Re-Thinking Post-Run Nutrition

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After a work-out most runners tend to eat a lot (maybe even overeat) to try to replenish a variety of nutrients including: sugar, carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes, and regular old fluids. New research reported in the NY Times seems to indicate for most of us – that it is overkill.

The Researchers

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a muscle physiology researcher at McMaster University in Canada and a physician and a 45-year-old trail runner and adventure racer.

Stuart Phillips, a 41-year-old associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster who played rugby for Canada’s national team and now plays it for fun. He also runs, lifts weights and studies nutrition and performance.

Dr. Michael Rennie, a 61-year-old who was a competitive swimmer and also used to play water polo and rugby and is a physiologist at the University of Nottingham in England who studies muscle metabolism.

Asker Jeukendrup, a 38-year-old 14-time Ironman-distance finisher is an exercise physiologist and nutritionist at the University of Birmingham in England.

Their Refueling Strategy

They just drink water, and eat real food. Dr. Tarnopolsky drinks fruit juice; Dr. Phillips eats fruit. And neither one feels a need to ingest a special combination of protein and carbohydrates within a short window of time, a few hours after exercising.

Their Thoughts

There are grains of truth to the nutrition advice, they and other experts say. But, as so often happens in sports, those grains of truth have been expanded into dictums and have formed the basis for an entire industry in “recovery” products.

The idea that what you eat and when you eat it will make a big difference in your performance and recovery “is wishful thinking,” said Dr. Rennie, a 61-year-old who was a competitive swimmer and also used to play water polo and rugby.

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The Technical Facts

During exercise, muscles stop the biochemical reactions used to maintain themselves such as replacing and resynthesizing the proteins needed for day to day activities. It’s not that exercise is damaging your muscles; it’s that they halt the maintenance process until exercise is over.

To do this maintenance, muscles must make protein, and to do so they need to absorb amino acids, the constituent parts of proteins, from the blood. Just after exercise, perhaps for a period no longer than a couple of hours, the protein-building processes of muscle cells are especially receptive to amino acids. That means that if you consume protein, your muscles will use it to quickly replenish proteins that were not made during exercise.

But muscles don’t need much protein, researchers say. Twenty grams is as much as a 176-pound man’s muscles can take. Women, who are smaller and have smaller muscles even compared to their body sizes, need less.

Dr. Rennie said that 10 to 15 grams of protein is probably adequate for any adult. And you don’t need a special drink or energy bar to get it. One egg has 6 grams of protein. Two ounces of chicken has more than 12 grams.

Muscles also need to replenish glycogen, their fuel supply, after a long exercise session — two hours of running, for example. For that they need carbohydrates. Muscle cells are especially efficient in absorbing carbohydrates from the blood just after exercise.

Once again, muscles don’t need much; about one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight is plenty, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. He weighs 70 kilograms, or 154 pounds, which means he would need 70 grams of carbohydrates, or say, 27 ounces of fruit juice, he said.

The Conclusions

Jeukendrup said the fastest glycogen replacement takes place in the four hours after exercise. Even so, most athletes need not worry.

“Most athletes will have at least 24 hours to recover,” Dr. Jeukendrup said. “We really are talking about a group of extremely elite sports people who train twice a day.” For them, he said, it can be necessary to rapidly replenish muscle glycogen.

As for the special four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein, that, too, is not well established, researchers said. The idea was that you need both carbohydrates and protein consumed together because carbohydrates not only help muscles restore their glycogen but they also elicit the release of insulin. Insulin, the theory goes, helps muscles absorb amino acids.

My Thoughts

Who am I to argue with these guys? I’ve always thought moderation is key to anything that we do. It is important to eat a healthy meal after a workout. I do find that sometimes eating protein (eggs) after a workout I feel a lot better than just eating cereal. I also think that even though most of us aren’t doing two-a-days we still tap into a lot of energy reserves throughout the day for our daily routine. For instance I’ve been bike commuting so I’ll ride 4 miles within two hours of running. I need to make sure I replenish my body in between and after both workouts.

Their point is well taken and I think most of us would agree that the best way to do this is through natural methods. I’d prefer a large glass of orange juice any day over a bottle of Gatorade.

Your Thoughts?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Other’s Thoughts

Here are a couple highlights from readers’ comments on the NYTimes site:

  • Lowfat chocolate milk. — Charles, London
  • I never train hungry, and like to eat a balanced protein, carb, non-saturated fat meal @45 minutes before any heavy workout. After the w/o-skim milk, a lot of whey protein, at least 3 tablespoons of sugar, and a nap. During the workout I drink water or unsweetened tea. — George, Tucson
  • Before a workout, i hard boiled egg white, 1/2 banana, some nuts and aa date, few ounces of oj and I am good good good to go. Waiting for me in the car every day after my workout at the Y is a hardboiled eggwhite, sourdough rye with peanut butter and jam, 1/2 banana and, coffee, and maybe a date and some nuts. Takes the ‘edge’ off, prevents the sugar treats, like the accelerater pedal is still on.Two hours or so later maybe some steel cut oatmeal with yogurt, nuts, raisons.Somehow it all works, I think its the protein hit in segments. Whatever, at 63 I am in better shape than I was at 43.— rob, seattle

[tags] Nutrition, Protein, Running Nutrition [/tags]

One thought on “Re-Thinking Post-Run Nutrition

  1. Rita Edenfield

    Good information in your blogpost, I watched a report on television yesterday about this same thing and since I am going to be married next month and the timing could not have been better! thanks for the post!


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