Food vs. sports drinks: what’s really better for recovery?

Many athletes believe that optimal recovery following exercise requires hi-tech nutrition. But can everyday foods do the trick equally well? Andrew Hamilton looks at what some recent science has to say.

Regular Sports Performance Bulletin readers will already be aware that it’s impossible to understate the importance of rapid and effective recovery after training. The faster and more fully you recover, the sooner you’ll be ready to train again, the better you’ll perform when you do train and the more benefits you’ll get from your training efforts. There are two components to recovery – rest/sleep and nutrition. Providing you’re not overtraining, it’s not exaggerating to say that the next single most important thing you can do to boost performance is to improve your recovery nutrition!

The fundamentals of recovery nutrition

In broad-brush terms, there are four major nutritional requirements for rapid recovery after long and/or strenuous exercise. These are as follows:

  • *Carbohydrate – needed to synthesise and replenish muscle glycogen (the body’s premium grade fuel for strenuous exercise), and also to top up liver glycogen stores, which serve as a reserve to maintain correct blood sugar levels. Post-exercise carbohydrate also stimulates the release of a hormone called insulin, which helps to drive glucose (from carbohydrate) and amino acids (from protein – see below) into hungry muscle cells, accelerating recovery;
  • *Protein – needed to supply the amino acid building blocks required to repair and regenerate muscle fibres damaged during exercise, and to promote muscle hypertrophy (growth) and adaptation;
  • *Water – to replace fluid lost as sweat and to aid the process of glycogen storage in muscle (each gram of glycogen synthesised in muscle requires around three grams of water to ‘fix’ it in place;
  • *Electrolytes – to replenish minerals lost in sweat (eg sodium, chloride, calcium, magnesium).

Of these requirements, the roles of carbohydrate and protein in recovery have been the most researched in the scientific literature. Readers are directed to this in-depth article on the role of protein in recovery. For carbohydrate in recovery, the best thinking and practice is summarised in this Sports Performance Bulletin article. In the current article however, we’re going to look at how the carbohydrate, protein, water and electrolytes you need are best consumed.

High-tech vs. low-tech recovery nutrition

The need to consume carbohydrate and protein to facilitate recovery following exercise has long been understood. In recent years however, sports scientists have made significant advances in understanding the biochemistry of these nutrients during and after exercise – advances that have been proven to help performance both in the short and longer term. Examples in carbohydrate nutrition include the use of 2-to-1 glucose-fructose carbohydrate drinks, which have been shown to extend endurance and provide superior muscle fuelling and recovery with less gastric distress(1-3). And in protein nutrition, recent research has shown that whey protein stands head and shoulders above other proteins for recovery(4,5), with the amino acid leucine playing a particularly important role in this respect(6).

With these advances in our understanding of sports nutrition, it’s hardly surprising that manufacturers of sports nutrition products such as carbohydrate/protein recovery drinks have incorporated this knowledge into their latest offerings. As such, these kinds of products have become very popular for athletes looking to accelerate recovery and boost their performance. Not only do such products provide the right ingredients in the correct ratios, they’re also very easy and convenient to use.

Food and water

Given the facts above, you might assume that these sports nutrition products are an essential part of any nutritional strategy when seeking maximum performance and recovery. But is this really the case? Do these products always outperform meals and snacks consumed after training? Surprisingly, there’s been very little research to answer this question; most studies have simply compared the effects of consuming differing amounts of protein and/or carbohydrate blends – or compared carbohydrate/protein ingestion with a placebo (nothing). However, some very recent research has tried to answer this question and come up with some intriguing findings.

Earlier this year, Australian researchers investigated the effect on fluid, energy, and nutrient recovery of consuming different commercial beverages with food after exercise(7). On four separate occasions, eight trained females cycled at 75% of their maximum oxygen uptake (moderately hard) until they had lost 2% of their body mass, mainly through dehydration. The bulk of this body mass loss would have been comprised of water, with accompanying electrolyte losses in sweat as well as some muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrates). They then undertook a 4-hour recovery period where they had unlimited access to one of the four beverages on offer:

  • Water
  • Powerade (carbohydrate/electrolyte sports drink)
  • Up & Go Reduced Sugar (low-sugar milk)
  • Up & Go Energize (higher sugar and protein milk)

Participants also had two 15-minute opportunities to access food within the first 2 hours of the recovery period. Beverage intake, total water/nutrient intake, and indicators of fluid recovery, gastrointestinal tolerance and palatability were assessed periodically.

