You are no doubt familiar with this experience.
With slightly more than 8 miles behind me, I round the corner out of the woods to see only a cargo net, the slip wall, and the glorious fire jump between me and the finish line.
Little did I know today would be different. Today, I would take my first ever podium finish—third place, finishing less than 60 seconds behind the winner. I cannot describe the feelings of satisfaction, knowing that my mental strength, consistent training, and proper nutrition had come together and paid off.
Once I got done with the photos, handshakes, and congrats from my fellow racers and supportive family and friends, I headed toward the refueling station at the finish. Bananas and bars and refueling drinks were abundant, but I just couldn’t do it. The combination of a hard push through the entire race, coupled with the heat and humidity of mid-August, would not allow me to take anything in. The mere thought was nauseating.
So, I set my sights on a cool shower and dry clothes, knowing that there was still time to take advantage of my post-race refueling window.
Why Is the Post-Race Refueling Window So Important?
Also known as the anabolic phase, this 45-minute post-exercise recovery period is a Spartan racer’s secret to constant improvement. Here are three reasons to get to know this window.
1. It promotes muscle anabolism. As soon as we start a race or an intense workout session, the muscle breakdown begins. And the longer and more intense the session, the more extensive the damage.
Of course, this damage—and the subsequent regrowth—is what makes us stronger in the long run. But you must support that regrowth. That’s why this 45-minute window is so important.
Muscle catabolism (breakdown) occurs as the body fuels the demands of physical activity. During this process, the body uses the fuel you provided before the workout as well as what it had stored in reserve. During a long and difficult workout, these fuels eventually become depleted. You can see this during a race (especially a Super or Beast) and definitely afterward.
During long, high-intensity activity, several things happen:
- ATP and creatine phosphate levels are depleted.
- Muscle glycogen is reduced.
- Levels of cortisol (a hormone that contributes to muscle breakdown) are elevated.
- Levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine (hormones that stimulate fat, liver, and muscle glycogen breakdown) are elevated.
- Free radicals attack muscle structure, causing continued damage for hours post-activity.
If you did just one tough workout a week, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But when you put your body to the test routinely, you need the right hormones functioning to our benefit. I’m talking specifically about insulin, which goes to work immediately after you ingest carbs, and amino acids.
2. It decreases Inflammation. Some of the soreness you feel after a hard workout is due to inflammation that follows muscle tears and other tissue breakdown. It’s the body recruiting cells to the site of the damage, so that it can work to create new proteins to rebuild muscle.
Great, right? Sure—unless you’re not properly fueled.
In that case, the body becomes its own worst enemy by breaking down its own muscle to fuel recovery. When this protein breakdown exceeds the rate of repair, there is a net loss of muscle.
By taking advantage of the post-activity window and incorporating a carbohydrate-protein snack, you provide the body with additional protein so that it can spare unnecessary muscle breakdown.
3. It increases blood flow. Your body does not know that you’re striving for the final piece of your Trifecta. All your body knows is that you are making demands (running, lifting, pushing) and that it doesn’t seem like you’re stopping anytime soon.
So it enters defense mode.
One way is by increasing blood flow to the muscles. But this elevated blood flow doesn’t stop when you stop. There is a brief window following your activity when it remains elevated. This is good, because it means the faster delivery of nutrients and oxygen and the rapid removal of metabolic byproducts.
This window closes quickly, so you have to act fast.
3 Ways to Own Your Post-Race Refueling Window
The possibilities for refueling are endless, so don’t overthink it. Here are some basic guidelines to get you started:
1. Make your recovery fuel part of your workout and race plan. If there is a finish line with fuel, great. But if your training takes you to the trails with an hour drive home afterward, make sure to pack something for the ride.
2. Start with something easy. A lot of people aren’t ready to take in solid food after a demanding workout. However, fluids usually go down easy. Begin with a simple eight-ounce chocolate milk followed by more fuel within the hour for maximum results.
3. Eat something—anything. But don’t stick to a liquid diet for long. Carbohydrate and protein sources are an easy combo. Follow up the chocolate milk or smoothie with a turkey sandwich, pretzels, and cheese.
Remember, your reward at the end of a race is a finisher medal and an immense feeling of accomplishment. Thank your body by giving it the fuel it deserves.
Keep in mind that these recommendations are geared toward the avid Spartan with a demanding training regimen. A recreational exerciser (three to four times per week at a moderate intensity) doesn’t need to focus so much on nutrient timing, and should instead aim for well-balanced nutrition that meets the needs of their goal—whether it’s weight loss, improved performance, or just living well.