When it comes to exercising, it’s difficult to focus on anything beyond the here and now. Hyper-aware of every muscle, every joint, every sore spot, and every bead of sweat dripping down your brow (and there are quite a few), you make your way through your daily workout. Only ten more minutes on the treadmill, I can do it. I’m focusing on my breathing, my form… now I just need something to distract me from the stitch in my side… Maybe if I change up my music… Oh my gosh, how has it only been thirty seconds since I checked the clock?
You put your blood, sweat, and tears into your workouts (quite literally, minus the blood), but have you ever thought about what’s happening inside of your body while you’re pushing for that last deadlift rep? What about muscle recovery?
What is happening to your body during exercise?
The body is constantly building up and breaking down muscle protein, whether we’re exercising or not. So during exercise, when we are physically exerting ourselves, it can cause micro-damage and micro-tears in muscular fibers. Although the severity of these effects depends on the type of exercise and length, micro-tears in muscle fibers can be one of the most important stimuli required for muscle growth.
Due to these micro-tears, your muscles need time and proper nutrition to recover from strenuous exercise. There is an assumption in fitness nutrition that we have an ‘anabolic window’ or a recovery window where we need to get protein and nutrients into our body roughly thirty minutes post-workout. This is actually false and, in fact, muscle recovery can last up to several days after a workout.
In addition to the micro-tears that happen during exercise, the body may also be attempting to grow muscle, a process called muscular hypertrophy. The body doesn’t create new cells, but rather cells within the body will rebuild and increase in size. This happens in the body through a combination of weight training or resistance training workouts and bodily increase in protein, glycogen, and water. Over time, increasing the length and intensity of your weight training will cause the body’s muscles to build up.
Physical exercise typically requires the body to run on two main sources of energy: Glucose and Glycogen. Glucose is a free-moving source of energy in the body whereas Glycogen is more like your body’s reserves in case it runs out of fuel. Similarly to micro-tears, how much Glucose and Glycogen the body uses depends on the length and severity of the exercise period.
What do you need muscle recovery?
The most important factor when it comes to muscle recovery post-workout is proper nutrition. After micro-tears (or muscle protein breakdown) have occurred in the muscles, the body needs additional sources of protein in order to properly recover and build muscle. Proteins are made of amino acids and, out of the twenty-two total amino acids, nine are classified as essential and should be present in the body at acceptable levels. Three of those nine amino acids are related to muscle protein synthesis: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. They are also referred to as Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAA’s).
The remaining six are Histidine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, and Tryptophan. Ideally, after a workout, you’ll want to consume Complete Protein sources which include all nine of the essential amino acids in appropriate amounts. Some examples of complete proteins include eggs, soy/dairy products, milk, whey, meat/poultry, and seafood.
In addition, since the body has likely depleted its supply of Glucose and/or Glycogen post-workout, you’ll need to refuel with carbohydrates. When choosing a proper source to help with muscle recovery, you can either utilize Simple Carbohydrates or Complex Carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates (such as yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, cereal, or rice) provide the body with quick energy whereas Complex Carbohydrates (lentils, beans, peas, and whole grains) supply the body with sustained energy.
Regarding the quantities of each of these recovery needs, it will vary based on the type of activity taking place. For example, if your workouts are strength-based, you’ll likely have higher protein needs. Whereas, if your workouts are more endurance-focused, you’ll need to focus on refueling your body with more carbohydrates. Generally speaking, however, one should try to consume 20 to 40 grams of complete protein within the 48-hour post-workout window, but one can also use protein shakes such as that of Optimum Nutrition which serves as a good source of whey protein.
Whether you’re on the treadmill for thirty minutes or bench-pressing 200 lbs, keeping in mind your body’s internal processes and nutrition needs is the whey to a better workout & recovery.