Everything you need to know about post-workout nutrition.
It's been a week since I laid out the main repercussions of training and how they manifest themselves during the post-workout period. So now that you've had a chance to think about that, I'm ready to drop the recovery plan. Are you excited? I hope so. I also hope the build-up's been pretty dramatic. You have to realize, I've had to wait years for this information.
With the publication of each new study, I could see that we were getting closer to understanding the post-workout puzzle. But, as Tom Petty once said, "the waiting is the hardest part". Finally, this year, with the culmination of a number of research projects, it's pretty clear what type of nutrition we need for optimal post-workout recovery.
Maximize Post-Workout Gycogen Synthesis
There are two key factors to rapidly increasing post-workout glycogen synthesis (8):
- Adequate carbohydrate availability (to convert to muscle glycogen) (9)
- High insulin levels (to stimulate glycogen storage and shuttle carbs into the muscle) (9)
Endurance athletes have traditionally been encouraged to consume 1.2 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight immediately after training/competition (8,10). In addition, they are encouraged to continue this supplementation every 2 hours up until 6 hours after their exercise bout. Recent evidence, however, indicates that the addition of protein to a carb drink can actually increase insulin levels higher than carbs alone (11,12). There seems to be a synergistic insulin release with protein plus carbs.
The current recommendations for endurance athletes have therefore changed to include protein. Eating every 2 hours is still recommended, but now endurance athletes are encouraged to consume 0.8 g of carbs per kg of bodyweight in combination with 0.4 g of protein / kg of bodyweight. This means that a 154 lb endurance athlete should be consuming 56 g of carbs and 28 g of protein at each meal: right after training, and 2, 4, and 6 hours after training.
Since most of the research on this topic has been done in endurance athletes, we have to speculate about what strength athletes would need in this regard. From the research, it's clear that strength athletes actually have higher glycogen synthesis rates after exercise than endurance athletes so they can more rapidly refill their glycogen stores (13).
But since strength athletes don't deplete their glycogen stores as badly as endurance athletes, they would need fewer total calories. With this said, I believe it's reasonable to suggest that a strength athlete consume one meal of 0.8g of carbohydrate and 0.4 g of protein / kg of body weight immediately after training.
This means that the 154 lb weight lifter would need 56 g of carbs and 28 g of protein while the 220 lb weight lifter would need about 80 g of carbs and 40 g of protein after a weight-training workout. Since glycogen synthesis rates are so high in strength athletes, they would only need to consume this type of meal immediately after the workout and then resume normal eating about 2-3 hours later.
If the strength athlete is in a bulking cycle, the post-workout recommendations would include 2 servings of recommended formula, one immediately after training and one 30-60 minutes later. Normal eating could be resumed 2-3 hours later.
A couple of final factors need to be discussed. First, the research is very clear that if you wait to consume your post-workout nutrition, you lose (14). One study showed that if the post-workout beverage was consumed immediately after training, glycogen synthesis was three times higher than if the beverage was consumed just two hours later. So the sooner you drink the drink, the better the recovery rate.
Secondly, with respect to the types of carbohydrate and protein to consume, it's clear that immediately after training, liquid nutrition is best tolerated (8,15). Since liquid nutrition is more rapidly digested and absorbed, nutrients are more rapidly delivered to the muscle. In addition, according to the literature, the optimal carbohydrates to consume are glucose and glucose polymers, like maltodextrin (8).
As far as the best protein to consume, you want to choose a protein that is absorbed as rapidly as the ingested carbs so that the synergistic insulin response can be maximized. Now that's hard to find. Most intact proteins (yes, even in powdered form) take several hours to be fully absorbed. We need protein that can get absorbed within minutes, just like the carbs do. Without this simultaneous absorption of both, the insulin response will be disappointing. So what to do? Well, since one of the most quickly digested proteins is whey hydrolysate, it's the protein of choice for our purposes here (10).
Stop Protein Breakdown Dead in its Tracks
The scientific literature is pretty clear in terms of how to prevent post-workout protein breakdown. And it can be summarized in one word Insulin.
In previous years, scientists knew that the hormone insulin had a big impact on muscle-protein balance, but they just couldn't figure out if it impacted the synthesis or breakdown. Several studies within the last few years, however, have indicated that insulin is the main regulator of post-workout protein breakdown.
In one very detailed study published in May of 1999, it was clearly demonstrated that at rest, high blood levels of insulin increased protein synthesis by about 67% while not changing protein breakdown (16). However, during the post-workout period, insulin infusion decreased protein breakdown by about 30% without impacting protein synthesis.
