Are you lacking recovery between games? Have the results you achieved during your off-season training vanished? Is your current training regiment providing diminished returns? Is your motivation so lacking that you are simply thinking about stopping exercise all together? If any of these situations sounds familiar, then know that you are not alone. The good news is that these are common problems that can be addressed with the right nutrition and supplemental program.
Being an athlete is a 24/7 job! Simply showing up for practices and games is not enough to keep you in top form or even competitive. Your ability to maintain mental focus and drive your body to the limit is tested every day. Are you consistently performing at the level you want?
If you are confused about what to eat and which nutritional supplements will allow you to maintain sports recovery, you are not alone. As a fitness professional and athlete, I am always looking for ways to push my mind and body, and to aid my clients in their ability to succeed on and off the field. In this article, I have put together the essential nutritional supplements that can properly fuel your performance, and more specifically your sports recovery.
As you read, remember that the type, quality and timing of the nutrients consumed is far more critical than exact numbers. Don’t get too caught up in calculating exact amounts. When in doubt, error on the side of smaller, frequent servings/doses.
Proper Carbohydrate Stores Increase Sports Recovery
Cortisol has a muscle breakdown effect on tissue and is often associated with a decrease in muscle growth hormones like IGF-1 and GH. Therefore for an athlete to achieve tissue growth and positive adaptations to exercise training, it is important to reduce levels of cortisol. Research has shown that maintaining both proper muscle glycogen and blood glucose levels will decrease the secretion of cortisol during exercise.
Properly loading up with carbohydrates before exercise or during a competitive event, along with sipping on a liquid carbohydrate beverage during hard intense activity, can maintain blood glucose levels and increase muscle glycogen and ATP recovery. A study conducted by the University of South Carolina suggests to prevent a fall in blood glucose concentration and to blunt the hormonal response to exercise, athletes should drink 8-12 oz (240-350 ml) of a sports drink that contains carbohydrate every 15 to 20 minutes. This will prevent a fall in blood glucose and will likely delay fatigue (Davis & Brown, 2001).
The National Association of Sports Nutrition (NASN) suggests that athletes who train heavily consume 7 to 10 gm of carbohydrate/kg/day. The typical American diet supplies about 4 to 5 gm of carbohydrate/kg/day. An intake of 6 to 7 gm of carbohydrate/kg/day is sufficient when the athlete exercise hard for an hour a day. This could be between 40-60% of total calorie intake. (NARN, 2005)
During exercise, it is suggested that athletes take in 30 to 60 gm of carbohydrate every hour to improve performance. For athletes who exercise hard for 90 minutes or more daily should consume 1.5 gm of carbohydrate/kg immediately after exercise followed by an additional 1.5 gm of carbohydrate/kg feeding 2 hours later.
For carbohydrate loading, the NASN suggests that during the first 3 days, the athlete consumes a normal diet providing about 5 gm of carbohydrate/kg/day. On the 6th day before an event, the athlete trains at 70% of VO2 Max for 90 minutes. On the 5th and 4th days before the event, the athlete trains for 40 minutes at 70% of VO2 Max. The athlete trains for 20 minutes at 70% of VO2 max on the 3rd and 2nd day before the event and rests the day before the event. During the last 3 days, the athlete consumes a high carbohydrate diet providing 10 gm of carbohydrate/kg/day. (NARN, 2005)
To Insure Rapid Glucose Supplementation Use Dextrorotatory Glucose
Citric acid catalyzes the chemical breakdown of sucrose giving a mixture of equal parts of glucose and fructose. Most types of carbohydrates ultimately enter the bloodstream in one form or another, but it is glucose that fuels muscle function. Our muscles receive the glucose required from what is typically found circulating in our bloodstream. On average, the circulating blood glucose will only last for approximately fifteen minutes. Once depleted, the body goes searching for available amino acids and any glucose stored in the liver. This natural process takes time. Time an athlete doesn’t have when testing their metal.
To speed up the natural process, many have turned to forms of Dextrorotatory Glucose. Dextrorotatory Glucose, an isomer of glucose found in honey and sweet fruits, has proven ideal for rapid gut absorption. It is quick acting, and quite honestly, unmatched for absorption rate into the bloodstream. For an athlete, this means fast fuel for efficient muscle energy and mental focus.
Bee Honey for Long Workouts
A series of studies conducted by the University of Memphis Exercise and Sport Nutrition Laboratory found that taking honey before and during exercise improves performance, speeds post-workout muscle recovery and doesn’t spike blood sugar levels during or after exercise. For example, in weight trained athletes, only honey maintained optimal blood sugar levels throughout the two hours following the work out, and honey stood out in supporting restoration of muscle energy and strength post-workout.
