Everything you need to know about post-workout nutrition.
The Unlikely Scientist
When I first began pushing iron, I knew very little about the science of weight training and nutrition. And to be honest, I really didn't care much about the science part. You see, I was 18 years old. At that age, all I personally cared about was being big, strong, and intimidating. Oh, and I'd better not forget to mention that I also cared a lot about sex. Somehow I figured that the pursuit of raw, intimidating "manliness" would ultimately equate to getting chicks. So most of my mental reserves were directed at getting really big and kicking everyone's ass both in and out of the gym.
Since my brain was pretty much occupied with all those deep philosophical musings, you can probably imagine that there wasn't much room in my melon for scientific thought. That was compounded with the fact that my predominant science experiences had been with Mr. Richard Wack, the very nerdy, defeated high-school chemistry teacher that had us mixing oil and water to illustrate chemical bonding or lack thereof (I swear that was his name!).
At the time, as ignorant as I was to science, there were a few scientifically validated nuggets of wisdom floating around the local gym. Sure, if I'd have known they were "science," I probably would have ignored them entirely. But since these pieces of science were cleverly disguised and because all the big guys were talking about them, I tried to use this information to it's fullest.
We discussed the merits of statements like "eating a lot of extra protein will make you grow" and "sleeping 8 hours a night will help you recover." These statements seemed to be entirely true and backed up by countless gym experiences. Today, they also happen to be backed up by well-controlled, university studies.
One statement that I was always quite fond of was the one that told me that there was a 90-minute "window of opportunity" after training in which I could eat tons of protein and carbohydrates. Since I love eating protein and carbs, I loved that particular gym "fact." And not only was it cool that it allowed me to pig out on protein and carbs after my workouts, it was equally exciting that in doing so, I would be recovering from my workout and packing on muscle mass at an alarming rate. "Who needs science?" I'd ask, "I'm gonna go eat!"
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this crucial piece of post-workout wisdom has been lost. As a result, few modern trainees have even heard of the "window of opportunity" concept. Some guys today just think that eating "a little something" is enough. To go even further, some even have the audacity to fast for hours after workouts in order to "burn more fat" or to "enhance their GH response." It frightens me that these new practices are almost becoming as popular as the old window I was so fond of taking full advantage of. But I'm here to do something about it!
Despite the anti-science beginnings I discussed earlier, you may be amazed to know my current profession involves scientific research. In fact, I sit here typing this article surrounded by nothing other than science textbooks and journals. It constitutes some of the literature that I've read along the way to a PhD program in exercise and nutritional biochemistry. Who would of thunk it? Armed with all this science, my plan is to unscramble the post-workout puzzle that has lead so many trainees astray.
Over the last few years, I've spent quite a bit of time trying to unscramble the post-workout puzzle in my own mind. And as a result of my research, I've discovered that immediately after a single bout of exercise, three main physiological events must be manipulated for enhanced recovery. These changes can only be described as "destructive" in terms of both training performance and muscle protein balance.
Before I go on, I want you to keep in mind that by exercise I mean either strength and power training or endurance training. Unfortunately, no trainee is immune to the three post-exercise phenomena. These three factors are as follows:
- Glycogen Stores are low
- Protein Breakdown is increased
- Muscle Protein Balance is negative
It should be noted here that in addition to the above that Protein Synthesis also goes down after an endurance training session. And Protein Synthesis either goes up or remains unchanged after a strength training session. But either way, Protein Breakdown still predominates.
For those not well versed in physiological jargon, here's a little explanation of each:
- Glycogen is muscle energy. Low glycogen stores mean that there's less cellular energy for daily life and certainly less energy for subsequent workouts. In this situation, training and performance suffer.
- Protein Breakdown indicates that body tissues (which are made of protein) are being degraded. Increases in protein breakdown can lead to losses of muscle mass.
- Muscle Protein Balance is regulated by the balance between Protein Synthesis and Protein Breakdown in the following way:
- Muscle Protein Balance = Protein Synthesis - Protein Breakdown
Immediately after an endurance workout, protein synthesis (building) goes down and protein breakdown goes up. This leads to a negative Muscle Protein Balance and a loss of muscle.
And immediately after a strength workout, protein building either stays the same or slightly goes up but protein breakdown goes way up. This also leads to a negative Muscle Protein Balance and a loss of muscle.
As a result of these three post workout phenomena, a failure to rapidly bring the body back into recovery mode (i.e., to increase glycogen stores, to increase protein synthesis, and to prevent protein breakdown), has severeal potential consequences:
- Prolonged muscle soreness and fatigue.
- Poor subsequent performances on the track, field, and/or in the gym.
- Symptoms of and or full-flegged staleness and overtraining.
- Minimal gains in muscle mass despite a well-designed training program.
- Losses of muscle mass and a secondary lowering of metabolic rate can occur if volume and intensity get high enough.
"But wait just a minute!" you shout. "I thought exercise was supposed to increase performance, metabolic rate, and muscle mass! Now you're telling me that it could do just the opposite." Slow down, tiger. Let me explain.
It's interesting and very telling to look at the time course of changes in protein and glycogen balance after a workout. Back in 1995, researchers showed that immediately after strength training, protein balance is negative (indicating muscle loss) due to the big increase in protein breakdown and the marginal increase in protein synthesis (1).
Furthermore, this situation seemed to persist for a few hours after the workout. But a few hours later, an interesting switch occurred. Protein synthesis started to climb and breakdown started to fall (although it was still elevated).
This ultimately (about 24 hours later) can lead to a muscle protein balance where synthesis is equal to breakdown (no gain or loss in mass), or a positive protein balance where synthesis is greater than protein breakdown (voila, muscle gains).
