3 Reasons Why You Need to Rethink Your Post-Race Refueling Window

By SGX Coach Anne L’Heureux, RD, LD

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. (I finished less than 60 seconds behind the lead.) 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 towards the familiar site of ample refueling supplies at the finish. Bananas and bars and refueling drinks were abundant, but today 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.

What is the post-race refueling window?

Also known as the Anabolic Phase, this 45-minute post-exercise recovery period is a Spartan racer’s secret to constant improvement.

Here are 3 quick reasons why you might want to put a little more thought into your window.

1. Promoting muscle anabolism

As soon as we start a race or an intense workout session, the breakdown begins. And the longer and more intense the session, the more extensive the damage.

This is a double edged sword, because that same damage also builds us up to be stronger in the long run. But continued damage without supporting regrowth is counterproductive.

We need to take advantage of the 45 minute post-activity window to assist muscle recovery and regrowth.

Muscle catabolism (breakdown) occurs as the body fuels the demands of physical activity. During this process, the body is using up what you provided it for fuel before the workout as well as what it had stored for reserves. After a long and difficult workout, these fuels eventually become depleted. You can see this during a race (especially a Super or Beast) and definitely after the race.

During long, high-intensity activity, several things happen:

  1. ATP and Creatine Phosphate levels are depleted.
  2. Muscle glycogen is reduced.
  3. Cortisol (a hormone that contributes to muscle breakdown) levels are elevated
  4. Epinephrine and Norepinephrine are elevated. (These hormones stimulate fat, liver, and muscle glycogen breakdown.)
  5. Free radicals attack muscle structure, causing continued damage for hours post-activity.

If we were just in it for one strong workout, we wouldn’t be so concerned. But we are looking to put our body to the test routinely throughout the week, so we need the right hormones functioning to our benefit. I’m thinking specifically of insulin, which goes to work immediately after you ingest carbs. To help rebuild muscle, it’s also useful to ingest amino acids (Ivy and Portman, 2004).

2. Decreasing Inflammation

Some of the soreness we feel after a hard workout is due to inflammation that follows muscle tears and other tissue breakdown. As the body recruits cells to the site of this damage, the cycle of inflammation continues, and the inflammation increases. Then, the body then works to create new proteins to help rebuild muscle.

Great, right?

Sure—unless you don’t have fuel.

In the case of inadequate fuel, the body becomes its own worst enemy by breaking down its own muscle to fuel recovery. When this protein breakdown exceeds the rate of muscle repair, there is a net loss of muscle.

Think of the saying, “You have to spend money to make money.” But to start, you have to actually have money, right?

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.

Taking advantage of increased blood flow.

Your body does not know that you are 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.

Enter defense mode.

One way the body defends and protects itself is to increase blood flow to the muscles. But this elevated blood flow doesn’t just stop when you stop. There is a brief window of time following your activity in which blood flow remains elevated. This elevated blood flow following exercise supports the rapid removal of metabolic byproducts and faster nutrient and oxygen delivery (Ivy and Portman, 2004).

But this window doesn’t last long.

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Tips for owning the window of opportunity

The possibilities for refueling are endless, but don’t over-think 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 afterwards, make sure you have packed something for the ride.

2. Have something. Period.

That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Carbohydrate and protein sources are an easy combo. Chocolate milk, a smoothie, a turkey sandwich, pretzels and cheese.

3. Know your body.

A lot of people are not ready to take in solid food after a demanding workout. However, fluids usually go down easy. Start with a simple eight-ounce chocolate milk followed by more fuel within the hour for maximum results.

You’re incredible, so have a snack.

Remember, your reward at the end of a race is a finisher medal and an immense feeling of accomplishment. Say thanks to your body; take the time to refuel.

Do keep in mind that these recommendations are geared towards the avid Spartan with a demanding training regimen. A recreational exerciser (3-4 times per week at a moderate intensity) does not require as much concentration on nutrient timing, and should instead focus on overall, well-balanced nutrition that meets the needs of their goal—whether it’s weight loss, improved performance, or just living well.

Food is not complicated.

Spartan Race exists to rip millions of people off the couch and teach them that anything is possible with hard work and perseverance. Good nutrition, like any other goal, takes knowledge, commitment and discipline.

For Spartans, food provides energy and nutrients that support an active, healthy life—that’s all there is to it. Follow SGX Coach Anne L’Heureux’s advice and use basic nutrition principles to maximize your performance.

Learn more about Spartan Nutrition:

References

Ivy, J. & Portman, R. (2004). Nutrient timing: The future of sports nutrition. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Publications.