There’s nothing like a good round of exercise for lifting the spirits and making us feel healthier and stronger. But the benefits do not stop when you hit the showers. What you do post-workout matters too. This recovery period is especially important for athletes, but the advice given to them can apply to all of us, to help us ensure we recover fully from exercise while maximizing the effects of our workouts. It all comes down to a couple of fundamentals: diet and sleep.
When we talk about diet, we really mean specific nutrients. A balanced diet is the key to good general health, but if you want to maintain and enhance muscle mass and restore energy, you need to consume certain nutrients in the right amounts, at the right time. Protein, carbohydrates, and specific micronutrients are all part of this mix.
Protein is involved in muscle repair and remodeling, that is, the processes that rebuild muscles damaged by exercise and generate new muscle tissue. Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is a key component of these processes. Research has shown that certain types of protein are more effective than others at jump starting MPS. As McMaster University professor of kinesiology Stuart M. Philips wrote in a 2017 paper, protein quality has been an “underappreciated issue in protein nutrition.” He references a new system for scoring protein quality. Called the digestible indispensable amino acid score, or DIAAS, this system ranks milk proteins highest among commonly consumed supplements and protein-containing foods, including eggs. Leucine is the reason. Milk proteins, including whey, are high in leucine, an amino acid that Phillips has called “a trigger” for protein synthesis in muscle tissues and, perhaps, “the most important amino acid in stimulating MPS.”
When consumed post-exercise, proteins that are rapidly digested and high in leucine have been shown as the most powerful stimulants for MPS. Among them, whey protein has been highlighted as particularly effective because the body can digest it very easily. In a 2017 article, R&D scientist and sports dietitian Lisa E. Heaton recommends the following “optimal short-term dose of protein” for maximizing MPS: 0.25g/kg of body mass, evenly distributed in 4 or 5 doses throughout the day. This recommendation is for athletes and people involved in “whole body training.” The takeaway for the rest of us is that we need to consume protein throughout the day, preferably from sources rich in leucine, to maximize the effects of our workouts. Whey protein supplements and dairy products both fit the bill.
Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy. During periods of intensive exercise, the body’s internal or endogenous stores can be depleted. Inadequate levels can cause fatigue and increase the potential for injury. And these stores are not replenished after one high-carb snack; the body may need two or more days to fully recover carbohydrate stores. Heaton uses the example of competitive soccer, noting that it can take up to 72 hours after a match for complete restoration of carbohydrate stores.
Unlike protein, for which specific sources have been proven better than others, most carbohydrate sources are equally good, so the choice comes down to personal preference. Heaton recommends sources with a moderate to high glycemic index, and suggests that athletes consume 1.0-1.2 grams of carbohydrate for each kilogram of body weight within one hour of stopping exercise, and continue for 4 to 6 hours, or until it is possible to start consuming regular meals. For non-athletes, this level is not typically required. Instead, “regularly spaced, nutrient-dense meals” are probably sufficient.
Rehydration is an essential part of post-exercise recovery. As for which beverage is best, it depends on the duration and intensity of your workout, and the amount of sweat you generate. Sweat means the loss of sodium and potassium, both of which can be replaced with the right drink. To ensure optimum rehydration, look for three nutrients:
- Plain water can can quench your thirst before the volume of fluids in your body is fully restored. A drink with a small amount of sodium (20-50 mmol/L) stimulates thirst, ensuring you drink more. It also helps retain fluids and improves taste, which may, in turn, motivate you to drink more.
- Heaton’s research has shown that drinks with 6-12% carbohydrates help improve fluid retention while also providing an immediate energy boost.
- Milk protein. Milk contains sodium in amounts similar to sports drinks and has been shown to enhance fluid retention after exercise. Milk and milk-based meal supplements have both been shown effective,, although research is ongoing in this area.
As we’ve seen, the building of lean muscle mass depends on MPS. In addition to protein, some micronutrients are being investigated for their impact on MPS. Omega 3 fatty acids and creatine are two that are particularly promising.
Omega 3 fatty acids are widely recognized for being heart healthy, but their role in muscle protein synthesis is perhaps less well known. Initial research has shown that omega 3 supplements may increase MPS. There is also some evidence that these fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties, may help reduce muscle soreness from eccentric exercise. (Eccentric exercise occurs when a muscle is lengthened instead of contracted, for example, when lowering a dumbbell.) The body cannot produce omega 3 fatty acids so they must be consumed through supplements or diet. Sources include tuna and salmon and various fish oil supplements.
Unlike omega 3s, creatine is produced by the body. It is also found in meat and fish, with herring being a particularly rich source. Creatine has long been used as a pre-exercise supplement, where it has been shown to improve performance. Recent studies have looked at the post-exercise effects of creatine. Further research is needed, but it appears that creatine may increase fat-free mass and muscle volume, while also encouraging recovery by reducing inflammation and muscle damage. The recommended dose is 20mg/day for 5 days.
If you spend any amount of time reading about health and fitness, you’ll know that sleep is just as important as nutrition.
Sleep deprivation can have a serious impact on muscle recovery and development. A lack of sleep affects not only muscle growth, but the condition of the muscle you already have. When you lose sleep, you knock your hormones off balance, including those that help build and maintain muscle. As noted by Brazilian researcher Murilo Dattilo, “sleep debt damages muscle physiology and impairs muscle recovery” because the hormonal disruption it causes can degrade muscle tissue.
With today’s busy lifestyles, it is not always possible to get a good night’s sleep, but there may be a way to counter the effects of sleep deprivation on muscle growth. A recent study showed that resistance exercise may “evoke chronic anabolic hormonal response.” In other words, regular resistance exercise may increase the release of testosterone, growth hormone (GH), and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I)–all of which are needed for muscle protein synthesis. With this impact on hormones, researchers have hypothesized that resistance exercise can reduce or even eliminate the the muscle atrophy caused by sleep deprivation.
Exercise is clearly beneficial in and of itself, but its positive impacts can be improved with a few adjustments to your diet and sleep routines. Bump up your dairy and protein, at mealtimes or through supplements, and make sure you get enough sleep. You’ll reap the rewards in the form of increased energy and improved muscle strength.
 Heaton, Lisa E. et al. “Selected In-Season Nutritional Strategies to Enhance Recovery for Team Sport Athletes: A Practical Overview” Sports Medicine 47, July 2017, p. 2201-2218.
 Phillips, Stuart A. “Current Concepts and Unresolved Questions in Dietary Protein Requirements and Supplements in Adults” Frontiers in Nutrition. 4, no., 13. May, 2017,.
 Heaton, p. 2202-2203.
 Desbrow, B.et al. “Comparing the rehydration potential of different milk-based drinks to a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 39, no. 12, p. 1366-1372.
 Volterman, KA et al. “Effect of milk consumption on rehydration in youth following exercise in the heat” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 39, no. 11, p. 1257-1264
 Nedeltcheva, Arlet V. “Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 153, no. 7, Oct. 2010, p. 435-441.
 Dattilo M. et al. “Sleep and muscle recovery: Endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis.” Medical Hypotheses 77, 2011, p. 220-222.
 Monico-Net, M. et al. “Resistance exercise: A non-pharmacological strategy to minimize or reverse sleep deprivation-induced muscle atrophy.” Medical Hypotheses. 80, 2013, p. 701-705.