o you work out? Trying to lose some fat and gain some muscle? Or maybe just trying to lead an active lifestyle? Whatever your motivation, you can make the most of your workouts with recovery nutrition. I know this sounds like an infomercial so far, but the only thing I want to sell you on is the idea that nutrition after physical activity can be hugely beneficial for your body and/or performance goals.
Recovery nutrition is one of my favorite nutrition topics because it is exciting to see the extent to which food and good nutrition practices are able to help athletes get better. There is lots of research supporting the efficacy of strategic nutrient consumption following exercise. Here I want to give a semi-brief explanation of why and how nutrition helps our bodies repair, recover, and grow after physical activity. The topic of recovery nutrition is extensive and I am focusing on essentially the basics here. This post will discuss the nutrients of recovery nutrition: carbs and protein. Hydration is another key concept in recovery nutrition that will definitely be covered in the future.
When you exercise and put strain on your muscles, some damage occurs to the muscle proteins utilized for physical activity. The body recognizes damaged muscles and increases the rate at which these muscle proteins are broken down and new proteins are synthesized to replace the previous muscle. Both endurance and resistance training result in muscle protein damage and the resulting upregulation of protein turnover, or the cycle of breaking down and synthesizing proteins. This increase in muscle remodeling has been shown to last as long as 24-48 hours after a single exercise session, with highest rates immediately following activity. So how can you take advantage of this increase in protein turnover to help you build muscle? Eat protein!
Eating protein rich foods after exercise enhances muscle protein synthesis. Post-workout protein acts as both a stimulus and a substrate for muscle building. Specifically, it is theorized that the branched chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine may play the biggest role in muscle protein synthesis compared to other amino acids. The “leucine trigger” hypothesis states that a certain amount of leucine consumed after a bout of exercise is able to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. A study supporting this idea found that whey protein was more effective than soy or casein proteins at stimulating protein synthesis after exercise in young men. Whey’s higher leucine content and rapid digestibility are thought to explain the greater muscle protein stimulation.
The current research leads to recommendations of ingesting foods high in essential amino acids, especially leucine, and those that are quickly digested. It is important to choose food that the body can absorb rapidly to increase the availability of amino acids for protein synthesis, as well as ideally reach the “leucine trigger” level of leucine needed to maximally stimulate protein synthesis. Whey protein may therefore be considered the most effective for greatest muscle building.
eal life applications: research shows that consuming about 20g high quality protein right after exercise can maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. To get more specific, you can calculate optimum protein intake for an individual after a workout by multiplying weight in kilograms by 0.25-0.3 grams protein. Ex: a 165 lb. (75 kg) athlete would need 19-23 grams of protein post-workout for the most muscle growth. Consuming more protein than this seemingly small amount has not been proven to result in any greater muscle growth. Beyond the initial post-workout dose, timing of additional protein throughout the day is beneficial for muscle repair and building, and will be discussed further below.
Carbs are the other half of recovery nutrition. Consuming carbohydrates after demanding physical activity mainly serves to replenish muscle glycogen stores that were used in exercise. Glycogen is the storage form of carbs in the body, utilized to fuel activity. Adequate glycogen stores are required for optimal athletic performance, while inadequate glycogen stores and carbohydrate intake is known to impair performance. Including enough carbohydrates in the diet is necessary for athletes to maintain glycogen to fuel their sport.
Carbohydrates in post-exercise nutrition are especially important when there is less than a day between activity sessions, as it can take up to 24 hours to replenish depleted glycogen stores. Training schedules that include two-a-day practices or multiple games in a day challenge an athletes’ ability to maintain a high level of performance throughout events. Consuming carbohydrate rich foods as tolerated between sessions can greatly support athletic performance.
To adequately replace glycogen stores, it is recommended to consume 1-1.2 g/kg/hour of carbohydrates. For our example 75 kg athlete, this would translate to 75-90 grams of carbs every hour. Such a large amount of carbohydrate is undoubtedly difficult to achieve for many athletes for a variety of reasons such as appetite, food availability, and scheduling. However, when carbohydrates are ingested with about 20g protein, only
0.8 g/kg/hour carbs are needed to achieve similar glycogen synthesis rates as a higher intake of just carbs. If you have at least 24 hours between events, it is perhaps not as essential to achieve these levels of carbohydrate intake immediately after exercise to replenish glycogen if you have adequate carbohydrates in your diet.
There is much talk of a “window of opportunity” right after a workout in which you must have your protein and carbs in order to gain benefits from your recovery nutrition. This is perhaps half true. As discussed above, it is clear that our bodies are still recovering and rebuilding at least a whole day after just one physically demanding event. Therefore, we have all that time to positively influence the growth process through smart nutrition.
However, the truth of the post-workout “window” is that our bodies do seem to be most receptive to nutrients immediately after an event. Within about an hour of an exercise session, the body is able to use carbohydrates to synthesize and store glycogen at the highest rates. Muscle protein synthesis rates are also perhaps highest about 1-2 hours after exercise, and the greatest increases in muscle growth and strength over time can be seen with protein ingestion immediately following exercise.
Rapidly digesting, carbohydrate-rich foods will quickly provide glucose for the muscle to replenish glycogen stores. Choosing these types of carbs is a good strategy for an athlete looking to start the refueling process as soon as they can. Quickly digested carbohydrate foods include milk, lower fiber fruits, refined grain products, candy, juice, and many sugary foods. Some of these foods are likely avoided by those aiming for a low sugar or nutritionally dense diet, but can be beneficial shortly after exercise for rapid recovery.
In the hours following a workout, nutrient timing can continue to support the repair process. Consuming 0.3 g/kg protein every 3-5 hours after exercise can promote muscle synthesis and growth. This can be achieved by including protein-rich foods in all meals and snacks. Carbohydrates should also be consumed in all meals and snacks to refuel muscles, and also simply for energy throughout the day.
Recovery nutrition is not just the immediate time after exercise, and could be considered to last 24 hours or more. For athletes who train every, or most days, this means that they are essentially always in a recovery nutrition state. These athletes’ food choices are constantly impacting their abilities to repair muscles and refuel glycogen stores, all in preparation for their next athletic performance.
Whew! So much information. What to take away from all of this to improve your post-workout nutrition:
- Protein is a signal and building block for muscle protein synthesis
- Aim for 0.25-0.3 g/kg protein within an hour of exercise, and then every 3-5 hours after that for the rest of day
- Carbohydrates replenish glycogen used during exercise
- Have about 0.8 g/kg carbs with the protein for optimal glycogen synthesis
- Choose quickly digesting carbs and protein to take advantage of the higher rates of refueling and repairing soon after activity
Chocolate milk is a great, popular refueling choice because it has a good balance of protein and carbs for muscle recovery. A smoothie made with fruit, yogurt or protein powder, and milk is another way to get protein and carbs. Milk and whey seem to be the favored choices for protein for recovery nutrition due to their high leucine content and ability to be quickly digested. However, other proteins like soy and egg are also useful and will benefit muscle protein synthesis.
It is the synergistic combination of nutrition and exercise that results in the greatest body and performance improvements. Use recovery nutrition to make the most of your workouts and give your body what it needs to fuel and repair for the next exercise event
Some additional awesome resources used:
Nutrition and Athletic Performance Joint Position Statement 2016
Clinical Sports Nutrition by Louise Burke and Vicki Deakin