So, even if you do everything wrong after hitting the iron, it's only the first few hours after the workout that are extremely catabolic. Twenty-four hours later, though, the body has normalized itself and is either neutral or slightly anabolic. So it appears that under normal circumstances, we've got to lose a little muscle to gain a little muscle.
I'm here to tell you, however, that if you manage the post-workout period correctly, you don't have to lose any muscle. And not only that, if you know how, you can actually achieve and maintain a positive protein balance throughout the entire recovery process. We'll talk more about this later on.
Unfortunately for our endurance friends, the prognosis isn't as good as it is for the muscle bound. Immediately after an endurance-training bout, muscle protein balance is very negative because there's both a big increase in protein breakdown and a big decrease in protein synthesis.
This situation, however, isn't as quickly reversible as it is in our muscle heads. In these athletes there remains a large negative protein balance for 8 hours or more after endurance exercise (2). Uh, say goodbye to the muscle!
Please keep in mind that these exercise studies were done with a day of rest following the training and measurement period. And most importantly, they were done without proper post-workout nutrition!
So, what about the athletes who are training every day (and up to two times or more per day) and then screw up on the post-workout nutrition? One can only speculate that they'll suffer from a big negative muscle protein balance. Since they're training time and time again before protein balance has been brought back to normal, they'll nearly always be in a state of protein breakdown. Bye-bye muscle, metabolism, and training intensity!
With this explained, I'd like to get back to the original objection. I believe that since the average trainee isn't training with the high frequency and intensity that could lead to large and persistent losses in muscle mass and metabolic rate, he or she has very little to worry about in terms of losses of muscle mass and metabolic rate.
With that said, however, the first four problems listed above (soreness, poor performance, overtraining, and stagnation) are often very much a reality for the average athlete and their valiant gym efforts could become frustrating and seem fruitless. Optimal post-workout nutrition can play heavily into the avoidance of the problems discussed above.
Competitive athletes, on the other hand, are particularly vulnerable to all of the above scenarios (including losses in mass and metabolic rate). Due to their training frequency, lack of time off, and intense work rates, most athletes are walking a fine line between their optimal training zone and overtraining. This is one of the reasons why they're subject to all types of ailments during their seasons.
The competitive athlete frequently has to suffer through excessive fatigue yet an inability to sleep at night, chronic muscle soreness, gastrointestinal and appetite alterations, irritability, loss of sex drive, and frequent infections and flu-like symptoms, just to name a few.
While overtraining in these athletes is brought on by a complex interaction between many factors, nutrition is one factor that is so easy to manage. Any competitive athlete would be foolish to ignore it as they wage war against the dreaded adversary – overtraining.
Back to Recovery Mode
At this point, if I've accomplished my mission, you should be pretty terrified by the negative effects of the unmanaged post-workout period. But now that you're afraid, I'm going to tell you exactly how you can best avoid the aforementioned problems.
In October of 2000, I was sitting in a conference center in Canmore, Alberta. There I was, listening to a presentation by one of the world's experts on post-workout and recovery nutrition (2). Up until this point, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to eat during the post-workout period in order to maximize recovery. But after this presentation I realized that I had been missing one essential piece of the post-workout puzzle. In this article, grasshopper, I'm going to share the secrets with you.
For rapid recovery from exercise, immediately after a workout (strength or endurance), we must:
- Rapidly replenish the low glycogen stores in our muscles
- Rapidly decrease the muscle protein breakdown that occurs with exercise
- Rapidly force further increases in muscle protein synthesis in weight trainers and/or restore muscle-protein synthesis in endurance athletes
In looking over this list, there are several things to keep in mind. First, remember that glycogen replenishment is important for several things. It's necessary for maintaining peak performance in both resistance and endurance training (3,4,5). In addition, if glycogen stores remain low, muscle protein breakdown can result and lead to loss of muscle mass (6). Finally, since glycogen attracts water to the muscle, the cellular hydration that results may stimulate new growth.
Another thing to consider is the protein balance factor. By rapidly increasing protein synthesis while simultaneously decreasing protein breakdown, you can shift to a positive muscle protein balance within 1 hour after the workout (7). Did you get that? You can recover within 1 hour!
Remember I said earlier that typically a trainee has to wait 24 hours for a positive muscle protein balance (1)? Unfortunately, even after this 24-hour period, recovery only means that there's at best only a neutral muscle protein balance (there's no longer breakdown, but building isn't occurring either). Using recovery nutrition, you can recovery nearly a day earlier that you otherwise would have!
And protein balance isn't just about muscle. If the body remains in a negative protein balance for too long, every cellular function can be affected. Hormones and hormonal precursors may be deficient. Neurotransmitters could be altered. And even the enzymes that are necessary for everything from cellular metabolism to digestion could be depleted. Not a pretty picture.
"Why are you putting so much priority on the post-workout period?" you might be asking. Well, it's because there are many parallels between the physiological effects of intense training and those seen in several illnesses. What happens during illness? Well, illness can lead to the degradation of many vital physiological processes. This degradation leads to stress on the body that can lead to further deterioration of the patient's condition.
In such situations, protein breakdown increases dramatically, creating the same negative protein balance as seen after a workout. Get it? Clinicians recognize the fact that the net negative protein balance seen in illness is a downward spiral that has to be stopped. So with proper nutrition and supplementation, they manage it. And that's exactly what athletes and weight trainers need to do.
So with the three important post-workout goals of increasing glycogen storage, increasing protein synthesis, and preventing protein breakdown in mind; I've devised a killer plan for attacking all three to promote optimal recovery after exercise. But I want to keep you in suspense for one more week before I tell you all the details. I know you'll spend the week in anxious anticipation but trust me, you won't be disappointed.