Post Workout Recovery That Works

Post workout recovery

There’s lots of urban legend surrounding post workout recovery. You can debunk a lot of the generally accepted wisdom, like post workout carbs for example. But here are tried and true recovery supplements, backed by science:

  1. Protein
  2. Hydration and electrolytes
  3. Vitamin D
  4. Magnesium

 

Lots of folks skimp on post workout recovery because they think that just hitting it hard in their workouts is enough. But you’ve gotta break yourself down, then rebuild yourself stronger with recovery. If you aren’t recovering sufficiently, then you’re just breaking yourself down. And that’s not cool.

Workouts break you, protein builds you

You’re in a constant cycle of being broken down then built back up. They call it catabolism and anabolism. Rinse and repeat. All day long. All of your life. When you go for a long time without food, your body starts to break down fats, proteins and carbs for fuel. Or when you exercise either intensely enough or long enough, your body breaks down. And when you eat or when you sleep, your body builds itself back up.

Hard exercise generally includes something that puts stress on your muscles. Even aerobic endurance exercise can break your muscles down if it goes on long enough. When your body runs out of stored carbs, it might break down muscle tissue into amino acids. Then it’ll build glucose out of those amino acids and use the glucose to fuel the workout.

So when the workout’s over, it’s time to start the repair process. That’s where protein supplements come in. You can quickly digest something like whey, and start rebuilding within minutes. The process of rebuilding muscle is called muscle protein synthesis (MPS). It’s when your body takes the protein you’ve eaten, and makes new muscle out of it. It’s the centerpiece of post workout recovery.

Aim for 3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day. So if you’re 150 pounds, that’s about 68 kilograms. Go for around 200 grams of protein per day. That’s quite a bit of protein and that’s why supplementing with whey protein powder is helpful.

How much you get immediately post workout isn’t very important, but I usually get a scoop. That’s about 25 grams for my particular protein powder. But you really don’t need to guzzle that protein just as you’re finishing your last rep. As long as you hit your protein quota in the course of the day, you should be okay.

Hydration lets your body do its thing

All that muscle protein synthesis requires hydration. Think of water as yet another nutrient your body needs in order to rebuild muscle. If you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t have all the resources it needs to recover. 

And post workout recovery happens even after your post workout protein shake. Any meals you eat afterward will contain nutrients your body needs in order to repair. And the digestion and transport of those muscle repairing nutrients is more efficient when you’re hydrated.

Though that doesn’t necessarily mean you should drink water with a meal. Just that you should be generally hydrated. But drinking water with a meal is fine. It doesn’t affect stomach acids or digestion speed. If you’ve heard that, it’s a bit of a myth.

Sodium matters

If you sweat out a bunch of sodium, your body may want to pee out even more water than what you lost with sweat. It tries to maintain a healthy ratio of water to sodium. So if sodium is low, it keeps water levels low. If you want to hydrate properly, get some sodium. Your body will want to absorb more of the water you drink to keep that sodium to water ratio at a healthy level.

But sodium and chloride aren’t the whole picture. You’ll also need to replace other electrolytes. So simple salt tabs won’t quite cut it.

If you had a mild workout, in mild or indoor weather, and didn’t sweat much, you can probably get away with just drinking water. Your meals over the course of the day will slowly replace sodium and other electrolytes. In my experience, long runs, hot runs or high intensity workouts call for something a little more. I’ve always used either Nuun or Skratch Labs. They’ll both give you what you need in order to re-hydrate.

How much should you drink? When should you drink it? It’s kinda more art than science. You should drink to thirst, but your thirst mechanism can be slow. So get a glass of water after exercise. If it was an extra hard or hot workout and you sweat a bunch, that could be a good time to introduce an electrolyte mix into your post workout recovery supplements.

In any case, on any given day you should be peeing clear. That’s a good indicator of how hydrated you are. It’s also a slow mechanism, but over time you’ll learn what proper hydration feels like.

Yet another benefit of vitamin D

Vitamin D helps repair muscles in people who’re vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is a nutrient that does so many good things for you, so you should probably be supplementing with it whatever your goals are. Its role in post workout recovery is yet another reason to supplement with it. It turns out vitamin D helps regulate muscle repair and protein synthesis processes.

