It’s convenient to quickly grab some protein powder and mix up a protein shake and down it after a big sweat session - we get it - but what if we told you that you could be missing the perfect opportunity to squeeze in an even tastier shake with bucket loads more nutritional value, all while supporting your recovery?
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Let’s look at the go-to time most athletes whip out their protein shaker and knock one back - post-session, right? It is common knowledge that we do this to repair the micro-tears our muscles have endured after exercise because the amino acids within our protein supplement act fast to repair them. As a result of this process (called muscle protein synthesis or MPS), these muscles have adapted to become bigger and stronger. Great! We have taken care of the repair aspect – one of the four ’Rs’ that contribute to exercise recovery.
It goes without saying that, as athletes, elite or not, eating adequate protein is essential for hitting our fat loss and/or muscle building goals. More often than not, however, the other three ‘Rs’ are overlooked; jeopardising not only our recovery but our overall health. In case you're wondering, the other 'Rs' include 'refuelling', 'revitalising' and 'rehydrating'.
When enduring a high-intensity workout or game, our body’s anaerobic energy system kicks in and starts grabbing one of our fuel sources, glycogen, from our muscles and liver. The body breaks down this glycogen into glucose and chops it in half to make two pyruvate molecules, then further into lactate and energy in the form of two ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) molecules. This catalytic event quickly gives us the ATP needed to keep the intensity up without the need for oxygen.
The results of depleting this energy system are:
a) Lactate causes the fatigued burning feeling in our muscles which luckily can be buffered by using a beta-alanine supplement and;
b) The body eventually runs out of glycogen to extract, meaning ATP is no longer produced from this system and we slow down.
This is where refuelling comes in. By including a carbohydrate source in our post-workout shake, our body can easily replenish our muscle and liver glycogen so we can perform at a high intensity in our next session or game.
A bonus feature of carbohydrates is they also play a role in the repairing process. A recent meta-analysis examining 104 articles concluded that the co-ingestion of carbohydrates and protein increased MPS (1). This is because when carbohydrates are absorbed through the small intestine, the pancreas detects the rise in blood glucose and releases insulin. This insulin release not only clears glucose from the blood but acts as a taxi for the amino acids in your protein supplement, dropping them off to the tissues most in need – your muscles.
Interestingly, the same meta-analysis found that insulin played a role in the actual MPS process. This all means that it is more favourable to add high carbohydrate foods in with your shake. Some foods that replenish glycogen, assist in MPS and add an extra serve of one of the five food groups, include:
- Bananas and berries (fruit)
- Low-fat milk (dairy, contains milk sugar known as lactose)
We now know that we need protein to repair our muscles after a session. We also know that carbohydrates assist in this repair process as well as refuel our depleted glycogen stores (i.e. our fuel tank). If protein and carbohydrates are the builders, revitalising micronutrients are the tools that allow them to do their job. There is much more that goes on behind the scenes allowing us to repair, refuel and recover, which is where revitalising occurs.
For example, we need to replace electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium) lost through sweat as well as providing the body with antioxidants to counteract the oxidative stress your whole body just went through. We revitalise by consuming primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds (think colour). Here are some revitalising micronutrients to keep in mind along with how to implement them:
A) Vitamin A, C, E & Phytochemicals
Also known as ‘antioxidants’, these vitamins assist in recovery from oxidative stress caused by anything from smoking and exposure to toxins to vigorous exercise. Oxidative stress gives rise to harmful reactive molecules called ‘free radicals’ that hang on to and damage cells and tissues. Antioxidants work by attaching to (naturalising) these free radicals, disabling them from disrupting and harming these cells and tissues. Acai seeds contain antioxidant phytochemicals; mango is a great source of vitamin A; citrus and berries for vitamin C; and avocado (yes, these are great in smoothies), almonds and pumpkin seeds for vitamin E.
We all have those sessions where we have to slow down because of that unavoidable feeling of lactate (lactic acid) building up in our muscles. This signifies the point in which our glycogen stores have run dry and we’re running off fumes. We also run off fumes if we just feel like having a lighter session. Either way, this signifies the switch from anaerobic to aerobic metabolism (using oxygen). Once the aerobic energy system takes over, there is an increased need for oxygen in working muscles, so they can continue producing ATP. Iron acts like a postman for dropping off oxygen around the community that is our body, which is why when our body slows down, there is an increased need for it.
There are two types of iron: the first is the most bioavailable form - haem iron, which is found primarily in red meat such as lamb. The less bioavailable form is non-haem iron, which you’re more likely to add into your smoothie because it is found in dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, as well as fortified cereals (read the nutrition label on the back of cereals and oats – around 3mg/serve is great). Interestingly, pairing fruit high in vitamin C allows our body to absorb more iron, allowing our internal postman to be more efficient!
