Workout recovery is a very important issue for the serious athlete. There is some confusion about what is the best nutritional strategy to optimize recovery and growth after exercise. As is the case with many issues in nutrition, there is no single best answer. The best approach de-pends on what kind of athlete you are and what your goals are. There are some com-mon questions we at Parrillo Performance receive relate to the role of carbohydrates in the post-exercise environment. We are often asked: should my post-exercise meal include protein or carbohydrate? Or both? And just how much is enough? Is timing important? When is the best time to take Creatine? Optimal nutrition for a bodybuilder is different from that for an endurance athlete . Optimal nutrition varies individual to individual and cir-cumstance to circumstance . Are you try-ing to optimize your physique, strength or endurance perfor-mance? Different goals require different methods. So when you hear conflicting opinions about the best diet or supplement, re-member there is no single cor-rect answer. We have to tailor the answer for each individual.
I will share with you the prin-ciples that will allow you to customize your very own diet and nutritional supplementation program . For some background let’s re-hash some biochemistry. During exercise your muscles use mainly carbohydrate and fat as fuel. Sometimes, during prolonged activity (like distance running) you will burn protein stores. Protein oxidation in exercise occurs after glycogen stores are significantly depleted. For high intensity activity such as weight lifting (as opposed to long duration ex-ercise like aerobics), carbohydrate is the primary fuel. For endurance activities like jogging or cycling, a mixture of carbohy-drate and fat is used. As the exercise pro-ceeds, muscle and liver glycogen stores become progressively depleted. It would make sense to replace the depleted fuel in order to keep our work output high. Furthermore, if our goal is to gain muscle then we need to supply the raw materials to support growth. We can do both simul-taneously . Insulin levels decrease markedly dur-ing exercise and this allows the release of fat from adipose cells.
The goal of our post-exercise recovery meal is to replen-ish energy stores depleted during the just-completed session. Insulin plays a central role in nutrient storage, acting to trans-port carbohydrates and some amino acids from the bloodstream to the individual cells. Insulin also stimulates the storage of carbohydrate as glycogen. Significant-ly, carbohydrate is a potent stimulus for insulin release while protein’s effect on insulin is far more subdued. Athletes have long practiced eating a high carbohydrate meal after exercise and this makes a lot of sense. A high carb post-workout feed-ing serves to increase insulin levels and replenish glycogen stores . And this is a good thing: by replenishing drained nutri-ents and dousing exhausted muscles with nourishing carbohydrates, we promote muscle healing and growth in the post-workout state. Should this post-workout feeding also contain protein? And exactly how much carbohydrate and protein is optimal? What type? Are simple sugars or refined carbohydrates better in the post-workout environment? I never recommend eating simple sugars or referred carbohydrates – post workout or any other time – for several reasons: simple sugars and refined carbohydrates are far more likely to be converted to fat than complex carbohydrates. It’s all a matter of chemistry.
If the sugar enters your bloodstream faster than it can be stored as glycogen, the excess will be converted to fat by the liver. No doubt about it! Some endurance athletes replen-ish glycogen with simple sugars or re-fined carbohydrate but this strategy is bad news for bodybuilders. A serious bodybuilder wants to minimize fat accumulation and therefore simple sugars and refined car-bohydrates have no place in the diet of a top bodybuilder – even after a workout. Every meal should supply a mixture of protein and car-bohydrate, including the post-exercise meal. In addition to replenishing glycogen stores, the post-exercise meal serves to re-supply amino acids used to repair muscle tissue. Several medical studies have examined how the composition of the recovery meal affects hormone levels critical for muscle growth (1-3). I have reviewed some of these studies in detail in the August, 1997 edition of the Parrillo Performance Press: you can access this data through our online web-site at www.parrillo.com/press/970804.htm.
A post-workout feeding of carbohydrate and pro-tein is demonstrably more effective at increasing insulin and growth hormone levels than ingesting carbohydrate alone. This translates into a far more potent anabolic stimulus, resulting in greater muscle accrual. Also, this combination is more effective at replenishing glycogen stores than carbohydrate alone (3). Since the goal is to heal and build muscle, the optimal recovery meal should contain a mixture of protein and carbohydrate. How much carb and protein per post-workout feeding is optimal? The answer is not precise – and may never be. It varies depending on your goals and bodyweight. It you want to gain size the post-workout meal should contain more calories than if you are desirous of losing bodyfat. In pre-vious articles I have explained at length how to determine the proper number of calories to consume to effect muscle gains or fat loss. After you determine your caloric breakeven point, divide your daily allotment of calories into five or six meals, each containing approximately the same number of calories. One of these meals should be your post-workout meal. Theoretically, your post-workout meal should actually be your biggest meal of the day. Why? The body is more efficient at oxidizing food in the post-workout state. If you are seeking to add quality muscle size, I suggest calculating how many calories each meal should contain on average and make the recovery meal one-and-a-half times the average meal calorie total.
Conversely, if you are try-ing to lose weight, then the post-workout meal should contain the same caloric content as the other meals . Through scientific research and years of working with the world’s top bodybuild-ers, I have found that a mixture of about 50% protein and 50% carbohydrates is ideal for a post-workout feeding. This is the rationale and basis for our 50-50 Plus Powder™, which is the ideal post-workout recovery drink. Many people rely on supplements after working out because few are hungry for solid food immediately after exercise. Our nutrition Bars are another easy way to get quality calories in after a workout – and conve-nient also. They are available in several different protein-carbohydrate ratios to suit your individual needs. Timing is important: the sooner you eat after a high intensity training session the better off you will be. There exists a “window of nutritional opportunity” that opens immediately after exercise during which glycogen re-syn-thesis rates are maximal. This window stays open for roughly two hours after the cessation of exercise (6). Considering that it takes some time for the nutrients to be digested and absorbed, I would suggest you eat your recovery meal as soon as you can after exercise, to take advantage of the open window before it snaps shut. This is another reason why supplements are ideal as post-exercise meals. They are easy to prepare and quickly absorbed. A shaker bottle with four to six scoops of 50-50 Plus Powder™, placed in your gym bag makes an ideal post workout recovery drink. In edition to the 50/50 Plus Powder™ it is imperative you get a meal within 2 hours of completion of your workout. Next month we can talk in more detail about carbohydrate metabolism dur-ing exercise and go into carbohydrate and fluid repletion during exercise.
1. Chandler RM, Byrne HK, Patterson JG, and Ivy JL. Dietary supplements af-fect the anabolic hormones after weight training exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 76(2): 839-845, 1994 .
2. Rabinowitz D, Merimee TJ, Maffezzoli R, and Burgess JA. Patterns of hormonal release after glucose, protein, and glucose plus protein . Lancet 2: 454-457, 1966 .
3. Zawadzki KM, Yaspelkis BB, and Ivy JL. Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 72: 1854-1859, 1992 .
4. Nicholas CW, Green PA, Hawkins RD, and Williams C. Carbohydrate intake and recovery of intermittent running capacity. Int. J. Sports Nutr. 7: 251-260, 1997.
5. Pizza FX, Flynn MG, Duscha BD, Holden J, and Kubitz ER. A carbohydrate loading regimen improves high intensity, short duration exercise performance. Int. J. Sports Nutr. 5: 110-116, 1995.
6. Liebman M and Wilkinson JG. Carbo-hydrate metabolism and exercise. Chapter 2 in Nutrition in Sport and Exercise, Wo-linsky and Hickson, editors. CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1994.