No matter what workout you’re doing, you should always plan on some recovery nutrition afterward. There are numerous benefits to recovery drinks, and timing them correctly will help you feel confident that your glycogen stores are replenished for your next workout.


For more on training and nutrition, check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 288.


Carbohydrates are a key part of fueling performance during aerobic activities. You can cash in on the benefits of carbohydrates with a carb-rich meal three to four hours before your workout and by consuming carbohydrates on the bike during your workout.

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The benefits of carbohydrates are not limited to before and after your workout, though. When you consume carbohydrates immediately after your workout, it gives your body a chance to replenish its glycogen stores and begin the recovery process. For cyclists, consuming a recovery drink is a convenient way to refuel. Carbohydrates are handled differently during this time because the hormones that are upregulated during exercise are different from the hormones upregulated after exercise.

Do Recovery Drinks Work?

During training, your body is in a catabolic state. When you’re in a catabolic state, your system is actively consuming and burning fuel to maintain an output of energy by breaking things down. Consuming carbohydrates during your workouts is what helps your body catch up with the depletion of fuel and maintain your desired energy output. Once you finish training, your body settles into an anabolic or building state. During the anabolic state, your body can use carbohydrates to rebuild your energy stores and begin the recovery process.

Why should cyclists consume a recovery drink?

Having a recovery drink is the perfect way to fuel these processes and address some recovery concerns. The first being that your body needs to replenish its muscular and liver glycogen levels for your next workout. Glycogen is actively used during aerobic exercise and can be depleted during any workout. If you don’t replenish this storage, you may feel flat or under-fueled during your next workout. Second, when you challenge yourself with a training stimulus, your body needs glycogen and protein to complete muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle protein breakdown.

After a workout, consuming carbohydrates and protein essentially protects your lean muscle mass and replenishes your system for future workouts. All of this can be achieved by drinking a recovery shake right after your workout. With that said, you still have a few options in the way of post-workout nutrition.

When to Drink Your Recovery Shake 

Timing is an important part of recovery nutrition and can ultimately be the deciding factor in how you approach fueling after training. For several years, it’s been understood that athletes can only rapidly replenish muscle glycogen levels during the anabolic window. The anabolic window is the forty-five minutes after a workout where your body can replenish muscle glycogen stores. More recent research suggests that this anabolic window may not be so small.

The anabolic window is primarily based around the upregulation of GLUT-4 receptors—the hormone upregulated after exercise. Current research suggests that these receptors can last around two hours, opposed to the previously understood thirty to forty-five minutes. To take advantage of this longer window, athletes can replenish glycogen levels by consuming 1-1.5g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, per hour, within two hours of finishing a workout.

Research also suggests that you can replenish glycogen levels long after the two hours by consuming high levels of carbohydrates throughout the rest of the day. To do this, you can consume the same measurement (1-1.5g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight) for every fifteen to thirty minutes over the following four to six hours. Refueling with constant carbs, long after your workout, offers an alternative to the recovery drink but involves a much slower and active fueling process.

Advantages of Recovery Drinks Right After

The research goes on to show that you don’t have to drink your recovery drink immediately after your workout. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s still not the easiest and surest way to go about refueling.

Because it’s fast, convenient, and efficient, drinking a recovery drink immediately after your workout is still probably the best way to approach your post-workout nutrition. The sooner you consume your post-workout nutrition, the sooner your glycogen stores will be rebuilt. You also have a better chance of ensuring that your carbohydrate intake is sufficient. With a consistent routine around post-workout nutrition, it will also be easier to experiment with your fuel and decide exactly what works for you. 

All in all, there are no detriments to performance when you take in a recovery drink immediately after your workout, and it increases the likelihood you’ll get in the fuel that you need in the time frame that you have.

Consuming a recovery drink immediately after every workout can also help you switch into recovery mode. When you transition from an active state to a recovery state, your body changes from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state of rest. Drinking a recovery shake as you cool down can signal to your body that it’s time to start resting, digesting, and rebuilding.

Prepare Your Drink in Advance

  • Mix your recovery drink before your workout and keep it in the fridge. If you’re in a rush after your workout or just really looking forward to getting in the shower, you can grab and go. It’s also another way to help guarantee that you get that fuel in and don’t skip the recovery fueling process.

Best Recovery Drinks for Cyclists

While there’s no such thing as an “ideal” recovery drink, research trends suggest that recovery shakes with a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein offer all of the benefits and no performance detriment. The combination of carbs and protein works synergistically to resynthesize glycogen, and the protein offers an opportunity for muscle synthesis. Incorporating protein into this ratio isn’t proven to be a necessary component in recovery fuel, but it seems to offer an opportunity for a benefit and no detriments. It might help, and it certainly doesn’t hurt.

How you achieve this ratio is up to you and your personal preferences. Among the podcast crew, Jonathan likes to use Clif Chocolate Recovery mix. Amber likes a combination of plain whey and lemon-lime Gatorade powder. Nate uses a maltodextrin powder and whey, and Pete likes to experiment with different dairy-free options. Another simple recovery drink is a glass of chocolate milk with about 32g of carbs and 8g of protein.

When you’re trying to find the recipe that works best for you, it’s okay to sacrifice some precision for personal taste. If your recovery drink is something completely unappealing or challenging to make, you’re probably more likely to skip it. It’s best to be less precise with your ratio and stay consistent, than super precise and inconsistent with use. 

Experiment With the Recipe

  • Making your recovery drink something you enjoy is a great way to help maintain a consistent routine. Try experimenting with different mixes and additions to make your recovery drink something you look forward to drinking after a hard workout. 

While fuel in liquid form is usually easier to stomach after a tough workout, not everyone is a big fan of your classic recovery drinks. If you find recovery drinks and liquid fuel totally unappealing, you can use solid or natural fuel to refuel after your workouts instead.

Conclusion

There are numerous ways to approach refueling after a workout, but drinking a recovery shake immediately after is an easy, fast, and sure way to replenish your glycogen stores and fuel protein muscle synthesis. With a four to one carbohydrate to protein combination, you’ll ensure that you have the fuel you need to protect lean muscle tissue and engage in muscular synthesis. There’s no downside to including protein in the shake and a lot of upsides. As an added bonus, it’s an excellent addition to your recovery routine and a great way to reinforce other habits.


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Meghan Kelley

Meghan Kelley is a writer, XC MTB racer, and an all-around fan of trails, rocks, dirt, and the desert. She's passionate about helping cyclists get faster and finding the best mid-ride snacks.