Fast food for recovery after exercise?

Fast food for recovery after exercise?

Fast Food for recovery after exercise?

Last weekend the legendary 24 hour mountain bike marathon, Mountain Mayhem ( was held at the spectacular Gatcombe Park Estate where we were able to observe the nutritional strategies of many team competitors. 

Judging by the amount of burgers and other fast food being consumed, it is possible many competitors failed to read beyond the headlines of a recent study suggesting that in some cases fast food may be as good as sports nutrition for recovery after exercise(2).

This study was widely reported in the media - often illustrated with a double cheeseburger and chips with extra large soda with headlines along the lines of, ‘Burgers as good as Sports Supplements for post exercise recovery!


Citing the study published in the prestigious International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism (IJSM)(2) 

You may have already seen people ditching their post recovery shake in favor of a burger bar loyalty card and ordering another triple layer cheeseburger confident that research proves it works just as well as the latest sports nutrition shake.

However, like many things where the ‘devil is in the detail’, for those concerned with maximizing their performance (or health), it is probably worth reading beyond the headlines, or even the scientific abstract from which many popular press articles are written. 

For sure some sports nutrition products are better than others and specialized products are often designed for a specific purpose or timing relative to exercise.  Taken out of context there may well be better products just as there are fast food choices that are more suitable for recovery than others.

Understanding the composition of fast food used in this study may help us choose more optimal ‘fast food’ when we are faced with having to consider a burger bar having neglected to bring along our sports specific recovery solution.  Comparing the exact nutritional composition of the Sports Specific products used in this study may help us decide if our preferred post exercise nutritional solution is worth the effort and cost relative to fast food.

Unfortunately, the illustrations used in the popular press were not a particularly good representation of the actual food consumed during this study.  Whilst a small hamburger was consumed in the second meal 2 hours after exercise, an illustration of the first and arguably most important meal would perhaps not create the same sensational headlines.  The first meal used in this study was composed of 3 hotcakes (breakfast Pancakes), 1 hash brown and a small orange juice.  This adds up to roughly 650kcal with 109g of carbohydrate and 18g of fat.  So, if you wish to follow the study protocol you may need to wait a while and think about the size of the burger. 

Whilst a double cheeseburger and small fries from a well known Scottish sounding burger joint adds up to a similar 682kcal, the composition would be vastly different - roughly twice as much fat and half as much carbohydrate. 

Remember too that each gram of fat contributes more than twice the amount of energy as carbohydrate so the difference in terms of energy contribution would be further exaggerated. 

One of the main factors to consider in post exercise nutrition is ensuring sufficient sodium is consumed to ensure fluid is retained rather than resulting in increased urinary output.  Typical recommendations are to consume 500mg of sodium with about 1.5 times the mass of fluid lost as dehydration during exercise.  In the study, 900mg of sodium was consumed in the first meal whilst a double cheeseburger and chips would contribute over 1000mg!

Too much of a good thing perhaps, although in the same issue of the journal researchers from the University of Texas gave nearly 2g of sodium 2 hours prior to a dehydration ride and performance time trial.(3)  They concluded that high sodium consumption prior to exercise resulted in hyper hydration and this improved performance in the heat. 

This perhaps illustrates one weakness of the fast food study.  Whilst there was no significant difference in the main macronutrients between the two conditions more than 50% more sodium was consumed in the fast food group than the Sports Supplement group prior to the exercise trial. 

The potential advantages of hyper hydration are more likely to result in a performance improvement in a hot exercise laboratory than in a real world performance trial in a more temperate environment.  This could be especially so for an uphill time trial in cool conditions where the weight gain due to water retention is likely to hinder performance more than improve performance through improved thermoregulation.  It may therefore be worth considering the type and timing of exercise challenge YOU are hoping to recover for relative to your post exercise sodium consumption and the relevance of specific scientific findings.

Consistent with the published studies that suggest chocolate milkshake is better than specific sports nutrition, this study did not use a specific post exercise recovery product.  In this study, in order to match the high fat content of the fast food they used a strange combination of peanut butter and chocolate chip products, energy chews, and different energy drinks from several manufactures. 

Whilst the choice of sports products according to the researchers was ‘comparable to products most often advertised as a practical option to optimize glycogen recovery’, I am sure that most supplement manufacturers, including the ones used in the study would suggest a different product selection to ‘optimize’ recovery post exercise. 

One of the challenges of sports nutrition is that carbohydrate availability and hydration can have such an impact on performance that subtle difference or marginal gains are often overlooked.    Acutely someone fuelled and hydrated will always ‘go better’ than someone who is empty almost irrespectively of how they ‘fuelled up’.   It is possible to replace carbohydrate with beer but a 2014 study showed, perhaps not surprisingly, that beer impairs reaction time and balance in addition to fluid retention.(4) Given its popularity, it is perhaps unsurprising that researchers have looked at ways of including or co-consuming sodium and potassium with beer in order to improve its rehydrating properties and removed the alcohol to solve another ‘stumbling block’ to  exercise performance if not perception thereof! (5)

Longer term it is often about getting the same ‘recovery’ from less calories in order to favorably effect body composition or promoting protein synthesis and mitogenesis in order to enhance adaptation.

That there may be more to ‘recovery’ or adaptation to exercise and the interaction with nutrition may be illustrated from another paper in the same journal, this time from the University of Chichester.(6)  Researchers there were able to show that 7 days consumption of blackcurrant extract increased performance in a repeated sprint test exercise model.  Blackcurrants like cherries and other berries are high in anthocyanin antioxidants, which may improve recovery by reducing inflammation and altering endothelial function. 

