Eating for Optimal Muscle Recovery: Strategies for Excellent Post-Exercise Nutrition
To call exercise “good for you” is a huge understatement. Exercise is so good for you that many doctors and health experts now classify it as the most powerful medicine known to man. This article isn’t about what type or how much exercise you should perform, instead it’s about developing a nutritional strategy for exercise recovery to make sure that you’re feeding your muscle tissue optimally.
The Physiology of Muscle Tissue
In order to understand how to properly refuel the muscle tissue after exercise we first have to understand a little bit about muscle physiology and muscle recovery. Strap on your science helmet, here comes your human anatomy lesson for the day.
Muscle is the largest tissue in your body by mass. If we could separate you into multiple piles and weigh each one of them separately, we would find that your muscle weighs almost 40% of your total body mass on average. That means that almost half of your body is composed of a single tissue type.
In contrast to tissues like the liver, gall bladder, prostate gland, brain and heart, skeletal muscle can be manipulated to change size, shape, and function. Ever tried doing “lung ups” or “spleen extensions?” You can’t, because those tissues are not designed to be manipulated through movement. Muscle, on the other hand, is directly attached to your skeleton, and is designed specifically to move bones. Without muscles, your bones would stay in one place.
The beauty of muscle tissue is that it adapts to the type of exercise that you perform. In the exercise physiology world, exercise is called the “stimulus” or the “stress” and the adaptation is called “hypertrophy.” By stressing the muscle tissue to perform pushups, as an example, the muscles fibers in your chest, shoulders, arms, and core respond by getting larger, increasing their cross sectional area. Over time, this leads to muscle growth and the development of increased strength. On the other hand, if the muscles in your legs are stressed to cycle for long periods of time, they will respond by increasing their capacity for endurance, via increased mitochondrial mass and increased blood flow.
Muscle is also unique in that it possesses the ability to store onboard fuel. Only a few tissues have this intrinsic ability, and the ability of the muscle to maintain it’s own fuel storage is vital to it’s ability to perform work during exercise.
In this respect, muscle has three main design features:
The structure of the muscle tissue is mainly protein
The carbohydrate fuel store is large (glycogen)
The triglyceride fuel store is small
Look at the picture below to understand this concept:
What Happens To Muscle Tissue During Exercise?
During exercise, the protein infrastructure is responsible for performing movement, but the stored carbohydrates and fatty acids are providing the fuel. This is similar to how a car operates. The metal is the infrastructure and the unleaded gasoline is the fuel. During exercise, the carbohydrate and triglyceride fuel stores are being depleted, whereas the protein infrastructure is performing the movement. In response to moving against resistance (which happens mainly due to strength training but also during cardiovascular training) the muscle tissue develops “micro tears” which need to be repaired before the next exercise session begins. Exercise therefore has three principal effects:
Carbohydrate fuel stores are depleted
Triglyceride fuel stores are depleted
Muscle protein micro tears occur
What Happens to Muscle Tissue After Exercise?
After exercise, the muscle tissue needs help. Serious help. And that’s where your nutrition comes in to play. The muscle tissue has a few jobs to perform in order to prepare it for the next round of exercise, but it must rely on nutrients in the blood for a proper supply of protein, carbohydrate and fat.
All three macronutrients are required after exercise, in specific proportions:
Carbohydrate is needed to replenish depleted glycogen stores.
Protein is needed to repair the infrastructural micro tears and synthesize new muscle protein.
Fatty acids are required to replenish depleted triglyceride stores.
The Role of Dietary Carbohydrate Following Exercise
Dietary carbohydrates are in high demand following exercise because the onboard glycogen fuel tank needs refilling. This is the fuel tank that powered the muscle tissue during the exercise session, so it stands to reason that it needs substantial refilling afterwards. During a single exercise session, actively exercised muscle tissue can deplete up to 60-70% of it’s stored glycogen.
Your muscle tissue is effectively useless when it’s fuel tanks are empty. In the absence of sufficient glycogen, the muscle tissue will act very lethargically. This is often one of the reasons we feel lethargic after exercise, because our muscle tissue is actually low on fuel.