It reduces inflammation and boosts immune function and cell growth. Some things cause inflammation. Cells that are vitamin D deficient tend to have highly inflammatory responses to these things. Cells that have sufficient vitamin D tend to have a much more inhibited immune response to inflammatory things, like lipopolysaccharides. Don’t worry what lipopolysaccharides are. Just know that you’ll likely experience less inflammation when you’ve got proper vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D also acts like a switch that turns on your immune system. If you don’t have enough vitamin D, your immune system doesn’t get switched on properly. And when that happens, things like infections can get out of control.

It also regulates cell growth. Your cells multiply, but when they first do, they’re kind of half-baked. Those half-baked cells then mature into something useful. With insufficient vitamin D, those half-baked cells can multiply out of control and never really become something useful. That’s where terrible things like cancer start.

Who needs it?

By the way, you’re quite likely vitamin D deficient. Or at least your levels likely aren’t optimal. Get your levels checked to be sure. But most folks who don’t live right along the equator and/or work and live indoors are deficient.

How much should you take? It’s a wide range. Anywhere from 1000 to 4000 IU a day. I typically take 2000 IU a day. You’ll really need to get your blood levels checked a few times to find a dosage that puts you in your optimal zone. Your optimal zone, especially if you’re active, is up around 30 ng/ml.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means it can’t dissolve in water. It needs to dissolve in fat. The best way to do this is to take it with a balanced meal.

Magnesium rounds out the team

Working out is inflammatory. That’s how the whole process works. Your workout causes microscopic damage. Then your immune system kicks in, causing inflammation. That inflammation is the start of the post workout recovery process.

Magnesium is an anti inflammatory. So of course magnesium helps the recovery process.

C-reactive protein (CRP) is a common marker for inflammation. Research has found a significant link between magnesium deficiency and high levels of CRP. When magnesium deficient people with high markers of inflammation supplemented with magnesium, the inflammation went away.

It’s also a cofactor in the process of creating proteins from the basic amino acids. In order for your body to make the protein necessary to repair muscles post workout, it basically needs enzymes. And some enzymes need cofactors. Magnesium acts as a cofactor to the enzymes that rebuild you.

Magnesium relaxes your muscles

Calcium makes your muscles contract. Magnesium counters this and makes your muscles relax. If you don’t have enough magnesium, your muscles could go into spasm. This is one possible cause of cramps.

You can get your magnesium from oral supplements, but that seems boring. I use topical magnesium before bed. Some people use a warm bath with either Epsom salt or magnesium flakes. Either will fit nicely into a post workout recovery routine. In any case, take the recommended dosage. Too much magnesium is a bad thing.

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How whey protein benefits your strength and recovery

Workouts alone only break you downWhey protein benefits

Your body is in a constant cycle of catabolism and anabolism. When you’re in a catabolic state, your body is breaking tissue down. This happens when your body runs out of fuel. So either long and intense workouts, or long periods without food will put you in a catabolic state. When you don’t have enough fuel on hand, you’ll start breaking down muscle tissue for fuel.
The other side of that is the anabolic state. Your body will use energy from food to rebuild itself stronger so it can better handle the stress of your workouts. It basically happens when you eat and when you sleep. Whey protein benefits anabolism.
So you crushed it in the gym. Then you go home, eat junk food and stay up late, then stress out at work all day then hit the gym again. You’ll put in a terrible performance because you aren’t recovered enough. If you don’t recover day to day, you won’t be able to work as hard on your next workout. If you aren’t progressively overloading yourself, you won’t get stronger.

How whey protein benefits your strength

Protein gets broken down through digestion into amino acids and some of those amino acids are branched chain amino acids. Of the BCAAs, leucine is kinda the rock star. Most of the benefits of BCAA supplementation and most of the symptoms of BCAA depletion are related to leucine.
Leucine spikes insulin, and insulin is anabolic. So you eat your whey protein, the whey digests down into mostly amino acids, and the amino acid leucine spikes insulin. This insulin spike tells muscles to absorb nutrients from the blood. So the leucine gets into the muscle and helps out with muscle protein synthesis.
Some folks use BCAAs to minimize muscle catabolism during fasted exercise. There are better supplements for that. But whey protein is high in BCAAs. And the gist of BCAAs during fasting is that they will trigger an insulin release. That insulin release is technically breaking a fast. Keep in mind that BCAAs, while not a whole food supplement, are technically food. However, the insulin release you’ll get isn’t very big and probably isn’t anything to worry about.

