How to Fuel and Recover in UK’s Cafes



There are two big trends in Sports Nutrition at the moment, personalisation and nutrient timing. Personalisation is the acknowledgement that every individual is different, and that nutrition and hydration plans should be worked out specifically to match unique and constantly changing needs. Nutrient timing fits within this, as the way in which people’s lives differ influences the timing of nutrient intake more than the overall amounts. Although these areas impacts all the food you eat, it is particularly important before and after exercise, as the timing of food intake and the proportions of carbohydrate, protein and fat can significantly impact performance, recovery, training adaptation and tissue repair [1] as well as mood and immunity [2].


Even at moderate intensity doing exercise will cause some muscle damage and deplete muscle energy stores. The period immediately after exercise is the ideal time to counteract this, so the ideal time to meet up with friends or grab something after a class, run or ride. Extensive research has shown that the ideal strategy for good recovery is to consume quick release (sugary) carbohydrates with protein, in a ratio of 4:1 (four times as much carbohydrate as protein) soon after exercise. The ideal amount of carbohydrate is between 0.8 g and 1.2 g per kilogram of your body weight and the ideal protein intake is around 20 g [1, 3, 4]. For a 75kg (~11 ½ stone) adult this would mean consuming 60-90g carbohydrate and 15-22.5g protein.


Carbohydrates are the main energy source during high-intensity activity and are stored in the body as glycogen. The highest rates of glycogen storage occur during the first hour after exercise. Restoration is found to be ~50% faster and more complete if food is eaten soon after exercise [5] due to the exercise-induced increase in insulin sensitivity, activation of glycogen synthase and increased permeability of muscle cell membranes to glucose [6]. Adding a protein source to carbohydrate after exercise promotes glycogen storage [7] but protein’s main role is in muscle building and repair. Whenever a protein-rich meal is eaten, blood levels of amino acids rise and there is an increase in muscle protein synthesis [8, 9]. Eating protein post exercise aids recovery of force and power and lowers delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) [3] The optimum way to consume protein is to split it up into small amounts - each around 20g and spread these evenly over the day [10]. 


Historically, fat has been seen as unhelpful in sports nutrition as the higher energy density slows stomach emptying and energy delivery to the muscles. Recent research, particularly from Tim Noakes in South Africa, has promoted increasing amounts of dietary fat [11, 12] and high fat diets have been shown to promote the use of fat as fuel during all but the highest intensity exercise bouts [13]. Being able to use fat should be a huge advantage for any sport lasting longer than an hour as fat stores are much bigger than those of available carbohydrate. However, the upregulation of fat use has been found to lower the body’s ability to use carbohydrate and be detrimental to performance [34] There is still far less research on fat’s role during exercise or its influence on other nutrients than there is for either carbohydrate or protein but some interesting studies have been done, for example Elliot et al (2006) demonstrated that there is greater muscle amino acid uptake from whole milk than skimmed milk after exercise [14] but it was not shown whether this is due to the fat or a higher energy content and far more research is needed. Until more is known, fat intake immediately before or after exercise should be kept to a minimum.


There has been plenty in the press about having caffeine in drinks, snacks or gum before both endurance and high intensity exercise [15, 16]. Caffeine is a known ergogenic aid, enhancing training adaptation and sports performance across a range of sports. The common recommended dose is 3–6 mg per kg of body weight, taken approximately one hour before exercise [17] but studies have shown that much lower doses (1.0–2.0 mg per kg) are effective and that there may be benefit in taking caffeine later in exercise [18] and during recovery. Caffeine has a positive role in the metabolism of glucose and restoration of muscle glycogen [19] as well as lowering the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness [20]. Many articles and blog posts suggest that caffeine is a diuretic and so will compromise hydration but the scientific literature does not show any change in fluid balance during exercise that would negatively affect performance or recovery [21].

The caffeine content of a coffee bought in a UK cafe is highly variable [22] and will depend on the type of beans, roast profile and brewing method [22, 23]. Starbucks, the only UK café that lists the caffeine content its drinks, states there is 75mg in a single shot of coffee, 10mg in a small hot chocolate, 30mg in green tea and that the caffeine content of black tea varies [24]. This fits in with other published data showing an average 250ml cup of fresh brewed coffee contains 75-110mg, black tea 25-110mg, green tea 30-50mg and hot chocolate 5-10mg of caffeine [25]. All meaning it’s perfectly possible to see a performance gain from buying drinks in a café.

