A recovery drink or shake is a mix of carbohydrates and high-quality protein that can help with protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment after a run or workout. Shakes are a convenient way for athletes to target specific nutrition, which means for better recovery and injury prevention.
“Because they are often in powder form, you can mix them easily into water or preferred milk options to drink on the go. We need carbohydrates to refuel, protein to repair, and electrolytes to rehydrate,” says Starla Garcia, endurance athlete and RDN at The Healthy Shine.
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Why You Might Want a Recovery Drink
While you can get many of the same nutrients from food sources, many athletes might struggle with a lack of appetite after harder workouts and runs, and sometimes drinking a beverage is easier than trying to eat an entire meal. It’s also easy to stash in your car at the trailhead, or in a drop bag at the finish line of a race (just add water!). Recovery shakes can be especially helpful for athletes who struggle to get enough protein or eat right after runs.
“Many athletes experience poor appetite, nausea, or have a hard time eating solid protein after workouts because it takes longer to digest. It’s important to know that this is not a meal replacement and is intended to help the athlete stimulate appetite, reduce recovery time, and to help them feel better sooner,” says Garcia. She also recommends shakes for athletes who might get stuck in their car with a long drive after a run or workout, prime time for blood sugar to drop and dehydration to become a risk. A shake can tide you over until you’re able to put together a more balanced meal.
Here’s What to Look For
When choosing drink and shake mixes, look for a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein for ideal recovery (usually 45-60 grams of carbs and 15-20 grams of protein). Higher BCAA (branched chain amino acid) protein sources are ideal, like those coming from whey, egg white, soy, or plant protein blends.
Kylee Van Horn, trail runner and RDN at Fly Nutrition, says runners might want to avoid unnecessary additives like sugar alcohols or sneaky proprietary herbal blends.
“Sugar alcohols can increase risk of GI distress and herbal blends may or may not contain what they claim to contain,” says Van Horn.
Garcia says athletes shouldn’t overlook the importance of electrolytes when choosing a recovery mix.
“Electrolytes are often overlooked in mixes or are of concern for many athletes, but sodium is the electrolyte that is most lost in sweat, so you want to also prioritize rehydration, especially in these summer months,” says Garcia. “Other notable options to look for are magnesium, potassium, and calcium.”
When to Shake it Up
Research has shown that there is an increased rate of carbohydrate uptake and glycogen synthesis in the two hours post-workout, so if you’re going to drink a shake, doing it immediately post-run is key. Ingesting some sort of protein with carbohydrates can aid glycogen replacement, as both carbs and protein work together to get glucose back into the muscle.
But, there’s no perfect formula. The body continues to recover for up to 48 hours after a hard workout or long run, so eating consistent, balanced meals containing adequate calories, carbohydrates, and protein is important long after that initial recovery shake. As always, a balanced daily diet is one of the best ways to be adequately fueled, so don’t use shakes as a sole replacement for normal meals.
Also, while a quick hit of carbs and protein is great, you don’t need it after every workout. If you only ran for an hour, for example, your glycogen stores shouldn’t be fully tapped, and they’ll likely be full again after a day of solid and consistent eating. Save the shakes for hard interval workouts that leave you feeling spent, or after weekly long runs.
“A recovery mix is only helpful after a high-intensity session or post-long training session (>90 min in duration),” says Van Horn. “However, if you finish a training session and won’t be able to get in a meal for a few hours, a recovery mix could be helpful to just get in some nutrition.”