One of the hottest new areas of interest in fitness is post-workout recovery. Research has shown that it makes a difference what you eat and take in terms of supplements after exercise in order to achieve your fitness goals. You can help your body recover more quickly, more efficiently, and more strongly, by eating the right foods and supplementing appropriately.
After hard exercise, your muscles are broken down, your glycogen is depleted, and your body enters recovery mode. This is when it needs to find the appropriate materials with which to rebuild. The food you eat will affect the process your body uses to recover its strength. Many exercisers simply think that protein is the answer, and they take protein powder supplements after working out or eat large quantities of protein such as meat or fish. This is a good idea, because it is true that protein is essential to our bodies for recovery from exercise in terms of building muscle. In fact while some post-workout foods and supplements should just be taken within the first few hours after exercise, protein should be consumed more often; every 3-4 hours is appropriate if you exercise regularly, in order to boost muscle growth and recovery.
You can and should go beyond protein, however. You can improve on the post-workout formula by consuming carbohydrates for recovery of glycogen. A study by Goodyear in 1998 showed that muscles are able to take up glucose in significantly greater quantities following intense exercise for a few hours post-workout. This is the time to eat carbohydrates. There is some controversy about what kind of carbohydrates are best. Some argue that simple sugars are the best, such as dextrose, while others advocate taking drinks containing glucose polymers. Still other insist that simply eating pasta or other foods high in carbohydrates will work. The research to date does not show significant differences in results based on what kind of carbohydrates you consume, so the important thing is simply to consume carbohydrates during this window of time after your workout.
You also might consider adding branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine to your post-workout regimen. BCAAs are abundant amino acids that are easily used and broken down by your body during exercise, so that’s a great reason to take them both before and after working out. Your body cannot make BCAAs on its own so supplementation will be useful. Glutamine helps your body create growth hormones, supports the immune system and helps conserve muscle mass during exercise. Glutamine, BCAAs and protein will work synergistically when taken together.
Another supplement many exercisers take is creatine, which supplies energy to your muscles. Research has shown that creatine is particularly useful for anaerobic activity such as weight lifting and high intensity interval training. For example, a study by JS Volek and colleagues, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, showed that 25 grams per day of creatine supplementation resulted in enhanced muscle performance during bench press sets and jump squat exercises. Creatine is produced naturally in our bodies by the liver, pancreas, and kidneys, and supplements are available in capsule, tablet, or powdered form.
Finally, proper hydration post-workout is essential to a successful recovery. Dehydration inhibits muscle growth, and unfortunately we do not usually notice that we are thirsty until we are already dehydrated. A regular exerciser should consume at least 3 litres of water per day, more if possible and especially if you work out in hot or humid climates. You will also want to adjust your fluid intake based on how much you sweat; that is, body builders may not need to drink as much as those who practice endurance sports such as cycling or running.
The idea behind all of these suggestions is synergy. While many athletes simply rely on protein post-workout to enhance recovery, it is important to remember that protein and muscle synthesis are complex processes that depend on and work together with other micro- and macronutrients to be successful and efficient. Research in this area is highly active, and we have learned that a combination of carbohydrates and proteins and appropriate supplements can make a difference in recovery and results. New research is examining the effects of consuming different kinds of fats post-workout, although no conclusions have yet been drawn. It is important for athletes to continue to inform themselves and stay up to date on the latest research regarding post-workout nutrition.