Recently, while in my local bike shop I found myself paying some serious attention to my favorite category of products- Recovery supplements. As I became momentarily engaged with the sheer magnitude and overwhelming bulk of selection, I wondered how on earth someone without a doctorate or at least some education in nutrition and, from the looks of some of the ingredients, molecular biology would have any chance of selecting the product right for their individual needs. It was almost as if the designers were intending on confusing their targets with overly complex, but leading terminology carefully crafted in such a way as to suggest some type of instantaneous benefit. Finally, a friend of mine, and shop owner, came to me and asked why I had been standing in one place shaking my head from side to side for 10mins.
My answer? Where’s the simplicity?
Let’s look at this objectively. Recovery supplements. Why are you taking them? “Recovery”, right? Well, define “recovery” in terms of what you think should be happening that makes you more prepared for tomorrow’s training. In short, we take these products to do two things: 1) replenish muscle glycogen (sugar stored in muscle) and 2) to give our muscles exactly what they need to repair themselves from whatever damage our training regimes inflict. Okay, so with that in place, what should be the two most important ingredients? Sugar and protein. Done. I could easily end this essay right here, but obviously that would be just about as prudent as handing a student a 200pg textbook and saying “everything you need to pass this course is right in here.” I had a professor do that once… (note I said “once”… the course reviews were not good). By now, you’ve detected an aire of frustration and probably sarcasm towards the makers of pretty much every recovery supplement on the market. For me, I just don’t buy in (pun intended) to the purposeful beating-into-submission-with-overly-complex-vocabulary that is the common recovery supplement nutrition label. Give me something simple and direct- something I can digest easily (pun again intended) that actually makes sense on a metabolic level without the pandering ideology that is nutritional marketing. With that rant aside, let me, and the last 12yrs of nutritional and physiological research, tell you exactly what you need- sugar and amino acids.
Without going into too much detail, sugar is the building block of life. It is the ONLY source of fuel for the brain, it powers red blood cells, and is the key constituent of DNA. Anytime you see the suffix “-ose” on the end of a word, it contains sugar. It should come as no surprise to you that sugar, while filling all these roles that are so vital to life, it is also the metabolic gasoline that powers muscular contraction thus making exercise, and movement as a whole, possible. So it is rather intuitive that you need to replace as quickly as possible the sugar you expend while training especially if you intend on training on a daily basis.
Amino acids (22 in total) are also key elements of life and constitute the entire matrix of muscle and every other kind of tissue in the human body. While they contain no caloric value, they are instrumental in recovery. Something that you might not know, however is the fact that your body is well equipped with the biochemical machinery to produce all of the amino acids in the body for anyone on a balanced diet… except for the 3 that make up 75% of the overall amino acid pool found in muscle. Valine, leucine, and isoleucine aka “branched-chain amino acids” or BCAAs, for short, are a critical component of any post-workout meal/supplement designed to provide the body with what it needs. Because of their vast contribution to the complex milieu that is muscle fiber, they constitute the structural ingredients that will become new muscle tissue once the microtrauma of training has come to an end.
For those keen to make the most of this information it becomes clear that a mixture of these two critical ingredients is key to provide the body with the elements necessary to repair and restore. However, quick perusal of the store shelves might leave you with a feeling of bewilderment at just how sparse the selection of JUST carbs + amino acids really is. It gets worse… With most of the popular products out there, instead of a simple combinations of the essentials, you are presented with a complex nutrition label chock full of things that you simply do not need when your body is depleted from endurance exercise.
Our suggestion? Simplicity.
Chocolate milk. I know, I know, but please let me first explain. See when you ingest sugar, any excess sugar left over after your blood-glucose is normalized is quickly ushered into the muscle to be stored as glycogen to power tomorrow’s training. When you add essential amino acids to the mixture in a 4:1 ratio (carb to AAs) research has shown us that you can increase muscle glycogen re-synthesis and tissue repair up to 38% faster. Wouldn’t you know it, chocolate milk has the perfect blend of carbs to amino acids to provide you exactly what you need without the additives that can affect digestion and absorption thus prolonging the replenishment of glycogen stores and mending of damaged muscle fiber.
The other bit of research that demands attention is the fact that sugar spikes insulin levels and the presence of the hormone IGF-1 which happens to be one of the most anabolic substances in the body. IGF-1 secretion is directly related to the amount of insulin circulating in the bloodstream, which is then in turn a direct product of sugar intake. When you eat a high carbohydrate meal, IGF-1 secretion increases in the liver and because IGF-1 has stimulating effects on just about every type of cell in the body, especially muscle tissue, the amino acids you are ingesting in conjunction with sugars go right to work.
There are of course several products on the shelves of your local athletic store that boast of the 4:1 blend of carbs to AAs, but in your search for your perfect post-workout solution, it is critical to be as scrupulous as possible in deciphering the complex language. A great rule-of-thumb is to select the product with the fewest ingredients once you determine that all other critical components are present. The number one rule? Make sure whatever product you choose is high in sugar and NOT maltodextrin. Sugar will spike insulin as quickly as possible making the entry of carbohydrates into muscle much more expedient. This will increase the rate of which muscle glycogen is restored thus filling your intra-muscular gas tanks for another bout of training the following day as well as making sure your structural machinery is fully functioning and ready to go within 24hrs.