Nancy. I’ve heard I should eat a 3 or 4 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein right after I exercise, but I don't know what that looks like in terms of food. So, to be safe, I buy commercial recovery foods and drinks to be sure I get the right ratio. Are there other options?
Answer: The goal in a sports diet is to consume about three or four times more calories from carbs than from protein. The ratio need not be exact. You just don’t want to consume a heavy amount of protein that displaces carbs (i.e., if you fill up on a big steak, you are not filling up on pasta). You also do not want heavy recovery foods (high fat, high protein, such as a burger) that sit in the stomach and slowly digest.
Commercial recovery foods and beverages are more about convenience than necessity. You can enjoyably refuel with chocolate milk, fruit yogurt, a sandwich, or pasta with meat sauce. By backing your workout into a carb-based sports meal (such as spaghetti with meat balls, stir-fried chicken and veggies with lots of rice), you'll get more carbs than protein, and plenty of fuel for your muscles.
Whether or not a protein-carb recovery beverage is superior to a carb-only beverage remains questionable. In a recent study (Green, 2008) in which athletes drank either a carb or a carb-protein recovery drink immediately after muscle-damaging downhill running, both beverages offered a similar recovery process over the course of three days. The authors conclude the meals that they ate (in addition to the recovery drink) in those post-exercise days supplied the protein and carbs needed to recover.
You won’t go wrong by refueling soon after exercise with a carb-protein combination if you done exhausting exercise and aren't yet ready to eat a meal. If you prefer engineered foods because they are convenient, buy them. But if you prefer the wholesome goodness of chocolate milk, yogurt and a banana, a fruit smoothie (milk, banana, berries), a bowl of cereal, and other tasty protein-carb combinations, save your money and enjoy real food instead. And remember, immediately consuming recovery foods is most important for the athlete who has exhausted him or herself and will be exercising again within the next six hours. Fitness exercisers need not get obsessed!
Green MS, Corona BT, Doyle JA, Ingalls CP. Carbohydrate-protein drinks do not enhance recovery from exercise-induced muscle injury. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008;18(1):1-18.
For more information: Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook