Monday, January 20, 2020

The art of recovery

If thinking of protein shakes and supplements automatically brings to mind pictures of muscle-popping body builders in the gym rather than Chrissie Wellington or Alistair Brownlee, then perhaps you need to think again.

It’s tempting, as endurance athletes, to think primarily of our need for carbohydrates to fuel our training sessions.  But what about recovery?  What can we do to recover faster from our training sessions and races so that we’re ready to go hard again the next day?

Well, maybe it’s time to take a lesson from our beach-body cousins…

While our aerobic system definitely needs carbs to perform, this article is going to look (in a ‘scratching the surface’ kind of way!)  instead at the strain we put on our muscular system when we train, and what we can do to help muscles recover, reduce soreness and gain strength.  This isn’t about making you bigger or even gaining more muscle definition (although the latter may well be a welcome side effect!), but it is about making you faster!

The essentials of recovery 
First of all, let’s put what you’re about to read into some context.  As triathletes we typically do a mix of training on a weekly basis (accepting some of us are more into periodization than others) – as such, it’s important to know when you need to recover and when you don’t.   Put simply, what you’ll find below is designed to help you recovery from hard (and by that, I mean intense or longer than normal) training sessions and races.  

When you go hard in training or racing, you are not only challenging your aerobic system, but also putting your muscular system under a lot of pressure.  In simple terms, you are damaging your muscles.   As you probably already know (and sorry if I am teaching you to suck eggs!) it is this cyclical process of damage and repair that ultimately makes the muscles stronger – and while we don’t necessarily want our muscle mass to increase, we do want our muscles to be stronger as this ultimately helps us get faster!

So, having established that we are essentially breaking down our muscles (creating tears in the muscle tissues) when we race or train hard, it hopefully makes total sense that we should aim to help those muscles re-build faster, so that we can reduce the after-effects of training and be ready to go hard again sooner.
The other thing worth mentioning in relation to the effects of hard exercise is the immune system.  The strain we place on our bodies means our immune system can take a beating – and so it too requires help to stay strong.

For effective recovery and immune system protection, our bodies need two essential elements, but could also benefit from additional supplements.  The two essential elements are carbohydrate and protein.

Carbohydrates and Protein
Experts suggest that for recovery from hard endurance sports, a carb / protein ratio of 4:1 is optimum for replenishing glycogen stores and feeding exhausted muscles.   Studies have shown that athletes who combine protein in additional to carbs after hard exercise have far greater glycogen stores and higher insulin levels.  So while that carb-based drink might be great for replacing lost sugar and electrolytes, it might not actually help you recover.

Put simply, the body needs protein, especially when it has been ‘damaged’ through exercise. It is the main source of nutrients to the muscles, enabling them to repair the tears caused by intense training, thus making them stronger.

It is the need for protein in recovery that has made flavoured milks – or similar drinks like Mars Refuel – popular recovery options.  But these drinks don’t tend to actually follow the 4:1 rule and are actually light on protein (as well as lacking the supplements I’m going to cover below).

In terms of protein choices, there are many – whey, soy, brown rice, pea etc.  It’s quite a minefield.  Assuming you don’t have a dairy intolerance, studies seem to suggest whey isolate protein is probably the best option for recovery (males – use brown rice in preference to soy if you can’t use whey).

There is a similar proliferation in terms of carb choices – fructose, maltodextrin, waxy maize starch etc! As far as I can, a mix of different sugars is probably more effective than relying on one alone.

Additional supplements

Creating a recovery drink from a 4:1 mix of carbs and protein will no doubt aid your recovery, hopefully reducing muscle soreness and general fatigue following a race or hard session.  But there are other supplements you could add to your recovery drink that might speed the process and help build muscle strength.   Here are just a few:

Glutamine is commonly used by body builders to reduce muscle soreness – and put simply, it can do the same for us endurance athletes.  Cycling and running have been shown to reduce glutamine levels in the body, which can also have a negative impact on the immune system. Adding a small amount of glutamine (circa 5g or so) to your recovery shake can significantly reduce the onset of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after hard training or racing.

Amino Acids (sometimes referred to as Branch Chain Amino Acids – BCAAs)
Amino Acids are naturally occurring in many foods, so if you have a good nutrition regime, additional supplementation may not be necessary.  For the rest of us(!), adding BCAAs to your recovery regime can speed up muscle repair.  There is also suggestion that taking BCAAs as a supplement can actually increase the body’s ability to digest nutrients from other foods.  Again, around 5g per serving should be about right.

HMB improves aerobic performance in average, everyday athletes. HMB is shown to increase maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) and improve the respiratory compensation point (RCP). It appears that HMB may reduce metabolic acidosis, and the research also shows that it helps athletes tolerate high-intensity activity over a long period of time.

Research also shows that HMB lengthens the time to the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA). HMB improves the training status for endurance athletes for positive effects on endurance performance.

Colostrum is a slightly controversial supplement for a couple of reasons.  Firs there is the fact that essentially colostrum is like baby’s milk – it contains all the additional nutrients that give young-born mammals the ability to fight off diseases and infections.  With this in mind, it’s not difficult to see where Colostrum-advocates get the argument that it is an excellent way to help recover from illness or boost the immune system.  In truth, critics are divided on the effects of it – although there are a growing number of professional athletes endorsing the positive effects of using colostrum.   I’ve used it myself both to recover from hard sessions and when getting over illness, and it seems to work for me (hence including it here).

Another potentially controversial supplement – and one bound to divide opinion – is creatine.  This is another supplement popular with body builders to improve muscle strength.  The downside is that creation can also cause weight gain (partly through increased muscle mass).  However, some studies have shown that creatine can be used to make faster runners.   One option (and I’m no scientist or nutritionist, remember) might be to use creatine in the off-season, to increase muscle strength, but then lay off as your training switches to speed ahead of the racing season.  It’s your call.

Protein Dosage
Again, different people will give different advice, but a figure that seems to be mentioned a lot is that ‘active’ amateur athletes need around 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight each day.  Now obviously a lot of protein comes from the normal foods we eat, but it is perhaps worth seeing if you can use recovery drinks to make sure you reach your target intake on days when you have exercised hard.   In terms of the maximal amount of protein to take in a single ‘sitting’, the average advice seems to be around 20g (some sources state that any more than 20g delivers minimal benefits, or may even be detrimental).

There are no doubt many other supplements you  ‘could’ add to recovery drinks (Glucosamine for joint health, for example) but hopefully the information above will give you a starting point to consider you own recovery needs and how you can improve your ability to train and race hard.

If you’ve never tried a proper ‘recovery nutrition’ regime, then perhaps it’s worth a try – and then you can see for yourself if it makes any difference to your ability to race and train harder!

As always, I welcome any feedback or alternative views to what I’ve put above. I look forward to hearing your thoughts! 


Now, back to multi-sport racing… ;) 




0 #1 Advantages And 2014-11-11 05:01
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on gear reviews. Regards

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