How workouts damage you

Workouts tend to cause microtrauma to muscles and connective tissues. Then the inflammation happens. That inflammation is part of your immune response. So the small dose of inflammation caused by a workout is what triggers the recovery process, and the recovery process is what makes you stronger.
A byproduct of metabolism is oxidation. Your body counters this by creating antioxidants. When you exercise, your metabolism ramps up and so does oxidation. When your body can’t keep up with the oxidation, it’s considered oxidative stress. Whey protein acts as an antioxidant because it contains lots of cysteine. Your body uses cysteine to make glutathione, which is your body’s most powerful antioxidant. But your body isn’t very good at absorbing and using glutathione, or even glutamine, taken orally. So getting whey is a much better way to increase your antioxidants.

Which whey protein will and won’t cause disaster pants

Lactose is a dairy sugar. Whey protein is a dairy product. So yeah, it contains some lactose. If you’re lactose intolerant, you don’t make enough of the enzyme lactase to properly digest the lactose in whey protein. This can cause disaster pants, or it can just make you a terrible person to share a small space with. Whey protein concentrate doesn’t have a lot of lactose. But if it still upsets your stomach, try whey protein isolate. Whey isolate is a purer source of protein, with more of the lactose removed.
So whey protein isolate seems like a better choice, but that’s not the whole picture. Whey protein isolate goes through more processing to remove more of the non-protein stuff, but that processing also denatures the protein. It kinda damages the protein molecules and makes it a little less bioavailable. So if you don’t have a hard time digesting whey protein concentrate, then prefer whey protein concentrate over whey protein isolate.

Exactly how much whey protein you need

If you’re looking to put on some muscle, you can go as high as 3 g/kg of body weight, or even higher. If you’re getting lots of exercise, then you’re breaking down lots of muscle. If you wanna build that muscle back up and then some, you’ll need lots of protein. So if you weigh 150 lbs, that’s 68 kg. You’re looking at over 200 grams of protein per day. You’ll probably need some whey protein powder to help hit that number.
If you’re looking to maintain or lose fat, you still want to keep protein intake around 2 to 3 g/kg of body weight. The idea here is you don’t need excess protein in order to gain weight. But if you’re in a calorie deficit, you want to lose fat and keep muscle. Resistance exercise plus adequate protein will help you retain muscle when cutting. And higher protein diets tend to make you feel fuller longer. So you won’t feel as hungry when cutting calories.

Does it matter when you take it?

The post-workout whey protein shake is pretty standard. But there’s evidence that whether you take it 30 minute before or 30 minutes after your workout, it doesn’t make a difference. There are reasonable, scientifically-proven benefits for both pre-workout and post-workout whey protein shakes. And to further confuse you, there’s even evidence that as long as you hit your protein targets in the course of the day, you don’t get any extra benefits by getting protein within the half hour before or after your workout.
You can also see body composition improvements by getting whey protein before bed. This is partly because high-protein diets do better for fat loss. And it’s partly because nighttime is a good time to rebuild muscle. And if you’ve got amino acids floating around your system, your body is more likely to use them to build the muscle you broke down at the gym earlier in the day. It’s a myth that it’ll turn to fat because you aren’t active. In fact, it can even raise your resting energy expenditure.
Some folks even get their whey protein with carbs after a workout. But it turns out adding carbs to your post-workout whey protein won’t buy you any extra muscle. But it is extra empty calories, so it could negatively affect fat loss goals.

Bad whey protein can slowly destroy you

 Some whey protein comes with extra crap that you really shouldn’t allow into your body. This includes stuff like xanthan gum as a thickener. It can be artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose. It could even be dyes, gross vegetable oils, or soy. Avoid that stuff. Here’s what I buy:
References:

photo credit: las – initially Instant Protein via photopin (license)

What Is Creatine and What Does It Do

Creatine
Creatine

We all know that creatine is awesome. Most of us even know some of the pros and cons of its use. But some of those cons aren’t actually a big deal. For example, there’s no evidence to support the myth that it damages kidneys. And I’ll bet there are some pros you didn’t even know of.

