by Kasey Hutchinson, RD, LMT
In this blog post I would like to shed some light on key nutrients needed for muscle recovery. I would also like to point out that specific timing is recommended to maximize the beneficial properties of these nutrients. Initial muscle recovery occurs within 2 hours of exercise, but many trainers and nutrition professional recommend a well-rounded meal with in 1 hour of exercise discontinuation. Read on for the specifics!
During exercise, our bodies use glycogen (i.e. glucose stored in muscles and the liver) and glucose from food to obtain energy. Breaking down fat for energy is a much slower process, so our bodies tend to burn fat when we are at rest and do not need immediate energy. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘after burn’, because we burn the most fat after we are done with intense exercises. If we run out of glucose during exercise, we experience sudden lethargy and fatigue which could be dangerous if we are miles deep in the backcountry or clinging to a rock wall. This is the reason people carb load the day before a competitive event, so that glycogen stores are stocked up. It is vital to our recuperation process that we eat carbohydrates following exercise because it reduces muscle degradation, especially when combined with high quality protein. The recommended intake for recovery is .8–1.2 g of carbs per kg of body weight per hour during the first 4–6 hours. The first 2 hours of the recovery period is arguably the most important. So, for a person weighing about 150 pounds, consuming 130 grams of carbohydrates in the first 2 hours is recommended, with additional snacks consumed over the few hours. For reference, a cup of pasta contains about 45 grams of carbs, 1 slice of whole wheat bread contains about 20 grams of carbs and 1 cup of granola contains about 70 grams of carbs. The exception to these recommendations relate to fat adapted athletes or ultra-light meal packers who are on the trail for weeks or months on end. In these cases, more fat and less carbs is typically consumed so learning how you body responds and adapts to different eating patterns is essential.
Consuming protein after exercise increases muscle growth and reduces soreness. Most literature suggests that 20-30 grams of protein with in 2 hour recovery period is recommended. That is the equivalent of about one cup of Greek yogurt, 4 oz. of chicken breast, 1 cup of tempeh or 1 cup cooked lentils. After the initial recovery phase, athletes should continue to consume up to 50 additional grams of protein for the following 12 hours to maximize protein synthesis. The most important amino acid that supports protein synthesis is leucine, which can be found in high quantities in dairy and meat products, but also in plant foods such as soybeans, beans, nuts and seeds. Whole eggs and whey protein are known to contain some of the quickest and easiest to absorb proteins. Plant protein powders such as pea, soy and brown rice are great choices to add to smoothies if you are in a pinch. Similarly, branched chain amino acid drinks may also be used, though I tend to take a ‘food first’ approach to protein intake.
Exercise can increase oxygen consumption by up to 15 times as the amount consumed at rest. This can cause oxidative stress on cells, which in turn creates free radicals that wreak havoc on our bodies. Though our cells are equipped with their own anti-oxidant defense system, consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols can offset this oxidation and reduce the pain associated with inflammation. Other anti-oxidant nutrients, such as vitamin A, C, E, zinc and selenium are also strong antioxidants found in a variety of plant and animal products. Research shows that foods rich in polyphenols, such as pomegranate, cherries and berries, can significantly reduce DOMS. More specifically, the raw juice of such plant foods has the highest impact in reducing muscle soreness. Similarly, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce inflammation. Consider using oils such as canola or flax, or eating cold water fish, chia seeds and walnuts to maximize your intake of these beneficial fats. Brightly colored produce, ginger, turmeric and garlic will also supply a bounty of anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory nutrients that will help you get back on the trail.
In the final blog of this series, I will highlight supplements and meal ideas for exercise recovery. Check in next week to discover how I translated scientific information into simple, delicious culinary creations. I provided links to a few of my favorite recipes as well. I can’t wait to share them with you! Thanks for reading
Disclaimer: This is general nutrition advice and you should talk with your physician before implementing any dietary or lifestyle changes.
About the author:
Kasey Hutchinson, RD, LMT is a registered dietitian, massage therapist and outdoor enthusiast. She lives in the Rocky Mountains of Montana where she enjoys backpacking, camping, rock climbing and back country snowboarding every chance she gets. Kasey’s passion for health, nutrition and the great outdoors fuels her curiosity to discover the best foods for backcountry missions and overall health. Kasey hopes to inspire people to live a vibrant, fulfilling life using outdoor exercise and healthy food as the vehicle for success. For more information about Kasey’s background and services, check out www.vibrantnutritionrd.com.
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Campbell, B. (2013). Dietary Carbohydrate Strategies for Performance Enhancement. Sports Nutrition,75-124. doi:10.1201/b16045-5
Coleman, E., & Rosenbloom, C. (2012). Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals. Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
Ivy, J. L. (2004). Regulation of Muscle Glycogen Repletion, Muscle Protein Synthesis and Repair Following Exercise. J Sports Sci Med,3(3), 131-138.