It would appear that honey stands out as perhaps the best source of carbohydrate to ingest for sustaining longer blood glucose levels especially if frequent post workout doses of carbohydrates are not supplied as specified in most nutrient timing protocols. However, it should be noted that there is a potential down side to using bee honey following very intense exercise.
Simply put, fructose depends, to a large extent, on the enzymatic process of the liver to carry it into the blood stream. During or after very intense exercise, the demand for glucose is elevated and likely to quickly absorb the glucose leaving most of the fructose to be absorbed later. The absorption of fructose without glucose present is poor. In most situations, the excess fructose will be carried into the lower intestine where it is used by the gut to provide nutrients for the existing flora, sometimes resulting in gut irritation and gas.
Whichever route you choose, supplementing with some form of glucose during or after intense exercise, can increase the body’s ability to maintain blood glucose levels under intense training.
Protein Intake after Exercise Speeds Recovery
Optimal recovery is equally important in increasing sports performance in training. A nutritional program high in quality protein is absolutely essential to muscle growth and repair.
Few athletes, other than bodybuilders, realize that protein goes a long way toward maintaining health during intense activity. It is protein that manufactures the enzymes necessary to help carbohydrates maintain energy levels and reduce muscle tissue loss.
I am often asked if a high protein diet is safe. The truth is that no person with a healthy body will be harmed by a high protein diet. Several studies demonstrate that protein intake as much as three times the RDA causes no harm in a healthy population. As a mater of fact, wide spread consensus among fitness professionals and sports nutritionist suggest that protein intakes above the RDA appears to support the loss of body fat and the increase of muscle tissue.
Understanding the Difference in Proteins
How much protein has been a controversial subject for years. However, I believe a more important topic would be to address the necessity for quality protein during the times when it counts the most.
Not all protein is created equal. The benefit desired by athletes is to have a protein that is both effective at muscle recovery and also quickly absorbed. Whey protein is proven to be the most effective at increasing muscle growth and repair. More specifically, a study by Scientific Researcher Paul Cribb (2004) documented the results of a whey protein isolate supplement on stimulating greater muscle recovery and growth over other proteins.
The protein used is considered a fast absorbing, fast acting protein. While the study conclusively showed this type of protein in frequent high doses to be superior in muscle growth and repair, it is also important to point out that there are many benefits to a variety of proteins that have a slower absorption. Proteins with a slower absorption rate can consistently deliver amino acids and other nutrients more effectively.
The key to maximizing recovery and triggering muscle growth is to understand when to use faster versus slower absorbing proteins. A whey isolate would be best before and after a workout while a blend of many types of proteins throughout the day will maintain blood amino acid levels shown in the Cribb’s research study to maximize muscle growth and repair.
The recommended NASN intake for endurance athletes is about 1.2-1.4 gm of protein/kg/day or 150-175% of the RDA. Strength athletes need about 1.6-1.7 gm of protein/kg/day or 200-212% of the RDA. The NASN’s recommendation to consume 1.2-1.7 gm of protein/kg/day assumes that the athlete is consuming sufficient calories to support this approach. (NARN, 2005)
Vitamin C for Recovery and Immune Suppression Prevention
In addition to the benefits of vitamin C in fighting disease, we also know from current research that dietary supplementation of vitamin C will help restore t-cell damage brought on by physical and extreme emotional stress. The problem is that it takes several thousands of milligrams to restore t-cell function and the answer is not as simple as taking mega doses of vitamin C.
Unlike many clinical dietitians who discard supplementation in general, sports nutritionist experienced and educated in the effectiveness of supplementation, realize that many micronutrients alone provide little benefit. When micronutrients like vitamin C are combined with other micronutrients such as vitamin E and Glutathione, a synergist effect will result. This provides additional antioxidant properties which work to maintain intracellular stores of vitamin C.
Glutathione is the central component of cellular immune defense and while infrequent mega doses of vitamin C are ineffective during physical and extreme emotional stress, consistent larger than average doses are necessary, if combined with vitamin E and Glutathione. Adding as much as 7,000 milligrams* of vitamin C per day, divided in two to three doses, will help athletes maintain t-cell function.
*Always consult with your doctor or nutritionist before taking more than the RDA of any vitamin or mineral.
Glutamine for Sports Performance Recovery
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the human body. It is typically found in large quantities in skeletal muscle and plasma. Glutamine has numerous functions including: the transfer of nitrogen between organs and the detoxification of ammonia, acid-base regulation in the body, acts as a forerunner to the synthesis of nucleotides, and as a fuel for cells of the gut lining and immune system (Rowbottom, 1996).
For over a decade, sports scientists have known that Glutamine increases muscle recovery and anabolism despite the lack of medical research. Glutamine for sports performance recovery has also not gone unnoticed by a broad spectrum of athletes who realize its benefits.