The results showed that levels of hydration were very similar all four trials; the actual amounts of water consumed being the same. What was different was that the total energy intake (from food and beverage) increased in proportion to the energy density of the beverage. The numbers of calories consumed in each condition were as follows:

  • Water: 983
  • Powerade: 1,230
  • Up&Go reduced sugar: 1433
  • Up&Go high protein: 1689

The researchers therefore concluded that when consumed voluntarily and with food, different beverages promote similar levels of fluid recovery, but alter energy/nutrient intakes.

These results are in line with those from a previous study carried out in 2017, also by Australian researchers(8). In this study, ten endurance trained males performed four trials, each consisting of one hour of cycling to induce fluid loss. During the recovery period, the participants freely consumed either water, a sports drink (Powerade) or a milk-based liquid meal supplement (Sustagen Sport) over a four hour recovery period. Additionally, participants had free access to snack foods on two occasions within the first 2 hours of recovery in all trials. Like the study above, the results showed that rehydration levels were the same in all trials, although the athletes consumed more calories when they used the sports drinks. The researchers concluded: “With the co-ingestion of food, fluid restoration following exercise is tightly regulated and not influenced by the choice of either water, a carbohydrate-electrolyte (sports drink) or a milk-based beverage.”

Performance dimension

The evidence suggests that when food is available, consuming sports drinks offers no advantages for rehydration over and above plain old water. But drinking sports beverages DO result in more calories being consumed. An obvious question therefore is can these extra calories improve fuelling and performance in a subsequent bout of exercise? To try and answer the performance aspect of food plus water vs. food plus sports drink further, the Australian researchers mentioned earlier(7) investigated the effect of drink choice not only on hydration, but also on subsequent performance(9).

In this study (published just two weeks ago), 16 cyclists (8 male and 8 female) underwent one hour’s hard training on the bike – enough to induce a body-mass loss of around 2% – on two separate occasions. The difference between the two trials was what the cyclists were allowed to consume during the following four hours:

  • *Trial 1 – As much sports drink and food as the cyclists wished.
  • *Trial 2 – As much water and food as the cyclists wished.

At the conclusion of the recovery period in each trial, the cyclists then completed a cycling performance test consisting of a 45-minute fixed-intensity pre-load followed by an incremental test to exhaustion. Beverage intake, total water/nutrient intake, and indicators of fluid recovery were assessed periodically throughout trials, and the results between the two trials were then compared.

When the results were analysed, the first finding was that that, regardless of the beverage provided, the cyclists returned to a similar state of net positive fluid balance (ie became properly hydrated again) prior to recommencing exercise. In other words, the carbohydrate/electrolyte drink was no better at rehydrating the cyclists than plain water combined with food. There was a difference between the two trials however; when the cyclists consumed sports drink plus food, they consumed more calories and carbohydrate then when they drank plain water and food. You might assume that this led to improved performance in the subsequent time trial to exhaustion. However, there were no significant differences; the male cyclists sustained 340 watts following sports drinks and 337 watts following water. The figures for the females were 258 and 252 watts respectively.

We can speculate that had the first part of the trial (the hour’s ride) been of a much longer duration, the extra carbohydrate consumed in the sports drink trial might have produced performance benefits. However, that’s an area for future research. What we can say however from this study is that, providing you have access to food, consuming water during a 4-hour recovery period following an hour or so of training is likely to be just as effective at promoting recovery as consuming a dedicated sports drink!

