By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
You recover faster from intense exercise by eating immediately afterward, and a new study shows it doesn't really matter what you eat. Fast foods such as French fries, hash browns and hamburgers helped athletes recover just as quickly from hard workouts as sports nutrition products such as Gatorade, Powerbars or Clif Bars (International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, March 26, 2015).
You have to exercise intensely enough to damage muscles to make them bigger and stronger, so knowledgeable athletes train by taking an intense workout that damages their muscles and makes their muscles feel sore afterward.
On the next day they take easier workouts until their muscles heal and the soreness goes away. Then they take their next intense workout. The faster their muscles recover, the greater their improvement from their sports training. Sometime athletes have to compete in sports on consecutive days. Almost all athletes eventually learn that they recover faster from racing and intense workouts by eating immediately after finishing an intense workout.
Eleven male cyclists completed two trials of a very fast 90-minute workout that emptied their muscles of their stored sugar called glycogen. Immediately after finishing the ride and again two hours later, they were given either fast food or sports products. Four hours after they finished their first ride, they raced flat out in a 12.4-mile (20-kilometer) time trial. All eleven cyclists completed both trials, in random order.
* Muscle biopsies showed that the athletes regained their stored muscle sugar at the same rate with either type of food.
* Blood tests at .5, 1, 2, 2.5, 3 and 4 hours showed that both food programs yielded the same blood sugar and insulin levels.
* Time trial results showed the same times whether they took fast foods or the special sports nutrition products.
The authors say, "Our results show that eating fast food -- in the right amounts -- can provide the same potential for muscle glycogen as sports nutrition products that usually cost more."
To be clear, this is not a call for athletes to eat fast foods, since the researchers did not study the long-term effects of eating fast foods as a regular diet. Other data show that eating these foods all the time markedly increases risk for obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and premature death, even if a person exercises every day.
The point of the study is that it doesn't matter what you eat to recover; any source of calories, carbohydrates and protein will be equally effective. You can help your muscles recover faster from hard exercise and races by eating corn and beans, fruits and nuts or anything else. There is no need to spend extra money for special sports products or supplements.
After a hard workout, your muscles feels sore because the muscle fibers are damaged, and your muscles have run out of their very limited supply of stored muscle sugar called glycogen. You recover when damaged muscle fibers heal and muscles refill their sugar supply. The extra protein and sugar that you take immediately after finishing intense exercise helps muscle fibers heal faster than taking the same foods later on. The extra carbohydrates supply sugar to refill muscles with glycogen.
Most cells need insulin to drive sugar and protein from the bloodstream into cells. However, when you exercise, contracting muscles can pull sugar out of the bloodstream without even needing insulin. This effect of pulling sugar rapidly from the bloodstream without needing insulin lasts maximally for about an hour after you finish exercising, and then gradually decreases until it is gone at about 17 hours.
Eating within an hour after finishing exercise helps muscles heal faster and also replenishes their stored glycogen faster than eating later.
How fast you can move in endurance events is limited by the time it takes to move oxygen into muscles. Muscles use both sugar and fat (and, to a lesser degree, protein) as their sources of energy during exercise. Sugar requires less oxygen to fuel muscles than fat, so the more sugar a muscle can burn, the faster you can go.
You have an infinite amount of fat in your body, but you have only a very meager amount of sugar stored in your muscles and liver. When your muscles run out of stored sugar, your muscles can burn only fat and you have to slow down. The more sugar you have stored in a muscle before you start to exercise, the longer and faster you can exercise that muscle.
Try to set up your exercise program so that you take a harder workout on one day, damage your muscles and feel sore on the next. Then take easy workouts and when the soreness goes away, take your next hard work out.
Immediately after an intense workout, eat whatever source of carbohydrates and protein you like best. I eat oranges and nuts immediately after I finish an intense workout or race to help me recover faster for my next workout.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana, often doing 30-60 miles in an outing. His website is http://drmirkin.com/.