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Chasing Marginal Gains – Recovery Drinks

By Jiri Kaloc

What should the ideal recovery drink for cycling look like? How much protein and carbs should be in it? And what’s the best timing? Let’s take a closer look at how you can optimise this piece of your nutrition strategy.

There is a lot of confusion about recovery drinks in cycling. That’s because a lot of the research and popular media are focused mainly on recovery drinks for strength training and bodybuilding where muscle growth is the main focus. For cycling, the goal for a recovery drink is slightly different.

The perfect recovery drink composition

Recovery drinks for cyclists should accomplish three to four different goals. They should help you rehydrate, replenish energy stores, support muscle repair, and restore electrolyte levels if needed. It’s clear that protein is not going to be the main focus of your recovery drink as a cyclist. Here is a list of what should be included in order of importance:

  • Fluids
  • Carbs
  • Protein
  • Electrolytes

How much protein do you need for recovery?

Even though protein is not the main thing for recovering from a long ride, it’s still important. It helps promote muscle repair and accelerates the uptake of carbohydrates. But you should think of protein mainly from the perspective of your whole day of eating. The best strategy is to spread your intake throughout the whole day into 4-5 servings. The recovery drink itself shouldn’t be the main protein serving of the day. It’s only a small part of your overall intake, around 10 g of protein is more than enough.

For reference, the recommended daily intake for active cyclists is between 1,4 g and 1,8 g of protein per 1 kg of body weight. So, for example, a cyclist who weighs 75 kg should eat between 90 g and 135 g of protein daily. Research suggests that athletes should focus more on protein intake as they get older. When you get into your 50s, you should definitely aim for the upper end of the range.

Strawberry recoveery drink

How many carbs do you need for recovery?

Carbohydrates are what you need to replenish your glycogen stores. That’s the main focus of your recovery drink, right after hydration. In terms of quantity, the recovery drink should consist mostly of carbs and some protein. Aim for between 3:1 and 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. You can use simple, fast-absorbing carbs or mix them with complex ones. The total quantity of carbs in your drink should be around 30-40 g.

How to time the recovery drink

The best timing is right after you get home from your ride. Around 30-60 minutes after exercise, your body enters a “glycogen window” where it’s able to replenish glycogen stores most rapidly. That’s when drinking the right recovery drink can really help speed up the recovery process.

What type of ride requires a recovery drink?

Recovery drinks are most useful after the first ride of the day when you’re training twice a day. Similarly, if you’re doing long rides several days in a row, recovery drinks will play a big role in helping you perform every day.

When it comes to individual rides, you have to judge whether a given ride has substantially depleted your carbohydrate stores and caused significant training stress or not. Typically, rides that require a recovery drink would have to either be a very hard 90-minute interval session or at least a 3-hour moderate-pace ride.

If you ride only for 60-90 minutes at an endurance effort, consuming carbohydrates immediately post-workout isn’t going to be very impactful. That’s because you didn’t significantly empty your tank and the overall stress to your muscles isn’t large. In this scenario, your glycogen stores will be completely replenished in 24 hours just from your normal diet.

How to make a recovery drink?

As we wrote in our previous article, milk itself is actually quite close to ideal, it contains high-quality protein and a ratio of 2:1 of carbs to protein. If you add a banana, you get to about 3:1 and with an extra half cup of berries of your choice, you are close to 4:1. If you’ve sweated a lot during your ride, you may want to add a pinch of salt to help quickly replenish sodium. If you have a blender at home, here’s what a quick home-made recovery drink could look like:

  • 250 ml of milk
  • 1 banana (around 100 g)
  • 100 g of strawberries

This recipe yields around 10 g of protein, 38 g of carbohydrates, 4 g of fat, and 230 kcal. For a plant-based alternative, you can swap dairy milk for almond milk and add a small scoop of plant-based protein powder. Be ready to experiment, everybody is different and you need to find a combination of foods that your digestion tolerates well. For example, you can try using oats instead of bananas or some sort of sweetener such as maple syrup instead of berries.

Alternatively, you can also buy a premade recovery mix, just make sure to read the label and find one that fits the requirements mentioned above.

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