Based on my experience working with an array of athletes, and recommending glutamine for the past 2 ½ years, I have found the more intense or frequent the training sessions, the more glutamine needed. Athletes generally will require 20-40 grams a day, taken in divided dosages. While this may sound like a lot, the improvement in health and performance of this dosage ensures its value.
Research proves that glutamine supplementation after exercise stimulates anabolism and increases glycogen storage resulting in a greater performance capacity. The use of glutamine means less missed training and faster sports recovery. In my opinion, while not scientifically supported, a 5-10 gram dose of Glutamine after intense activity would be appropriate.
However, it is important to note that there is no hard and fast dosage recommendation that can be applied to everyone. The dosage which works for you should be determined in consultation with the input from your trainer and/or healthcare provider. Your objectives will figure greatly into the equation. For example, if your objective is to replenish glutamine lost during regular exercise, the amounts needed may not be large. On the other hand, if you are involved in endurance and high-intensity training, a larger dosage of glutamine may be needed.
Creatine for More Power and Exercise Recovery
Creatine is normally found in human muscles and is said to come from dietary (animal flesh) and/or internally manufactured. Typically whatever is not present in our diet is easily produced by the liver and kidneys from a few amino acids. Creatine is then eliminated from the body by the kidneys either as creatine or as creatinine which is formed by the metabolism of creatine.
As far back as the early 1900s, it was known that increased dietary creatine resulted in increased muscular stores of creatine and phosphocreatine. Since creatine supplementation increases muscular creatine levels, the next logical step was to conclude that it could help athletic performance.
Improvements in exercise performance has been correlated with the degree in which creatine is stored in the muscle following creatine supplementation (Casey et al., 1996). Although some studies have found no effect, most indicate that short-term creatine supplementation can increase total body mass, by 0.7 to 1.6 kg. With longer use, gains of up to 3 kg more than in matched control groups have been reported (Kreider, 1998). While these studies suggest that creatine supplementation may promote gains in lean body mass during training, additional research is still needed to understand how it works.
Experts are in disagreement regarding the correct loading regiment which should be used. A more traditional approach recommends dosing with creatine for 5 to 7 days in 20 to 25 gram dosages. Others, such as Paul Cribb, suggest a 3 day loading regime with higher dosing. We briefly outline both approaches and their benefits.
R B Kreider of the Exercise & Sport Nutrition Laboratory recommends a loading regime for a 70-kg athlete to be a 5 gram dose administered four times a day for one week. After that, the dose can be reduced to 2 to 5 grams per day in order to maintain elevated creatine content. He believes this supplementation protocol will increase intramuscular creatine and phosphocreatine content and enhance high intensity exercise performance.
There is now some evidence that taking glucose (100 grams) with the creatine (5 to 7 grams) increases the uptake of creatine into muscle (Green, 1996a & 1996b). Therefore, it is recommended that athletes take creatine with carbohydrate (such as grape juice) or ingest commercially available creatine supplements that combine creatine with glucose.
For athletes wanting to promote additional gains in lean body mass, a 15 to 25 gram per day for 1 to 3 months is recommended. Although many athletes cycle on or off creatine, no study has determined whether this practice promotes greater gains in fat free mass or performance than continuous use (Kreider, 1998).
Paul Cribb of AST Sports Science believes that the traditional dosing size and approach is inadequate in terms of providing the maximum benefit. He cites research that suggests a high concentration of creatine within muscle is needed in order to trigger a powerful anabolic effect at the cellular level. Traditional dosing fails to accomplish this task. Additionally, he cites research which suggests that traditional loading may cause creatine saturation outside the cell that prevents effective muscle uptake for weeks or even months. (Cribb, 2004)
His solution is a dosing strategy called Micronized Creatine Cycling. Cribb believes that his strategy maximizes the uptake of creatine by muscle cells to create and maintain ultra-high muscle creatine concentrations. His dosing regiment calls for the use of Micronized Creatine for three days on/three days off in larger concentrations. Cribb recommends a daily dosing range of 15-25 grams/day depending upon the size of the individual. His program is outlined in greater detail in his article, Optimizing the Anabolic Effects of Micronized Creatine Part-2.
Cribb argues that the brief three-day loading phase serves a precise purpose which is to maximize creatine uptake into muscle without desensitizing or down regulating creatine receptors/transporters. The three day period without creatine supplementation should be enough time to re-sensitize creating transporters but not allow muscle creatine stores to decline.
To fully realize any benefits to sports performance and recovery, supplements need to be used appropriately. Supplements and proper nutrition are important factors in your overall sports training program and should be considered in the context of an overall training program designed to maximize performance. It is important that you have a clear understanding of your goals. Then, develop a nutritional and supplemental program that compliments those goals.