Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
It used to be that just plain everyday water was the preferred after-exercise drink. But, these days you’re likely to find that recreational and competitive athletes of all ages consume specialized recovery drinks after games or training sessions. These drinks and shakes have become part of a post-workout routine recommended by coaches and personal trainers.
Most recovery beverages contain some combination of carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes, vitamins, and water, although the specific nutrients and relative amounts of each vary from brand to brand. Depending on the formulation, these supplements may help with rapid recovery from a bout of prolonged exercise, promote muscle growth following resistance training, or reduce muscle soreness after an intense workout. While research supports consuming some of these nutrients, alone or in combination, in recovery, there are a number of considerations for determining which supplement, if any, may be right for you.
Sports nutritionists have long recommended carbohydrates for endurance athletes before, during, and after a training bout or competition. Replenishing glycogen – a storage form of glucose, the sugar used as a fuel by muscles – after prolonged, intense exercise is essential for recovery and to prepare for the next exercise session. This is especially relevant for high intensity competitors, such as cyclists in the Tour de France, in which riders race nearly every day for over three weeks, as well as for marathoners or triathletes who train for hours every day.
Protein is known to promote muscle repair and growth in combination with strength training or other high-intensity exercise. The protein requirements for an athlete engaged in intense resistance training to build muscle mass may be 50–100% higher than that for a person who does more typical training. The goal should be to meet protein needs through the diet, but research shows that consuming additional protein after a training session can enhance muscle adaptations.
More recent research has shown that combining protein with carbohydrates has benefits beyond consuming either nutrient alone. In endurance athletes, adding protein to carbohydrates after exercise can result in faster and greater glycogen replenishment. For athletes engaged in strength training, the combination of carbohydrates and protein seems to promote more rapid protein uptake and enhanced protein synthesis, the adaptations that lead to increased muscle mass and strength. While there is some uncertainty about the ideal amounts of each, carbohydrate-to-protein ratio in the range of 2:1 or 3:1 seems to be effective. Perhaps most important is timing – these nutrients are most beneficial when consumed immediately after exercise.
Many recovery supplements also include antioxidants as vitamins, such as C and E, which have been shown to reduce muscle soreness following intense exercise. However, these antioxidants may interfere with long-term muscle adaptations, like increased muscle mass. It turns out that free radicals, which the antioxidants block, are a key step in promoting the very muscle changes that are sought through training.
Recovery drinks also contain water and electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, which are important for rehydrating after exercise. Sweat losses during exercise can exceed 1 liter (about 32 ounces) per hour, more in hot conditions. The water and minerals lost in sweat must be replaced, so fluid intake after exercise is essential. Keep in mind that many recovery drinks do not contain enough fluid to adequately rehydrate, so additional water may be needed.
Most commercially-available recovery drinks are properly formulated and convenient, making it easy to consume them right after exercise when they do the most good. They also tend to taste good and the wide range of flavors mean that you are bound to find a drink or shake you like. But you don’t need to use a supplement to get these benefits. In fact, most sports nutritionists recommend using conventional foods and beverages, not supplements, to meet nutritional needs.
Research has shown that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis. Remarkably, according to a study published earlier this year, fast food – literally pancakes, sausage, a burger, fries, and soda from McDonalds – worked just as well as specialized recovery aids! While the authors don’t recommend eating more fast food, this study suggests that foods not typically thought of as sports nutrition products can be effective for muscle recovery following vigorous exercise.
There is no doubt that recovery supplements can benefit athletes and people involved in intense training. But what if you are engaged in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink. Something else to keep in mind is that these supplements, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than you burned during an exercise session. This could diminish the effect of exercise on weight loss and may actually lead to weight gain. The bottom line is that, for most of us, a sensible diet with regular exercise is the key to meeting fitness and weight loss goals.
Ingredients 3/4 Cup vanilla (or plain or Greek) yogurt 2 Tbs Peanut Butter 1 Banana 1/4 Cup milk (soy milk or almond milk works, too) 3/4 Cup ice (more or less to adjust thickness) Nutrition Information Calories: 470 Total Fat: 20 g Total Carbohydrates: 62 g Sugars: 46 g Dietary Fiber: 4 g Protein: 20 g
** Less sugar and carbohydrates if you use plain yogurt instead of vanilla ** More protein if you use Greek yogurt