For starters, creatine is essential to creating ATP. ATP is really all that matters when it comes to the energy your body uses. Your body doesn’t burn that grilled cheese sandwich you ate directly. It breaks it down into basic components like glucose, amino acids and fatty acids. Those basic components go through various metabolic processes to eventually become ATP. So more creatine is more ATP, which is more power and strength.

Creatine Promotes Muscle Glycogen Storage

For most of the work you do during exercise, you’ll burn mostly glycogen. When you ate that grilled cheese sandwich and your body broke the carbohydrate in it down into glucose, maybe you didn’t immediately use that glucose. So you stored it as glycogen in your muscles and even a little bit in your liver. You probably also stored a bunch as fat, but that’s a topic for another day. So next time you work out and you didn’t just eat a grilled cheese sandwich, you won’t have as much pure glucose ready to go. Your body will burn that stored glycogen to fuel sufficiently intense exercise.
There’s evidence creatine can help you make and store more glycogen in your muscles. This is because creatine increases cell volume. More cell volume allows more glycogen to fit. Creatine and glycogen are correlated. Generally, when you increase one, you increase the other.
It can also help you build your glycogen during a carb load. So mix it with your post-workout carbs. You’ll end up with both more carbs and more creatine stored in your muscles.

It Helps You Burn Less Glycogen

Your body can burn three basic types of fuel: phosphocreatine, glycogen (carbs), and fat. And there’s evidence that creatine can spare glycogen during intense exercise. This is likely because more of the required energy can come from the phosphocreatine system. So the demands on the glycolytic system are lower. So you’ll have more fuel in the tank for longer races. A nice side effect is that it also produces less lactate.
It doesn’t benefit aerobic effort, e.g. distance running. What little benefit it might have is wiped out by the slight weight increase. But OCR is very glycolytic. It’s distance running plus obstacles plus hard hills. I believe creatine can help with that.

It Prevents Fatigue

There’s evidence that it prevents muscle breakdown and keeps the free tryptophan to BCAA ratio down. Free tryptophan (not bound to albumin) can cross the blood-brain barrier and become serotonin. Serotonin makes you feel fatigued. Tryptophan and BCAAs use the same pathway across the blood-brain barrier. They compete. So less tryptophan to compete with more BCAAs means less can get into the brain, convert to serotonin and make you fatigued.
After loading 12 grams a day for two weeks, then running 65-70% VO2 max for an hour, athlete’s markers for muscle breakdown, including free tryptophan to BCAAs, were much lower. So creatine might still have some benefits for distance running despite little to no benefit as far as raw energy.
It might also lower ratings of perceived exertion during endurance exercise in the heat. Performance might also increase depending on the person. Some people respond with performance increases and some don’t.

How to Take It

Take creatine monohydrate powder. The micronized stuff dissolves a little better. So get that if you can.
The loading and maintenance amounts for the average person won’t suffice for athletes. So take 5 grams per day (or up to 10 grams a day) for additional benefits. Creatine is cheap and there are benefits to taking more than the 0.03 grams per kilogram that would benefit a sedentary person. At 2 grams a day and below, it’s basically worthless.
Some people do a creatine load. This will saturate your muscles more quickly, but could also cause digestive problems. If you decide to load, know that it’ll be better absorbed if you break it down into smaller, multiple daily doses. And take it with a meal and plenty of water. Otherwise, you could end up with stomach cramping and/or diarrhea.