Eating carbohydrates immediately following exercise does a great job of refilling the depleted glycogen tank quickly, restoring the muscle to it’s energetic state.
The Role of Dietary Protein Following Exercise
Many products on the market today will try to convince you that the most important nutrient to consume following exercise is protein. This has caused many people to overload on protein following exercise, mainly because we’ve been fed this dogma our entire lives. But the physiology doesn’t add up.
Since protein makes up the structure of the muscle tissue, protein is actually spared from being consumed during exercise. Think about it – if the muscle tissue used it’s own infrastructure for fuel, it would never get stronger.
The muscle requires protein to fix the micro tears in order to properly rebuild. Contrary to popular belief, even high intensity exercise does not require large amounts of protein. Only small amounts of protein can effectively perform this job.
The Role of Dietary Fat Following Exercise
Since the size of the fatty acid fuel tank is quite small in comparison with the glycogen fuel tank, it stands to reason that only a small amount of fat is necessary in the recovery period. The size of the triglyceride storage tank actually depends on the type of exercise performed. It turns out that endurance athletes actually store more triglyceride in their muscles than strength athletes, and nerdy scientists theorize that this happens because fat is a slow burning fuel source that is capable of powering the muscle tissue for long periods of time1. But even if you’re an endurance athlete, it only takes a small amount of fat to fully restore your triglyceride fuel tank to full.
So how much carbohydrate/protein/fat is necessary to refill both fuel tanks and fix structural damage?
Balance Between C/F/P
Take a look at this classic workout recovery meal. It contains 3 bananas, 1 mango, and a few tablespoons of hemp protein powder. I designed this meal to adhere to the principles outlined above, to provide a large proportion of carbohydrate, and small amounts of both protein and fat.
If you’re an active athlete and looking for a way to recover optimally, try this formula for a few weeks and see the difference it makes. Eating mainly carbohydrate energy works fantastically for both strength and endurance athletes, and is a great way to get you ready to work out again in as little as 6 hours. That’s right, I said 6 hours. With many of my clients, switching from the high-protein, low-carbohydrate approach to this approach has significantly increased their ability to recover from demanding exercise regimens.
The Window of Opportunity
One important consideration in the refueling process is time. In the post-exercise state, muscle cells are biochemically primed for uptaking carbohydrate from the blood. The enzymatic state of the muscle tissue favors enzymes with nerdy names like hexokinase, phosphoglucomutase, and glycogen synthase to rapidly uptake and store glycogen in the 3 hours following exercise. I refer to the 0-3 hours after exercise as your “window of opportunity” to flood muscle tissue with carbohydrate in order to make a large quantity of glycogen. Research refers to this effect as the period of “glycogen supercompensation2,” and has become increasingly important in the athletic world in recent years.
Why Carbohydrate Load When You Can Do It Everyday?
If you’ve ever participated on a formal sports team, your coach might tell you to eat a large pasta dinner the night before your race, known as “carbo loading.” This concept was originally developed over 50 years ago, when it was originally discovered that eating a large carbohydrate meal could increase the size of the glycogen storage tank. The funny thing is that shifting your overall intake towards a large proportion of REAL carbohydrates primes your muscle to carbo load every day. Imagine what that would feel like.
The idea is simple – instead of waiting 24-48 hours before you compete in order to eat a high carbohydrate meal, eat high carbohydrate meals consistently, resulting in high glycogen storage at all times.
Take Home Messages:
In my experience and the experience of my clients, the perfect recovery meal contains the following components:
About 70% carbohydrate
About 10-15% protein
About 10-15% fat
Be sure to consume your post-workout recovery meal within 3 hours of exercise in order to maximize the ability of carbohydrate, protein and fat to find their way to the muscle tissue effectively.
Workout often, and most importantly…
1. Goodpaster, B. H., He, J., Watkins, S. & Kelley, D. E. Skeletal muscle lipid content and insulin resistance: evidence for a paradox in endurance-trained athletes. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 86, 5755–5761 (2001).
2. Jensen, T. E. & Richter, E. A. Regulation of glucose and glycogen metabolism during and after exercise. J. Physiol. 590, 1069–1076 (2012).