When food and fitness are in the same sentence, most people instantly think of fat loss. Far less often do people think about the role of nutrition in workout recovery.
But consider the things that happen to the body after a demanding workout:
▪ The body is in a “catabolic” state (that means the breakdown of muscles exceeds muscle protein synthesis).
▪ Muscles have experienced micro trauma (a precursor to delayed muscle soreness).
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▪ Muscle glycogen levels are depleted.
▪ Muscles are dehydrated.
▪ The body can experience a certain degree of inflammation.
In other words, your gas tank is empty. And when workouts are done repeatedly, the cumulative effect can begin to take its toll, resulting in lack of energy, nagging injuries and stagnant results.
However, with optimal post-workout nutrition, we can flip the switch. Ideally, this window of opportunity peaks within 30 minutes of a workout.
Because of these aforementioned workout effects, the muscle cells are primed to take in and utilize the key nutrients needed to facilitate recovery, build lean tissue and burn up fat. The body’s cell transporters of glucose (carbohydrates) and amino acids (protein building blocks) are in a heightened position to recharge your body fast.
Your body is practically begging you for what it needs right after you finish.
When we take advantage of this post-exercise window, when muscles are most receptive to nutrients, exactly the opposite happens:
▪ We reverse the catabolic phase and shift to anabolism (when muscle building exceeds muscle breakdown).
▪ We rapidly replace glycogen.
▪ ▪ We reduce the potential for delayed onset muscle soreness.
▪ Muscles are rehydrated quickly.
▪ Inflammation is reduced.
So now that we know the why, let’s examine the what and how.
You need both carbohydrates and protein
In most cases people think primarily of protein when it comes to recovery, but as we covered earlier, glycogen stores needs to be filled as well, and this is done with carbohydrate intake.
Even more interesting, the two combined actually boost one another and lead to more protein synthesis, less protein breakdown and faster muscle glycogen storage than if each were taken alone. Here is what you need.
Protein: The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming about 0.2-0.225 g/lb of your weight in protein. For example, a 150-pound person should consume at least 30 grams of protein post-workout (150 x 0.2 = 30). And at a bare minimum, you should aim for 20 grams.
Good sources of protein include dairy products (especially milk, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt), chicken, fish, meat, soy (e.g., soy milk, tofu), protein bars and shakes, and nuts.
Ensure that the protein contains a large amount (5 or more grams) of branched chain essential amino acids, or BCAA (e.g. leucine, isoleucine, valine), as these cannot be synthesized in the body on their own.
Specific examples with BCAAs:
▪ 1 cup of 2 percent fat cottage cheese contains 31 g protein (approximately 7 g BCAA)
▪ 1 hard boiled egg has 6.3 g protein and 1.3 g BCAA
▪ 3-oz. chicken breast (w/o skin, roasted) has 28 g protein and 5 g BCAA
A 2015 article by Mike Roussell called “What Are the Best BCAA Food Sources?” at Bodybuilding.com gives more examples of foods high in BCAAs, from canned tuna to wild salmon to roasted peanuts.
Carbohydrates: Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard guideline for how many grams of carbohydrates to ingest post-workout due to a variety of factors (e.g. body type, performance goals, fat loss vs. muscle gain).
With that being said, a lot of it will come down to personal trial and error. Based on a variety of research, you should aim for at least a 1:1 ratio of what your protein intake is post-workout. In other words, if you consume 20 grams of protein post-workout, you should consume at least 20 grams of carbohydrates.
Of course, needs can be higher if you are looking to add muscle or participate in more endurance activities. Good sources of carbohydrates can be found in fruit, potatoes, wheat, rice, pasta, whole-grain bread, oats or in meal replacement shakes.
Many people turn to chocolate milk as a recovery drink, and there is research that lends merit to that practice. Although 1 cup of low-fat chocolate milk can have 25 g of sugar to only 8 g of protein, the simple sugar can actually help replenish glycogen stores quicker if consumed in that 30-minute window, and the milk proteins (whey and casein) help in the rebuilding of muscle. Just make sure you supplement chocolate milk with additional protein from other sources to hit that 20-gram minimum.
What about inflammation?
Exercise induces an inflammatory response which is normal and even desirable, but too much impairs the ability of the muscles to recover from exercise. Taking an omega-3 supplement is a great way to combat this and has been shown to significantly reduce the signs of inflammation regardless of exercise.
Recent studies have shown that amounts of omega-3 supplements that contain both EPA and DHA in the range of 540-3,000 milligrams/day can significantly help. The general recommended daily recommendation of 2,000 mg/day will suffice in most cases.
Don’t forget the water!
After a workout, fluid intake is necessary to aid in recovery since losses in both carbohydrates and sodium hinder the process of rehydration. As a general rule, drink 24 ounces right after a workout or, more specifically, 24 ounces per pound of body weight loss.
Jason Wanlass, the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian, has more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or championfit.net. He writes a monthly fitness column.