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:
- Hydration and electrolytes
- Vitamin D
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.
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.