The authors of this study concluded that at rest, insulin was anabolic, while after exercise insulin was anti-catabolic. These results have been validated by other studies showing that high blood levels of insulin considerably diminish post-workout protein breakdown without impacting protein synthesis during the post-workout period (17).
So the bottom line is that insulin is not anabolic after workouts, but it sure is anti-catabolic. And that's great because insulin is easily controlled. Also, since protein breakdown predominates during the post-workout period, getting the insulin up allows muscle breakdown to diminish so that synthesis can dominate and we can quickly get back to building muscle!
And don't forget that insulin causes vasodilation. This means the vessels "open up" and transport more blood (and nutrients) to the cells. Can you say "feed the muscle!"? And yes, that extra blood flow is full of the protein, amino acids, and carbs that you'll be ingesting immediately after the training session.
So how do we get insulin up after a workout? Well, you could always become a human pin cushion and inject your insulin right into the subcutaneous area of your abdomen. But I think there are better and certainly safer ways.
First, as mentioned earlier, by eating protein with carbs, insulin levels are higher than with carbs alone (10, 11). In the aforementioned studies the insulin response to 0.8 g of carbs/kg (in the form of glucose and maltodextrin) plus 0.4 g of protein/kg (in the form of protein hydrolysate) was 103% higher (double) than the insulin response to an equal amount of calories coming from carbs alone (1.2 carbs /kg). So the very same carb/protein beverage that we're relying on for maximizing glycogen storage is also preventing protein breakdown (10, 11). Sweet!
Secondly, certain amino acids can increase the insulin response to meals. By adding certain amino acids to the carb/protein beverage in the above study, the insulin responses were considerably higher than the carb/protein beverage alone (10, 11). In addition, research in the 60s shows that specific amino-acid combinations were more effective than others at increasing insulin release (18). So it looks like carbs + protein + amino acids is the way to go.
Complete Your Recovery by Jacking Up the Protein Synthesis
The final piece of the post-workout puzzle is the management of protein synthesis. And although this area is a little more complex than managing protein breakdown, there are three key ingredients to increasing protein synthesis immediately after workouts:
- A proper ratio of BCAAs
- High blood levels of essential amino acids
- High blood levels of insulin
In the past, a high protein intake was recommended after workouts in order to increase protein synthesis. Actually, in the Protein Roundtable I even recommended a really big protein intake immediately after the workout in order to increase protein synthesis. Well, I'm here to say that I may have been a bit off base. Yeah, yeah, I'm admitting I may have been wrong, so cherish the moment and feel free to poke fun at me the next time you see me.
Based on the research, it appears that the amount of protein intake has very little to do with pushing protein synthesis up after workouts. And in fact, too much could be counter productive (more on this later). More important to increasing protein synthesis after workouts is the ability to rapidly deliver the right type of protein or, more correctly, the right type of amino acids. In a paper published last February, researchers discussed rates of protein synthesis during several conditions (7):
- At rest with increased insulin levels, protein synthesis increased by about 50% when compared to normal insulin levels (21).
- At rest with high amino acids in the blood, protein synthesis increased by about 150% when compared to normal blood levels of amino acids (22).
- After weight training, protein synthesis increased by about 100% vs. pre-training values (23).
- After weight training with high amino acids in the blood, protein synthesis increased by 200% vs. after weight training with normal blood amino acids (22).
- After weight training with high amino acids in the blood and high insulin in the blood, protein synthesis increase by over 400% vs. normal post-workout amino acid and insulin levels (7).
The most interesting thing was that in the last condition, the post-workout beverage only contained 6 g of protein and 36 g of carbohydrate. As long as insulin was high and correct amounts of essential amino acids and BCAAs were present, protein synthesis got jacked after the workout.
Several other studies have shown that either infused or orally administered post-workout amino acids are able to rapidly increase protein synthesis as well as rapidly create a positive muscle protein balance after training (24, 25).
Interestingly, it seems that non-essential amino acids are not required for this process and that if only essential amino acids are supplied, there's no difference in the increases in protein synthesis (7, 26). Either way, the key seems to be this "infusion" concept where amino acids are very rapidly delivered to the blood. Again, whey hydrolysate is the quickest orally available protein for the blood unless you want to go ahead and hook up to the amino-acid IV drip.
