The Post-Training Recovery Window for GAA
The definition of recovery is, “returning to a normal state of health, mind or strength.”
In the context of GAA training, this means that we want to be able to train, and after a rest period of usually 24–48 hours, be at the point where we’re able to repeat that training session with equal or greater intensity. That is to say, we want to create a stressor on the body, and allow the body to recover and adapt to it.
Over time, this allows our body to handle more work, as it gets stronger and more enduring.
This can be seen in the graph below, where the line moves down with each training session, signalling fatigue, but moves upwards between sessions, signalling recovery and adaptation.
(Wish I could credit the source of this graph but can’t find where it came from)
This issue is that when we don’t allow for adequate recovery and adaptation, whether that is through inadequate rest, inadequate time between sessions, added life stresses, or poor nutrition, we go into that next training session under-recovered. If this is repeated chronically, over time, it can lead to diminished performance, fatigue and often, injury.
Hopefully that starts to put into context the post-training meal, and it’s importance at a time where the body is most fatigued, but also shows that it isn’t the only important aspect, since the recovery and adaptation period is much longer than the hour or two after a training session.
If you’ve ever done a hard training session, you’ll already know that the recovery isn’t done only in the hours after training, and your sore legs the morning after will let you know that.
As mentioned, the aim with nutrition between sessions is to get back to a state where you could repeat the session with similar or greater intensity.
This is done through allowing for recovery and adaptation, as well as refuelling.
There are a lot of things that we can do to effect this, including sleep/rest, interventions like ice baths, and even different types of recovery sessions, and and I will write articles about these topics, but in this one, I want to specifically talk about nutrition.
The first thing to consider is protein. As you may know, protein is broken down in the body into amino acids, and these amino acids can be seen as the building blocks of muscle tissue (among other things). Given the stress that the body and muscles go under during training, the demands for these amino acids is great after training sessions, particularly if it’s been a while since your last protein feeding.
This is, in part, due to the fact that the muscle tissue will have been partially broken down during the training session, which we will want to counter-act, by providing protein and therefore signalling a Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) response, where the body will signal the creation of new muscle.
The body requires around 25g of protein from a good quality source in order for this to happen, and this can be optimally signalled about 4–5 times per day. This is one reason why the thought that “the post-training meal or snack is all that matters for recovery” is false. That is only one opportunity to signal this MPS response, and it is important to continue to signal this in the meals that follow.
In terms of timing, people often think that they need to get a protein shake in as soon as their foot touches the changing room floor after the session. This is potentially a good thought taken too far. Whilst, as we mentioned, we want to take the opportunity to get some protein in soon after training, waiting 30–60 minutes after finishing the session will likely be no problem, which may be a relief if you’ve felt the discomfort of trying to eat of drink something immediately after a really tough training session.
And of course, this post-training protein feeding doesn’t have to come from a protein shake. Whey is a great source of protein, being quickly digested, quickly absorbed, and convenient, but it is only one option, where your usual sources of protein (chicken, meat, eggs, dairy products etc.) are also sufficient to get the job done.
If you are going to be fully ready to complete the next session to the best of your ability, it is important that you have adequate fuel in the muscles. For the high-intensity training sessions and matches that are usual in GAA, the main energy source is carbohydrates, or more specifically, the stored form of carbohydrate, known as glycogen.
Given that you have likely just used a lot of that glycogen during your training session, it is important to refuel in time for the next session, and that means eating sufficient carbohydrates. Sources include the faster-absorbing sources like sports drinks, sugary sweets and some fruits, as well as the slower absorbing ones that you might have as part of a meal, like potatoes, rice, oats and pasta, and actually, getting some of both in can usually be helpful. The exception might be for someone who is aiming to lose weight, where avoiding the faster-absorbing (and therefore less filling) sources might allow you to bias your intake towards the slower-digesting sources, and therefore remain fuller and more satiated with your food.
The amount that you eat between this training session and the next will be determined by a lot of factors, including your bodyweight, general activity levels and body composition goals. (Read this article on your calculating your macronutrient targets).
However, what we do know if that for optimal performance in the next training session, that refuelling does need to happen at some stage, and it is a good recommendation to start that refuelling process after the training session, especially if you are training or competing again within the next 24 hours, in order to avoid struggling to get enough carbohydrates in in the meals leading up to that session.
In terms of timing, it probably isn’t as important as the timing of your protein, but practically, it’s probably easiest to have some carbohydrates with your protein feeding.
Water is another thing that will be depleted during a training session, and should be considered in the post-training period. Being adequately hydrated aids with digestion, blood flow, and mineral balance among other things.
Since we lose a lot of water during training sessions through breathing and sweat, it is important to try to maintain hydration during the training session, but also to continue to rehydrate afterwards. This can be through fluids like water, sports drinks, smoothies and milk products.
One metric for assessing hydration is to measure how your bodyweight differs after the session from before, as a result of fluid losses, and aim to get back close to that weight in the hours following the session through sipping on water and/or the other fluids mentioned above.
As a final point, the post-training window isn’t all we have to worry about with your nutrition, and I would argue isn’t a very useful way to think about it. Knowing this is useful in two ways:
- It means that you have to focus on your overall nutrition, not just one meal after your training session.
- It means that if you happen to be in a situation where you can’t get a decent meal straight after training, all is not lost, since this is not the only meal that affects your recovery and adaptation to training.
Conor O’Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
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