Recovery Drink

When Do Cyclists Benefit From Recovery Drinks & When Is Food Better? 

Mar 01, 2024

As a nutritionist and having worked for a sports supplement/food brand for 7+ years, I regularly see athletes who use recovery drinks after every training session, but is this the best approach to recovery nutrition? How important are recovery drinks for recovery, and do I need to use one?

What is recovery? 

Recovery, in its most basic form, is all about getting our performance back to the level it was before we started the session we are trying to recover from. Whilst there are many aspects of recovery from a nutrition perspective, we are focused on the three R’s. 

Replenish – Muscle & Liver glycogen stores by consuming carbohydrates, typically around 1-1.2 grams per kg body weight per hour (for up to 1-4 hours post-exercise before reverting to our daily carbohydrate needs).

Rebuild – Damaged muscle tissue through the provision of protein. Typically, somewhere in the region of 20-30 grams is a good dose. 

Rehydrated – Exercise typically involves a degree of dehydration through sweat losses, which can negatively impact performance. Hence, a key focus is to replace the fluid we’ve lost during the session to get us back to a hydrated state. We can need up to 150% of the fluid we’ve lost during the session to drive rapid rehydration.  

What is a recovery drink? 

A recovery drink is typically made up of a combination of fast-absorbing proteins, such as a whey protein isolate, along with a carbohydrate source, again typically fast-absorbing, such as glucose: fructose, maltodextrin or sucrose. 

They often also contain some electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, to support fluid retention and absorption during rehydration.

Some brands also include all sorts of additional ingredients, from vitamin and mineral mixes to additional supplements, often with questionable efficacy and often at doses well below what is needed to be efficacious, in a bid to market the product as better than competitors.  

A recovery drink generally comes in powdered form or pre-mixed drink and is typically classified as a sports food rather than a supplement (although the addition of supplements in some can change their classification). 

When might a recovery drink be useful? 

Fast Recovery - The times at which a recovery drink is likely to be most beneficial is during training periods, whereby there is very limited time to recover between sessions. 

For example, if you have less than 12-24 hours of recovery between a heavy sessions where you’ve expended a lot of energy and are going into another demanding session with a short window for recovery, particularly if some of that window is taken up with sleep where you are fasting.

If there is a focus on performance/high-intensity work in the subsequent session, which therefore needs to be fuelled well, then a recovery drink will help support the recovery process by providing a drink that delivers a lot of easily digestible energy and nutrients quickly.

This helps the athlete to make use of the 4 hours post-exercise window whereby glycogen can be stored at its fastest rate and potentially means they can go into the next session more recovered as a result.  

Low Appetite – Our appetite doesn’t always keep up with our energy needs during heavy training periods, particularly post-exercise, which can make it a challenge to consume sufficient energy to meet our daily needs.

Having a recovery drink that is calorie-dense, easily digested, and not very filling can help an athlete overcome this and allow them to consume optimal amounts of key nutrients, particularly in a way that isn’t going to cause stomach upset or leave them feeling overly full. 

Convenience - Many of us know the importance of a recovery meal, but to put an optimal meal for recovery using fresh food can take significant planning and preparation, i.e. we need to ensure we have the appropriate food in the house before starting the sessions.

It also takes time to cook something. Many of us will get back from a session and have other priorities (i.e., getting back to work, showering, travelling home, washing equipment), which may add to the logistical issues. A formulated recovery product can be an easy and convenient way to get the appropriate nutrients immediately post-session to start the recovery process and buy time to prepare a proper meal later. 

Limited Food Provision/Food Safety - We often aren’t at home when we finish a session. Maybe you’re away at a competition or have driven somewhere to train. Often, at events, the food provision may not be optimal (i.e. a burger van) or non-existent (you’ve parked in a remote field miles from any food retailers), and it may be a challenge to find something that supports your recovery goals.

It can also be a challenge to store fresh food; storing a rice-based meal, for example, in a hot car while completing a session/competition, is pretty much a guaranteed way to maximise your chances of getting food poisoning.  

Having a powder-based drink with a long shelf life in the bottom of a kit bag that only requires mixing with water to make a meal can help ensure you’ve got something that will always be available to you and again, buy you some time to get somewhere for a proper meal. 

Why you might be better off with food? 

Now, whilst there can certainly be some benefits to a recovery drink, consuming foods has many more benefits. For a start, they are likely to be a lot tastier than formulated drinks that typically rely on flavouring to make them palatable. There are many more compounds in foods, such as polyphenols and phytonutrients alongside vitamins and minerals, which will better support the overall quality of the diet compared to a drink made up of isolated nutrients.  

In my experience, many athletes perceive benefits from recovery drinks, not because of anything magical about the drink itself, but simply because it has increased their energy intake post-session. If they were to consume the same amount of energy in food, they’d see almost exactly the same effect on recovery.

In effect, when it comes to recovery nutrition, whilst formulated recovery drinks can certainly be useful, they are by no means the only way to do it, and by focussing on quality food, you are likely to achieve significantly more benefits from the meal than any recovery drink will ever give you. 

- Coach Ben 

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