Do you run on hard surfaces for long distances? Do you train and play on a hard court? Do you play contact sport? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then calcium is especially important for you to avoid both stress fractures and complete breaks. This is because it is an important component of our bone matrix and contributes to bone rigidity. Not only does it ensure our bones are kept strong, but it also acts as a trigger for muscle contractions alongside our highly energised friend, ATP. Similar to turning the key to unlock our front door, calcium delves inside our muscle fibres (the lock), latches on (turns the key), and makes our muscles contract (unlocks the door). By replacing our water-based protein shake with cows' milk (any kind will do) or adding yoghurt, rest assured our bones will be nice and rigid and our muscles can contract on demand.
Magnesium provides a myriad of behind-the-scenes benefits directly linked to how we fuel and recover from exercise, with most athletes requiring an extra 10-20% due to the increased loss through sweat and urine (2). The main functions of magnesium include energy production and storage, MPS, immunity, normal muscle contraction (by signalling calcium to return out of the muscle cells), and promoting calcium absorption, as well as many other important processes occurring in our body during all hours of the day (3-5).
As an active individual, these losses in combination with an increased demand for the many processes listed above, means we need more magnesium. If we don’t get magnesium, these processes don’t occur as efficiently or don’t occur at all. By sprucing up our shake with the likes of spinach and kale, pumpkin seeds and buckwheat, anywhere up to 40% of our daily need for magnesium is covered. In addition, you can include True ZMA in your daily night-time routine to give you a magnesium boost whilst you sleep.
Potassium is involved in similar processes to calcium and magnesium, warranting it as a staple micronutrient in revitalising your body after an intense session. Talking generally, potassium controls the way in which our cells talk and tell each other to do ‘things’. These ‘things’ can be anything from hydration and water balance to nerve transmission, allowing our muscles to relax at the bottom of each rep. Throwing in a banana and some yoghurt are convenient and tasty extras, which can be easily blended.
Besides helping you cool down and giving you a great excuse for a rest mid-session, rehydrating has an extra few hidden benefits. These include providing an optimal environment for MPS (linking up with the repair ‘R’), aiding digestion, increasing your blood volume to fight fatigue, as well as many others. And, if this isn’t enough to encourage you to rehydrate, remember that our body is primarily made up of water.
These facts then beg the question – why should I replace my water-based protein shake with something else? The answer is simple. Most other liquids, such as milk, already contain around 90% water anyway, with the other small fraction of the drink containing those additional nutrients which aid in your recovery too. Full cream milk, for example, contains around 85-90% water with the rest made up of protein for recovery, carbohydrates for refuelling and fat, electrolytes and vitamin B12 for revitalising. Tick, tick, tick and tick!
This is not to say that if you’re already nailing the other three ‘Rs’ and getting your dairy in other ways, water is not a great option, because it is. Rehydrating with milk or even fresh juice provides an option for you to pick up the slack if anywhere else is lacking (including taste).
Protein supplements, in particular protein powder, are undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to support your muscle repair. While this is a great thing, it is equally important to consider refuelling with quality carbohydrates, revitalising with colourful fruits and vegetables, and rehydrating with water. By mixing your protein supplement with additional ingredients to support the four ‘Rs’ of recovery, not only will your performance improve, but so will your overall health. So, take this opportunity to get an extra serve of the food groups you might be lacking and have fun by playing around with different foods and flavours.
Check out these nutritionally-packed smoothie recipes for more great ideas.
Abdulla H, Smith K, Atherton PJ & Idris I. (2016). Role of insulin in the regulation of human skeletal muscle protein synthesis and breakdown: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetologica 59(1):44-55. doi: 10.1007/s00125-015-3751-0 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26404065
Nielsen FH & Likaski HC. (2006). Update on the relationship between magnesium and exercise. Magnes Res 19(3):180-9 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17172008doi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191.
Hsuan-Ying Chen, Fu-Chou Cheng , Huan-Chuan Pan, Jaw-Cheng Hsu, & Ming-Fu Wang. (2014). Magnesium Enhances Exercise Performance via Increasing Glucose Availability in the Blood, Muscle, and Brain during Exercise. PLoS One 9(1):e85486 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085486 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3896381/#pone.0085486-Kjaer1doi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191.
Volpe, Stella Lucia. (2015). Magnesium and the Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports 14(4):279-283. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000178 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3896381/#pone.0085486-Kjaer1doi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191.
Volpe, Stella Lucia. (2008). Magnesium and Athletic Performance. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 12(1):33-35 doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000298463.14759.0e https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/FullText/2008/01000/Magnesium_and_Athletic_Performance.11.aspxdoi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191.