherland recommends smoothies with protein powder. “People need about 15-20 grams of protein after training. Throw in a banana, frozen berries, protein powder, and whatever liquid you want - for example, water, ice, milk, milk substitute or coconut water. That'll get you to a really nice ratio as well.” You still have to watch your calories, so the size depends on whether you're counting it as a meal or just a smaller serve as a snack before a meal.
“Yes, it has carbs and liquid, and there is research saying if it's just for rehydration it is effective,” Sutherland says. “But we do know alcohol slows down glycogen replacement and carbohydrate replenishment, and if you've injured yourself we know alcohol inhibits recovery.
“And really working out is a process that involves injuring your muscles and trying to recover, so for beer drinkers, I'd say to leave it for two hours after training and be sure to have a proper post-exercise meal before the alcohol.”
The other indirect drawback to choosing alcohol is that people tend to make poor food decisions when they're drinking, which is a problem for recovery after training. “They're just doing their bodies a disservice after doing all that great exercise,” Sutherland says.
You're more likely to crave a Coke after a run if you haven't prepared your body before or during the exercise. “Your body and brain know that sugar is one of the fastest things to digest and refuel,” Sutherland says.
“During a longer run, say 20km, you should ingest some sort of carbohydrates because over such a distance the muscles really run out of glycogen.
“The truth is that after 20km, even though Coke has no protein and no vitamins, your body is still going to take pure sugar and turn it into glycogen. If you've just done 2-3 hours of training and you sneak a Coke in every now and then, it's not that big of a deal. The thing is, you're not getting any added benefits.”
All the major brands are now making recovery drinks. “If you look on the label, most of them are 4:1 ratio, so they can be really good, too,” Sutherland says. Especially so when you don't have time to think of anything else. “They're fool-proof, they taste good and are going to recover you really quickly.”
“If you are a habitual drinker, coffee is not as dehydrating as once thought, but there are still better ways to get fluids and rehydration up. One is fine, though,” Sutherland says.
“Plenty of water is great post-run for rehydration and if you eat a meal with it, that's fantastic because you're getting all the electrolyte replacement you need via the food.”
Finally, Sutherland says a little knowledge on the subject goes a long way.
“People are really anal about quitting sugar at the moment, but they need to realise that endurance sport makes the body crave carbohydrates. You can choose to replace those carbs anyway you want, but directly after training your body is going to take pure sugar and turn it into glycogen. We know it's not healthy, but there are times you can get away with it depending on how much exercise you do.”
What works for you post-run?
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