When To Take It

Taking it right before and/or right after a workout seems to be more effective than taking it at other times of the day. This might be because of a creatine transport upgregulation related to muscle contraction. The more metabolically stressful an exercise is, the more likely it’ll take up more creatine.
Taking it with carbs can enhance glycogen storage. Taking it with carbs can also increase uptake, but only in the first few days of loading. There’s also some evidence that taking it with caffeine could reduce the benefits, but that’s iffy. So maybe don’t take it with caffeine just to be safe. Try taking it with your post-workout recovery.
Here’s what I buy:
References

CoQ10 Helps Athletes Recover from Training

CoQ10
CoQ10

CoQ10 (a.k.a. Coenzyme Q10) is an antioxidant. Like ashwagandha, it helps you recover from hard training. It also helps mitochondria make energy. Mitochondria are the little organelles inside cells that make energy. More CoQ10 can make up for fewer mitochondria. As we age, both the number and the quality of the mitochondria decline. So this especially benefits older athletes. More CoQ10 means more efficient mitochondria. That means better aerobic power output.

CoQ10, along with a handful of other cofactors including l-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid, is vital to mitochondrial function. It also happens to be a powerful antioxidant for the mitochondrial membranes. The job of the mitochondria is to make ATP, and making ATP causes oxidative damage. So antioxidants are crucial to mitochondrial health.

Supplementing with it isn’t necessary for the average person. Your body makes it internally. And you can get enough from food to replenish it. But older athletes and athletes in the middle of high intensity training cycles deplete their CoQ10 levels. So supplementing is very important to getting peak performance.
Exercise requires the mitochondria to crank up ATP production. And ATP production causes oxidative damage to the mitochondria. So during exercise, the muscle soak up all the CoQ10 to help guard against that oxidative damage.

Anti-fatigue and Ratings of Perceived Exertion

Studies show it has an anti-fatigue effect and reduces ratings of perceived exertion. One study showed better performance from athletes in the later reps of an interval workout. With 8 weeks of 300mg per day supplementation, subjects had more power on tap over the course of a longer, submaximal workout. So when you need to crank up the power for a bit during a longer race, CoQ10 can help.
CoQ10 tends to increase time to exhaustion without increasing traditional measures of fitness, like VO2max. This is likely partly because its supplementation improves mitochondrial respiration. And it’s also likely partly because the antioxidant effects of CoQ10 mitigate the damage that exercise causes.

Muscle Damage

It also reduces the effects of muscle damage. We don’t really know how CoQ10 gives athletes its anti-fatigue effects, but this might be it. Creatine kinase is a biomarker of muscle damage. When you work your muscles hard, the membranes break a little and leak creatine kinase into your blood. High levels of creatine kinase in your blood generally means you’re feeling the effects of hard workouts.
But CoQ10 maintains muscle membrane integrity. That prevents things like creatine kinase from leaking out. With less muscle damage, your brain will let you go farther and more powerfully. This is important for things like eccentric movements, like downhill running. And if you’re training for OCR, you better be training downhill running.
My suspicion is that this relates to the Central Governor Model. The Central Governor Model says that the brain regulates your exercise performance based on various factors, in order to protect itself, your heart and the rest of your body. It might take into account, for example, how much glycogen you’ve got left and how much farther you have to go. If it thinks you won’t make it, it’ll throttle you back by reducing the amount of muscle it activates. You’ll feel its effects as fatigue.
With fewer byproducts of muscle damage in your bloodstream, your brain will have fewer reasons to throttle your performance. And without your brain holding you back to protect itself and its host, you’ll go farther and faster.

How Much CoQ10 to Take

Take 300mg per day in multiple doses to keep serum levels high throughout the day. So maybe take a 100mg dosage in the morning with breakfast. Then take a dosage with lunch and a dosage at night after dinner. Take it for at least six weeks. And take it with food because it relies on fat for absorption. Without fat, your body won’t absorb it and it won’t have a positive effect. Your body breaks fat down into chylomicrons and sends them into the bloodstream. CoQ10 attaches to these chylomicrons.
Taking it with some fat is critical, but there are other good ways to increase absorption. You might better absorb liquid or soft gels than hard capsules. And grapefruit juice or BioPerine (a.k.a. piperine or just black pepper extract) also seems to increase bioavailability. The more that gets absorbed, the more ends up in your blood serum and muscles.
Some say the reduced form, ubiquinol, is superior. I have doubts. It gets oxidized in the gut and becomes ubiquinone anyway. So just buy ubiquinone. It’s cheaper. And, despite what manufacturers will tell you, the absorption rates are pretty similar.
Here’s what I buy:

The Surprising Benefits of Ashwagandha for Athletes

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (a.k.a Withania somnifera) is an adaptogenic supplement. It helps prevent the physical and chemical effects of stress. Sometimes that stress is emotional, like from a hard day at work. But what athletes care about is the stress of a workout. As an adaptogen, it helps you adapt to that stress. And it’s likely a combo of more power (strength + speed) output by neural adaptations plus lung adaptations that improves your running.