More recently a paper in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked at the effects of powdered cherry supplementation on endurance performance(8)..  This used the exact extract used in STEALTH protein powders and gels.  They were able to demonstrate a number of favorable adaptations after just 10 days supplementation surrounding an endurance challenge.  These included reduced muscle breakdown, immune and inflammatory stress in addition to the all important improvement in performance.

It is possible that some Sports Supplements have been dumbed down to little more than tasty convenience food and possibly offer little benefit over well-chosen fast foods, but there are certainly choices that should offer additional benefits.  Similarly it is possible to make post exercise nutrition from ‘real food’ that is likely to confer a benefit over the fast food used in this recent study.  Most importantly if you are concerned about your performance remember ‘fast food’ may be as good as ‘some sports supplements’ for acute recovery, but you are likely to be disappointed if you expect your favorite double cheese burger and fries to cut the mustard.  The numbers just don’t add up.

Whilst most ethical Sports Nutrition companies make efforts to ensure their products are free from banned substances the same may not be the case for fast food manufacturers.  Whilst the food traceability for the major multinational companies is likely to be as good as any, the same may not be true of every fast food outlet.  That said, even respected retailers became embroiled in the recent horse-meat scandal which involved not only horse being passed off as beef but also meat unfit for human consumption.  Particularly alarming to drug tested athletes may be the case where horses used in medical research were illegally sold for human consumption (7).




(1)     JonathanO'Callaghan 2015, Hooray! You CAN eat fast food after exercise: Burgers and chips are just as good as supplements for workout recovery, study claim, MailOnline, PUBLISHED: 13:49, 2 April 2015 | UPDATED: 13:49, 2 April 2015

(2)     Cramer MJ, Dumke CL, Hailes WS, Cuddy JS, Ruby BC. Post-exercise Glycogen Recovery and Exercise       Performance is Not Significantly Different Between Fast Food and Sport Supplements. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015 Mar 26. [Epub ahead of print]

(3)     Morris DM, Huot JR, Jetton AM, Collier SR, Utter AC.Acute Sodium Ingestion Prior to Exercise Increases Voluntary Water Consumption Resulting in Pre-Exercise Hyperhydration and Improvement in Exercise Performance in the Heat. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015 Mar 26. [Epub ahead of print]

(4)     Flores-Salamanca R1, Aragón-Vargas LF. (2014) Postexercise rehydration with beer impairs fluid retention, reaction time, and balance Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Oct;39(10):1175-81. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2013-0576. Epub 2014 May 27.

(5)    Desbrow B, Cecchin D, Jones A, Grant G, Irwin C, Leveritt M. (2015) Manipulations to the Alcohol and Sodium Content of Beer for Post Exercise Rehydration. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015 Jan 14. [Epub ahead of print]

(6)     Perkins IC, Vine SA, Blacker SD, Willems ME.(2015) New Zealand Blackcurrant Extract Improves High-intensity Intermittent Running. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015 Mar 26. [Epub ahead of print]

(7)     Willsher K (2013) Illegal horsemeat allegations lead to raids and arrests in France, theguardian.

(8)     Levers, K., Dalton, R., Galvan, E., O’Connor, A., Goodenough, C., & Simbo, S. et al. (2016). Effects of powdered Montmorency tart cherry supplementation on acute endurance exercise performance in aerobically trained individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 13(1).

Often it is easy to overlook what you are actually eating when you are served pre prepared food so here is a look at some of the ingredients in the Fast Food in the recent study:-

HASH BROWNS: Ingredients: Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [Wheat and Milk Derivatives]*, Citric Acid [Preservative]), Salt, Corn Flour, Dehydrated Potato, Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (Maintain Color), Extractives of Black Pepper.
CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK. *Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients. Prepared in Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil with TBHQ and Citric Acid Added to Preserve Freshness). Dimethylpolysiloxane Added as an Antifoaming Agent.

HOTCAKES (3): Ingredients: Water, Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Whey, Yellow Corn Flour, Soybean Oil, Sugar, Eggs, Contains 2% Or Less: Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate), Dextrose, Egg Whites, Emulsifier (Mono and Diglycerides, Propylene Glycol Monoester, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate), Salt, Artificial Flavor, Xanthan Gum, Beta Carotene (Color), Soy Lecithin (Processing Aid). CONTAINS: WHEAT, MILK, EGG AND SOY LECITHIN.

FRENCH FRIES: Ingredients: Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [Wheat and Milk Derivatives]*, Citric Acid [Preservative]), Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (Maintain Color), Salt.
Prepared in Vegetable Oil: Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil with TBHQ and Citric Acid added to preserve freshness. Dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent. CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK. *Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients..

Minute Maid® Orange Juice (Small): Minute Maid® 100% Orange Juice Filtered water, orange juice concentrate.

Coca-Cola® Classic (Small): Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors (vegetable source), caffeine.


REGULAR BUN: Ingredients: Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% or Less: Salt, Wheat Gluten, Leavening (Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate), May Contain One or More Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide, Mono and Diglycerides, Monocalcium Phosphate, Enzymes, Calcium Peroxide), Calcium Propionate (Preservative). CONTAINS: WHEAT.

100% BEEF PATTY: Ingredients: 100% Pure USDA Inspected Beef; No Fillers, No Extenders. Prepared with Grill Seasoning (Salt, Black Pepper).