Food That Speeds Post-Exercise Recovery

What you eat and how soon you eat it after exercising is key to jump starting the recovery process after intense workouts or sports participation. How soon muscles are ready for repeat exertion appears to be a factor of how quickly protein is eaten.

Donald K. Layman, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, says, “Immediately after exercise, it’s important both to consume carbohydrate-rich fluids for replacement and proteins containing essential amino acids. What’s needed is a relatively small amount of protein – as low as 15 percent of one’s RDA (recommended daily allowance). That can be found in a 300-calorie snack like a sandwich, 20 percent (about three ounces) of which should consist of a protein lunch meat like turkey. Athletes can get the same protein boost from sports drinks or convenience bars that contain 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat.”

Taking a pure amino-acid supplement is not recommended because correct doses have not yet been determined, says Dr. Layman.

Layman’s recommendations are based on a study he conducted with graduate students Josh Anthony and Tracy Gautsch that appeared in the June issue of The Journal of Nutrition. The study found that muscle recovery occurs more quickly when foods containing leucine, an amino acid found in meats, dairy products, protein bars and some sports drinks are taken immediately after intensive workouts.

“Leucine appears to have a specific and apparently unique impact on skeletal muscle in stimulating protein synthesis and providing muscle fuel and blood glucose maintenance,” says Dr. Layman. “What really surprised us is that its effect isn’t seen when leucine or protein is consumed before or during exercise.”

How soon you start the replenishment process is also important. “Although some athletes say the last thing they want to do after exercising is eat, the quicker they do eat, the faster the muscles they are remodeling will recover,” says Layman. “If you work out in the morning and don’t eat for four to six hours later, recovery will be stalled until you do. If you don’t supplement your post-workout diet with additional protein, muscle recovery will take at least eight hours.”

Athletes who supplement with protein will be able to play repeat matches faster and perform at higher levels sooner. This has particular importance to weight lifters who normally must wait 48 hours between training, and athletes who must play a series of matches in closely timed proximity, Dr. Layman says.

“The effect on muscle remodeling increases by the intensity and duration of the exercise,” he adds. “If you only perform strenuous exercise twice a week for 30 minutes, your muscles have all the time in the world to recover. It’s a different story if you exercise on a daily basis for an hour or longer.”

Layman also recommends that active people up the amount of protein in their diet to between 100 to 120 grams daily. He suggests that the protein in a balanced diet make up 30 percent of calories at every meal, including snacks, as opposed to current recommendations which advocate meals of 60 to 70 percent carbohydrates with protein at less than 20 percent of calories.

To determine what amount of protein is right for you, Layman suggests you divide your body weight by 2.2 and multiply the answer by 1.2. That means, for example, that a 250-pound person should consume about 136 grams of protein a day.

Vitamins and minerals are also touted as effective in performance and recovery, but Layman feels strongly that most people don’t know enough about these supplements to self-treat. “Vitamins E and C and selenium are important for physically active people because of their antioxidant function,” he says. “But these nutrients exist to some degree in our diet. A one-a-day balanced supplement contains twice the RDA of both E and C. Adding this supplement to a well-balanced diet is a smarter and safer way to go, rather than supplementing individual vitamins and minerals and running the risk of adding too much.”

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