Nutrients to Help Your Body Recover After Intense Training

By Chris Rosenbloom//Contributor  | Monday, May 18, 2020

As restrictions ease and swimmers get back to intense training, what nutrients help your body recover after a long, hard work out?

Let’s break it down, starting with the most essential nutrient, water.

That’s right, water is a nutrient, although we often think only of carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals when identifying nutrients. We lose water all day long and that loss increases during physical activity.

For most of us, drinking water and other beverages, along with water-rich foods (fresh fruits, veggies, soups, etc.) with meals and throughout the day meet our needs. But, sweat losses during exercise increases our need for water. A typical athlete replaces only 30 to 70% of sweat losses, so work with a sports dietitian to help you learn how much fluid you lose in a typical workout and develop a scheduled plan of drinking to keep you hydrated.

One thing you don’t need is expensive waters that claim to be “smart” by changing the acidity and alkalinity (pH) of your blood. Organs, like lungs and kidneys, tightly control the blood pH in the range of 7.35 to 7.45; if gets higher it is called respiratory or metabolic alkalosis and if it is lower it is respiratory or metabolic acidosis, and both are life threatening. So, there is no need to try to acidify or alkalize the body because our lungs and kidneys won’t let us do it anyway.

Carbohydrate and protein are the two nutrients you might think of for recovery. After exercise, your muscles are hungry for carbohydrate. Hormones and enzymes increase to rapidly replace lost muscle carbohydrate (in the form of glycogen), but you need to do your part by getting carbs to the muscle. It doesn’t matter if you drink your carbs or eat them, but many athletes find consuming sports drinks or low-fat chocolate milk an easy way to speed carbs to the muscles.  

Protein, about 20 grams of high-quality protein, like whey protein found in dairy foods, is the dose recommended for recovery. Whey protein also provides a key amino acid, leucine, identified as the trigger to muscle protein synthesis.

A few other nutrients that can help with recovery and may not be top of mind for swimmers: antioxidant vitamins, polyphenols, and omega-3s.

Vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin found in nuts, seeds, and some vegetable oils, is a potent antioxidant helping to protect cell membranes. Some studies have found it helps with muscle damage after hard exercise.

Polyphenols are a part of group of compounds known as flavonoids that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. You might have heard about the benefits tart cherry or blueberry juice. The colorful flavonoids called anthocyanins, help fight muscle damage and improve strength.

Omega-3 fats, are sometimes referred to as “fish oils,” and most of us don’t eat enough fish to get the beneficial fats. Omega-3s can help you reap the benefits from strength training and can reduce muscle soreness after a hard workout.

Recovery nutrition serves dual purposes: replacing lost water and nutrients and supporting adaptations that happen in many body systems during training. So instead of grabbing chicken nuggets or a greasy pizza, think about what you put in your body to help it perform to the best ability.

Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian, sports nutritionists, and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents, and coaches at