Cereal and milk

Although there’s been a flurry of recent research in this area, these findings fit neatly with those of a much earlier study on cereal and milk consumption(10). In this study, US scientists compared the post-exercise use of a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink with whole grain cereal and non-fat milk to see how effective each was in promoting recovery. Twelve subjects who were either trained cyclists or triathletes completed two randomly-ordered trials. In each, they performed two hours of cycling at 60-65% maximum oxygen uptake and then consumed either a sports drink (containing 78.5g of carbohydrate) or a bowl of cereal and non-fat milk (containing 77g of carbohydrate, 19.5g of protein and 2.7g of fat). The results were as follows:

  • One hour after consuming drink/cereal, both treatments substantially raised muscle glycogen. However, the increase in muscle glycogen produced was not significantly different between the two trials;
  • After the cereal and milk treatment, blood insulin was significantly higher than after the sports drink (insulin is a hormone that helps drive glucose and amino acids into muscle cells thus aiding recovery).
  • Unlike the sports drink, the cereal and milk treatment significantly raised levels of a muscle signalling protein called ‘mTOR’, which is now know to switch on protein synthesis and muscle growth/repair (most likely due to the protein content of the cereal and milk).

The researchers concluded that cereal and non-fat milk following exercise was as good as a commercially available sports drink in initiating post-exercise muscle recovery.

Practical implications for athletes

What these recent studies seem to show is that, providing athletes have free access to food, there doesn’t seem to be any advantage to consuming sports drinks in the form of energy/recovery drinks instead of water during a recovery period. We need to bear in mind however that the initial exercise bouts in these studies were relatively short. After longer events (eg 2+ hours), the extra calories might confer an advantage – but we don’t have that data yet.

Athletes also need to remember that while water is equally effective for recovery when combined with food, there are many times when consuming good quality food (meals or snacks) just isn’t possible in the period after training or competition. A good example is when travelling, or when the foods you require (eg because of an allergy) are simply not available. In these circumstances, consuming a sports drink IS better than consuming just plain water. Don’t forget also that the better recovery drinks tend to include whey protein in them. When maintaining muscle mass and strength is important, post-exercise whey has been shown to confer muscle-building/retention benefits(11).

However, it’s also worth remembering that food meals and snacks don’t have to be elaborate to enable good the trick – your favourite cereal and low-fat milk will tick all the right boxes! The rule of thumb is that aiming for around a 3-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate-to-protein is a good starting point for shorter exercise sessions (up to 90 minutes). Above this and carbohydrate intake needs to be increased proportionately to a ratio of around 4 or 5-to-1. The box below shows a number of different ways of achieving this ratio using snacks, each supplying 20 grams of protein – an optimum amount for any one feeding(12).

Water plus food – ideas for snacks and meals

*Combine any one of the protein options shown on the left (all providing 20 grams of protein) with any one of the carbohydrate options (providing 80g of carbohydrate) shown on the right.

*Low-fat protein options are preferred in the early stages of recovery as amino acid release will be more rapid (fat slows gastric emptying).

*Most of the carbohydrate foods also supply some protein too – a combination will therefore deliver slightly more than 20g of protein.

*Combine your snacks with plenty of water!!


20g of protein option 80g of carbohydrate option
110g of White fish (cod, haddock etc) 5 medium slices of bread
90g of salmon fillet 10 crispbreads
75g of canned tuna 4 medium bananas
100g of beef steak 5 medium pears
90g of chicken breast 400g of Cooked pasta
160g of cottage cheese 280g of cooked rice (brown or white)
65 of cheddar cheese 240g of baked potato
500mls of skimmed milk 150g of cooked couscous
2 small eggs 2 small slices of medium pizza
200g of baked beans 4 tablespoons of sugar-free muesli
70g of pumpkin seeds 125g of oat flakes


  1. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2004; Vol. 36, No. 9, pp. 1551–1558
  2. J Appl Physiol 2006; 100:807-816
  3. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Feb;40(2):275-81
  4. PLoS One. 2016; 11(4): e0153229.
  5. J Appl Physiol 2018. Sep 13. doi: 10.1152
  6. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015 Mar;47(3):547-55
  7. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2019 Jan;44(1):37-46
  8. Physiol Behav. 2017 Mar 15;171:228-235.
  9. Physiol Behav. 2019 Mar 15;201:22-30. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.12.013. Epub 2018 Dec 13.
  10. Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 May 14;6(1):11
  11. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015 Mar;47(3):547-55
  12. J.Physiol. 2013; 591,2319–2331

See also

Share this

Follow us