You may be asking yourself why too much protein could be counterproductive. Well, a very high protein meal can actually cause a release of glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that antagonizes insulin release. So if you eat some protein with carbs, insulin shoots up. If you eat too much protein with carbs, the insulin release may actually be lower. And if this weren't bad enough, glucagon also has another function that we want to avoid. The darn stuff causes the body to convert amino acids into glucose (a process called gluconeogenesis). So take in too much protein and say goodbye to that special amino acid ratio. Instead those aminos become carbs!
Let's get back to the amino acids. In addition to the requirement for rapidly delivered essential amino acids, BCAAs seem to play a big role in the recovery and increase of protein synthesis after a workout (2,7). Unpublished data presented at the 2000 Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology Meeting shed light on the importance of BCAAs in recovery (2). In endurance athletes, post workout protein synthesis rates will drop by about 30% for up to 6 hours after a training bout. Providing carbohydrates to these athletes, while favorable for increasing muscle glycogen stores, has no ability to increase protein synthesis.
However, a drink providing only the BCAA leucine was able to promote full recovery of post-workout protein synthesis levels to pre-training values. In addition, by adding carbohydrate to the beverage, protein synthesis was higher after the workout than before the workout. Since this beverage increased blood insulin levels, the author of the study concluded that insulin indeed had a synergistic effect with leucine on protein synthesis.
The results of this study and others have lead researchers to believe that within the muscle cell, there's one particular regulatory pathway for protein synthesis that's stimulated by insulin, but dependent on leucine (27). If insulin is present and leucine isn't, then protein synthesis can't maximally be stimulated. If leucine is present and insulin isn't, protein synthesis can't be maximally stimulated. But give 'em both and look out!
Since leucine has this great impact on muscle protein synthesis and since levels of leucine, much like glutamine, decline during exercise, it only makes sense to supplement with leucine after workouts (28). In the end, it appears that leucine, along with protein and carbs, will lead to the greatest increases in protein synthesis.
So what's the best way to rapidly increase protein synthesis after a workout? It seems that the 0.4g/kg of protein hydrolysate plus 0.8g/kg of glucose/glucose polymer plus insulin-stimulating amino acids takes care of the insulin angle. But remember, insulin isn't enough. Providing BCAAs in an ideal ratio is the second part in rapidly stimulating protein synthesis.
The Grand Finale
That's it. The ideal post workout combo that maximizes your growth and recovery potential. Whew, that's a lot of science! I hope I didn't lose you along the way because I honestly believe that this article is the most important I've ever written for T-mag.
Compiling years of good post-workout science has enabled me to devise a plan of attack for optimal post-workout nutrition. And this plan of attack is designed with only one goal in mind optimizing recovery for every human being that works out, regardless of the type of exercise they do.
Remember, to be effective, post-workout nutrition has to
- Increase glycogen stores
- Increase protein synthesis
- Decrease protein breakdown
Interestingly, several nutrients such as glucose and glucose polymers, protein hydrolysates, and amino acids can all work together with overlapping functions in order to accomplish all three goals. No drugs necessary!
At this point, before the jaded cynics write in shouting about how this article is probably nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at introducing a new Biotest supplement, I'm gonna' head them off at the pass. This isn't a thinly veiled attempt at introducing a new supplement. It is a full fledged, in your face, introduction to a new Biotest supplement .
This supplement uses every glorious piece of available nutritional science to support its claims. Because about 95% of the idea behind the formula is founded on nothing but hard data, very little of this article is theoretical. If you don't believe me, go look up the references yourself.
If that's not enough, the very formula that Biotest plans to launch is currently being evaluated in my lab. Unlike other companies, Biotest will actually have supporting data before the product is launched. Rest assured, T-mag readers will be the first to read about the results (which will be posted on this very site within the next few weeks).
The better part of the last year has been spent putting together the ideal post-workout protein formula that can maximally stimulate glycogen and protein synthesis while decreasing protein breakdown in all types of athletes. Since the formula is based only on nutrients that occur naturally in food, it has no banned or potentially harmful substances. It's therefore useful for all athletes from triathletes to power lifters and from those in high school to those competing in the professional ranks. Each and every trainee who wants a better physique and each and every athlete who wants to improve their training and their performances has something to gain by taking it.
Stay tuned because over the next few weeks we will be discussing the data collected in the lab (complete with charts and graphs). In addition, T-mag will be doing a series of Q&A articles about the new formula. T-mag has been getting quite a bit of excited feedback and many questions, so I'll be answering them in these articles.
The topics for some of the upcoming articles include questions of post-workout nutrition including issues about GH release, questions on fat burning, and questions about post-exercise caloric expenditure.
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