Caffeine may also improve muscle recovery and training adaptation after physical activity but this can only happen if the correct nutrients are available to restore glycogen stores and repair muscle. As the ideal recommended nutrient combination is 0.8-1.2g per kg body weight of carbohydrate in a 4:1 ratio with protein and low fat, a venti, gande or massimo skimmed latte from any chain, containing ~25g of quick release carbohydrate and ~16g of protein goes a long way to fulfilling most people’s recovery needs [24, 26, 27]. A large, skimmed latte with a slice of banana bread, a low-fat blueberry muffin or a cinnamon bun would give 70-80g carbohydrate and over 20g protein [24, 26, 27] an ideal 4:1.

The carbohydrate content of a cow’s milk is greater than soy, oat or almond and fat levels are generally lower, meaning the cow milk options are slightly better when looking at glycogen recovery [24, 26, 27]. Milky drinks have another big advantage with research showing that milk is more effective at replacing fluid lost during exercise than either plain water or commercially available sports drinks [28]. Hot chocolate or low-fat chocolate milk has also been shown to be a very effective recovery aid, having a good balance of nutrients and promoting euhydration [29, 30]. A large hot chocolate can contain 60g carbohydrate and 18g protein [24, 26, 27] but you need to watch the fat content and say no to the cream.

Most independent cafés sell their coffee in 8oz cups (227ml), a quarter of the size of a 32oz Starbucks venti and containing around 5g of protein. However, this doesn’t mean that this option is worse than going to a commercial chain, as you can always drink more than one and you are likely to want to as it will taste so much better. As well as taste it is worth noting that coffee from an artisan café is likely to be better, particularly for athletes, than coffee from the big chains. Like all plant-based foods coffee contains a wide variety of phytonutrients – the chemical compounds made by the plants to help protect them from insects, fungi, and other threats, many of which have been found to be beneficial to human health [30]. Caffeine is the best known in coffee but caffeine is only one of the compounds found and not necessarily the most beneficial [31]. Hand-picked, individually batch roasted arabica coffee is often shade grown at altitude, which slows growth and increases phytonutrient content. Artisan coffee is also picked when the cherries are ripe and roasted lighter. Although this will decrease the available caffeine, light roasted coffee will retain far more of its beneficial phytonutrient content [23].


It’s not all about coffee: tea also contains phytonutrients and antioxidants and fruit juices are a good source of simple carbohydrates. You can also stick to water and eat a slightly bigger meal or snack. The presence of carbohydrate accelerates water absorption in the small intestine by stimulating active transport, sodium (salt) improves both water absorption and retention and potassium increases water take-up into the cells [32].


The choice on even the smallest cafes menu is often vast and the first thing to consider is how much to eat. The idea of personalised nutrition is that energy intake should be matched as closely as possible to the energy needs of the individual and so will vary day to day depending on your daily training schedule and other activity. What to chose from a café menu will depend on a myriad of different factors, not least whether you are stopping for a quick snack or something more substantial. All food should fit into the plan and work with the other things you eat that day. Food quality is also very important. Good quality protein sources and whole foods should be consumed whenever possible versus packaged foods and bars or shakes [33] in order to optimise the nutrient composition. 


With so much to think about it is really difficult to translate research advice into the real food on café menus but there are some common options that are generally available and give a good balance of nutrients. Many cafés now sell porridge or oatmeal. A 250g bowl of porridge contains approximately 200-250kcals, 30-35g carbohydrate, 9-12g protein and 4g of fat and although less than you would typically need for fuelling or recovery, coupled with a coffee and a small orange juice it gives a good balance of the nutrients you need. Two slices of multi grain or brown toast with butter (5g), contain approximately 150-250kcals, 30-50g carbohydrate, 7-15g of protein and 7g fat and you can add 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (6.4g carbohydrate, 8g protein, 16g fat) or two poached eggs (6g protein, 5g Fat), scrambled egg (2g carbohydrate, 7g protein, 10g fat) or a large avocado (17g carbohydrate, 4g protein, 30g fat) to make more of a meal. Remember to watch the amount of fat if you are eating ahead of high intensity exercise. 

Many cafés also sell yoghurt pots with granola and fruit. 150g of Greek yoghurt contains 11g of protein and coupled with fruit is another well-balanced option. A sprinkle of granola is a nice addition but can be high fat and you need to be vigilant. The nutrient composition of cakes and biscuits varies wildly and it is not always easy to guess which are better. Banana bread is often low fat and gingerbread or fruit loaf are better than most. Although they look healthy, granola bars, flapjacks and muffins are usually high in both sugar and fat and should be treated with caution despite the healthy-looking fruit and nuts. 

On balance it’s well worth embracing the social side of sport by visiting cafes with friends after exercise or sport.  Take time to understand the menu in the cafés you may go to most often: better still get to know the owner who may offer other options not on the menu. Meeting friends is not just good for health and morale: it also makes it much more likely you’ll turn up to exercise together in the first place!


Tilly Spurr (SENr) Performance Nutritionist. Lecturer in Sport & Exercise Science


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