When we exercise, we stress our bodies. Then we rest and recover, which makes us rebuild ourselves stronger. So the next time we’re faced with a similar exercise stress, we’re better equipped to handle it. Adaptogens kind of help our bodies rebuild stronger so we’re better equipped to handle various stressors next time we encounter them.

We’re seeing more and better research on adaptogens these days. But we haven’t quite nailed down exactly how they work. We know they can reduce the effects of both physical and mental stress. They regulate your hormonal responses to stress, so they keep your hormones in balance.

Better Training

When you work out, you break yourself down a little. Inflammation is part of the process that rebuilds you stronger. But if you continue to break yourself down before you’ve had a chance to rebuild, inflammation can pile up and become chronic. When that happens, you don’t fully heal and so aren’t bringing the strongest version of yourself to the workout. Your workouts will be weak and ineffective.
Ashwagandha reduces inflammation. The more you train and the better you train, the better your competitive performance will be. The pain of inflammation can keep you from training to your potential. So by reducing inflammation, you can get more from your workouts.

Improves Endurance Race Performance

Ashwagandha improves VO2 max. The higher your VO2 max, the more work you can do aerobically. The more work you can do aerobically, the less you’ll burn carbs and build up lactate. It’s not the be all and end all of performance metrics, but it’s important. Generally higher is better. There’s evidence that ashwagandha raises hemoglobin. More hemoglobin means your blood can carry more oxygen from your lungs to your muscles. This might be the mechanism by which it improves VO2 max. So, for longer races, you’ll burn fuel more efficiently while building up less byproduct.
It improves time to exhaustion. This stamina increase is likely because it has a mental clarity effect like caffeine. This might be because of increased free fatty acid oxidation, which preserves glycogen stores. The more free fatty acids you’ve got in circulation, the more your body will burn them for energy. The more your body burns free fatty acids for energy, the less it needs to burn glycogen. Burning through glycogen contributes to exhaustion in two ways. In one way, depleting glycogen can lead to exhaustion because you run out of fuel. In another way, the byproducts of burning through glycogen can pile up and make you feel the burn of intense exercise.
Exercise, including competitive OCR events, triggers cortisol release as glycogen depletes. Cortisol preserves blood sugar by breaking down muscle tissue to use as fuel. This is bad. Then it triggers the inflammation response necessary to repair the damaged muscle. Ashwagandha blunts this cortisol response.

Makes Your Muscles Bigger

Ashwagandha appears to build muscle and lower body fat. This is likely because it raises testosterone and DHEA when combined with strength training. It also reduces the muscle damage from workouts, as measured by serum creatine kinase levels.
Creatine kinase leaks out of muscles and into the blood when your muscles undergo the micro trauma from a workout. So more of it in the blood means more muscles broke down and leaked it. And with Ashwagandha, less of it leaks into the blood. This implies that the muscles healed more, and more quickly after workouts when supplementing with it.
Another possible mechanism is by reducing cortisol. Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue to make energy. Both physical and mental stress can raise cortisol. Ashwagandha could make you stronger by mitigating the cortisol-related muscle catabolism from a workout. It even boosts testosterone when combined with resistance exercise. And more testosterone generally means less cortisol.

How to Take Ashwagandha

Take two 500 mg doses per day, one in the morning and one at night. You’ll see effects after about 8 weeks. That dosage should give you all the strength, endurance and aerobic capacity benefits.
Arjuna is another adaptogen that has similar effects to ashwagandha. We’ll talk more about that later. But it’s not one or the other. You can take them both and see an additive effect.
We don’t yet know exactly how Ashwagandha does what it does. But science seems pretty certain it does some good stuff for athletes, including obstacle racers.
References