About 15 years ago, I started drinking a Slim-Fast™ shake after my Sunday long runs. In my graduate classes in exercise physiology, we were studying the inner workings of the muscular and endocrine (hormonal) systems. I started drinking the Slim-Fast because researchers discovered that the enzyme, glycogen synthase, that turns carbohydrates from your food into glycogen for storage in your muscles is most active immediately after exercise. If you ingest carbohydrates soon after exercise, your muscles store two to three times as much glycogen than if you wait until you eat your post-workout meal, usually two to three hours later. I knew that the glycogen stores were an important source of energy during running and that there is only so much glycogen you can store in your muscles. So, I wanted to get the carbohydrates in quick to take advantage of this increased storage of glycogen.
The Slim-Fast shakes became part of my Sunday morning recovery routine (though I now drink a Generation UCAN recovery drink shake with a banana as I find it to be the most effective). I would run long (two hours); down one or two Slim-Fast (depending on how depleted I felt); take a shower then drink a liter of water while stretching. Next, I would make a plate of spaghetti with chicken or pancakes with eggs and bacon and eat while reading the morning paper. A couple of hours later, I was in bed for a two-hour nap. Throughout the day, I would continue to drink fluids till my urine was straw-colored.
As the researchers would predict, I found that my legs felt much more recovered by my Monday run and I was easily ready for a workout on Tuesday. To this day, I continue to use what I call The Runner’s Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine after long runs and key workouts. I notice that I reduce the number of “bad” workouts where I just feel “off”. I believe it is because my muscles are more ready (glycogen loaded) for each workout due to my recovery routine.
How Your Muscles Recover
I’ve already mentioned that the key to enhancing the replenishment of muscle glycogen is to ingest carbohydrates immediately after your workout. Science shows that this is related to the hormone insulin as well as the enzyme glycogen synthase (discussed above). Insulin stimulates glycogen synthase which then converts more carbohydrate to glycogen. Insulin simultaneously increases the transport of this glycogen from the blood into the muscles. Choreographed perfectly, the hormonal system and associated enzymes work to not only replace the glycogen you lost during exercise but they do it in the most efficient and rapid way.
Once scientists began to focus on insulin’s role in glycogen replenishment, another connection was made that impacts the recovery routine. It turns out that ingesting protein along with the carbohydrate increases your insulin response. As a result, up to 30% more glycogen is stored than if you just ingest carbohydrates. Researchers also discovered that the amount of protein is important, they found that there was a threshold of protein intake, above which, digestion and absorption of the meal was slowed, thus slowing glycogen replenishment. As a result, one of the prominent researchers in this area, Ed Burke, came up which what he calls the Optimum Recovery Ratio. Ingesting one gram of protein for every four grams of carbohydrates results in the greatest stimulus of insulin and glycogen storage, yet doesn’t negatively affect the digestive process.
Guess what? I took a look at my (original) Slim-Fast and sure enough it fits the Optimum Recovery Ratio perfectly – 40 grams of carbohydrates and 10 grams of protein in one can. I started drinking Slim-Fast just to get the carbohydrates in my body and ended up with the perfect ratio of protein that would facilitate the replenishment of my glycogen stores. (NOTE: More recently researchers have found that a ration of two to one up to four to one work equally well for recovery. My Generation UCAN recovery drink contains a ratio of 2.5 and I am having great results with it.)
There’s one more part of the equation – timing. As Burke says in his book, Optimal Muscle Recovery, “when you eat is just as important as what you eat”. I knew from my study of muscle recovery that the rate of replenishment was the greatest in the first two hours after a workout and especially in the first half hour. That’s exactly why I started using shakes. I didn’t feel like eating anything solid immediately after a run, but my Slim Fast is liquid and it has a lot of carbohydrates. I can down one and get some carbohydrates in quickly. Then within two hours after the run, I sit down to my meal of pasta or pancakes with a protein. Using this routine, I am able to take full advantage of my body’s ability to recover. The result is a better recovered athlete who is ready for the next key workout which leads to better and more consistent workouts and faster races.
Creating Your Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine
Let’s take a minute to create a Runner’s Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine for you. According to Burke and confirmed with my own experience, you should shoot for taking in one gram of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight within the first two hours following your workout, always remembering to match this with the appropriate ratio of protein. For example, if you weigh 100 pounds then you need 100 grams of carbohydrate and 25 grams of protein. If you weigh 160 pounds then you need 160 grams of carbohydrate and 40 grams of protein. Now, that’s a lot of carbohydrate which is why this routine is just for your very hard and/or long workouts and races. Otherwise, you’d be eating too many carbohydrates.
I’ve experimented with ingesting 50%, 75% or 100% of this requirement in the first half hour to see if I could find the best recipe for maximizing recovery. After all, the greatest rate of recovery occurs in the first half hour. What I found is that I felt best when I ingested one-half of my needs (in liquid form) in the first 30 minutes then the remaining 25-50% in the next one and a half hours, usually as a meal of pasta and chicken or pancakes and eggs. Taking more than half of the carbohydrates and protein in the first half hour made me too full, too quickly, and I wouldn’t feel like eating as much as I needed in my meal. From the examples above, the 100 pound woman would shoot to get in 50 grams of carbohydrates and 13 grams of protein in the first 30 minutes while the 160 pound man would shoot for 80 grams of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein immediately following the workout.
After calculating your individual needs, you, too, can begin to optimize your recovery nutritional plan. Try to take half of your carbohydrate/protein needs within the first 30 minutes then follow with a nice, healthy meal which contains a base of carbohydrates and some protein such as pasta and meat, rice and meat or pancakes and eggs. My advice is to find something that you really love to eat and use it as a celebration of your hard work from your training.
Don’t forget. You’ll also need to drink enough fluids to rehydrate. I continue to drink a half liter to a liter an hour of fluids till I’m urinating once per hour and my urine is straw-colored.
It Works for Me – It’ll Work for You
Since I began using the Runner’s Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine, I’ve experimented with several different shakes and drinks including Boost, Ensure, Power Dream, smoothies, juices and Endurox R4 – a drink mix specially designed with Dr. Burke’s help to maximize recovery. I’ve found them all effective and in the end, taste, availability and cost usually drive my purchases. You don’t have to drink Slim-Fast or Generation UCAN recovery drink (my preference). Any drink that matches the nutritional routine works.
I use this strategy with all the runners I coach and suggest you give drinks such as these a try over the next few weeks. I’m confident you’ll find the same results that I have – feel better on the next run, have better and more consistent workouts, and most importantly, perform better in races.
One note: If you are trying to lose weight or are trying to get fat adapted, then be very careful with how much carbohydrate you are ingesting. Excess carbohydrate in your diet is turned into body fat so only use this strategy after very hard and/or intense workouts/races and cut the recommended carbohydrates by 50%. BUT, make sure you get all of that within the first 30 minutes after your run.
Optimal Muscle Recovery by Ed Burke
Much of what we know about recovery from endurance exercise is summarized very nicely in this book. I’m a fan of Burke’s work and highly recommend you add this book to your library. In addition to discussing recovery from workouts, he discusses, from a real-world perspective, the how-to’s and why’s of sports nutrition, vitamins/minerals and supplements.