Authored by Nate Martins
There are two results when it comes to post-workout supplements used for recovery: objective (measured through research) and subjective (experienced personally).
While some supplements are tried and true, validated with results over years of research, others are more cutting-edge, and still require additional research to provide conclusive results.
Many studies of supplements are conducted on trained athletes in their primes. While great for peak output results, it can be hard to conceptualize these results if you don’t fall into that category. That’s why it’s important to quantify the subjectivity of using supplements, looking at your own performance and feelings when employing them in training and recovery.
Your muscles need protein to rebuild. The body breaks down protein into amino acids which are then transported throughout the body to be used in protein synthesis for other muscles; branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the building blocks to maintaining muscle mass.
BCAAs are a type of essential amino acid, meaning the body can’t produce them itself. Therefore, it is “essential” to obtain them through diet or supplementation. Studies incorporating BCAA to a post-workout meal broadly show enhancement of muscle protein recovery. Other studies in rats have showcased beneficial effects on protein synthesis, and a study in humans illustrated that BCAA supplementation alleviated skeletal muscle damage.
Most BCAA supplements employ the three types of BCAA in some combination: leucine, isoleucine, and valine; however, leucine is often the highest-dosed of the three as it is the most widely implicated in muscle protein synthesis.
- How to supplement: About 20g daily, split up in four or five servings
- When to supplement: Can be consumed pre-workout, but is best employed immediately after a workout
D-BHB, the ketone body present in some exogenous ketone supplements (BHB ketone esters, specifically) acts as an anti-inflammatory recovery tool, which helps reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress from the buildup of free radicals. These can cause damage to the cells. BHB can also help to reduce inflammation by decreasing the activation of a pro-inflammatory part of the immune system called the NLRP3 inflammasome.
BHB can help to decrease the impact of exercise on the body: studies of athletes using a BHB monoester supplement before a workout have seen a decrease in the breakdown of intramuscular glycogen and protein during exercise when compared to carbs alone.
The same BHB monoester also expedited the resynthesis of glycogen by 60%, and boosted signals for protein resynthesis by 2x when added to normal carbohydrate or protein post-workout nutrition.
These benefits help put the muscles in a position to recover effectively, enabling them to replenish the necessary energy stores for your next workout.
- How to supplement: 25ml of a BHB monoester supplement
- When to supplement: 30-60 minutes after a workout with normal post-workout carbs and protein
Protein / Creatine
More generic protein supplements, protein powders, or protein rich foods, often contain ample amounts of BCAAs, EAAs (essential amino acids), and leucine. Before splurging on a fancy BCAA supplement, consider increasing your protein intake to achieve muscle building, and supplementing as part of a powerful recovery stack. Learn more about ways runners can supplement recovery.
In the first few post-workout hours, consuming protein can help the body begin to repair muscle damage, reduce the response from cortisol (the “stress hormone”), and speed glycogen replenishment (especially if you aren’t able to consume the optimal amount of carbohydrate). After a workout, increasing the availability of protein in the body accelerates the resolution of muscle inflammation and promotes muscle-building. Whole foods like chicken, milk, eggs, yogurt and beans can provide necessary protein, while supplementation further introduces protein into the body, making it readily available for use.
There are a few different options athletes can take with regards to protein.
Whey is the most popular protein for workout recovery; the body absorbs it the fastest and many consider it the most effective for muscle protein synthesis. Consider using whey as soon as you finish your workout.
Casein is more beneficial for long-term recovery because of the time it takes the body to absorb it. Casein protein releases amino acids that slow the digestive process; a study showed that consuming it before bed led to a 34% reduction in protein breakdown. This makes it ideal to take before sleeping, as it slowly releases amino acids to keep your muscles fed overnight.
You may be asking, “why didn’t you include soy-based proteins here?” Though they’re an option for vegetarian or vegan athletes, science indicates they’re less effective than milk-based proteins.
Protein rich foods can also be a source of creatine, which is an organic acid best known for its positive effect on explosive strength performance. But it could help you with recovery too. For example, one study showed creatine supplementation reduced fatigue in swimmers and another study showed creatine helped speed up glycogen re-synthesis.
That said, many whole foods are just as good (if not better) in terms of protein content–but they’re less convenient and tasty than a protein shake.
- How to supplement: For serious athletes, one gram per pound of body weight of creatine (creatine monohydrate is best) is sufficient; for non-serious athletes, about 0.5 – 0.75 grams.
- When to supplement: Immediately after a workout (whey), or before bed (casein)
The process of recovery can start even before your workout ends; some supplements, taken before or during exercise, can reduce the damage exercises cause the body, making it easier to go again.
We’ve previously discussed the role of lactate in exercise, and the resulting acidity. During periods of intense exercise, lactate accumulates in the blood, making it acidic. This acidity is often associated with fatigue, because when our blood is too acidic, our brains send signals (read: nausea) to make our muscles stop working so we can recycle all that extra lactate.
Buffers are meant to protect against lactate buildup and provide resistance against fatigue caused by acid accumulation. Two of the most popular are Beta-Alanine and sodium bicarbonate.
Beta-Alanine is an amino acid not used in protein synthesis but, instead, is converted into carnosine which helps reduce lactic acid accumulation in the muscles. This can lead to improved athletic performance and reduced fatigue.
Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) also protects the body against acidity. By binding to the protons that cause acidity, sodium bicarbonate is able to reduce blood pH and potentially provide resistance against fatigue. Regarding recovery, sodium bicarbonate offers similar benefits as Beta-Alanine–namely, less recovery time.
- How to supplement: For Beta-Alanine, two and eight grams daily (split evenly throughout the day) depending on the person. For sodium bicarbonate, 200 – 300mg per pound of bodyweight.
- When to supplement: Both should be taken 30 – 60 minutes pre-workout
Fish oil is a popular supplement used to obtain omega-3 fatty acids, with the goal of preventing the process of inflammation. Inflammation refers to a spectrum of processes that can affect healthy people (such as athletes), as well as those who are less healthy (such as heart disease patients or people with joint pain).
The two main fatty acids in omega-3 fish oils are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are broken down into signaling molecules called eicosanoids that can block inflammation pathways in the cell.
For athletes, acute, low-level inflammation can actually be beneficial for performance because it encourages healthy adaption. However, chronic, high levels of inflammation can be detrimental–so taking a sensible approach in deciding when to use anti-inflammatory supplements can be beneficial in the long run of an athlete’s career.
There are other body systems in which it can be helpful for athletes to reduce inflammation. For example, research suggested that fish oil supplementation helped decrease airway inflammation, and improve post-exercise lung function by 64%. This is important because during exercise, airways can narrow, restricting airflow–which can be detrimental, because oxygen is necessary for muscle function.
- How to supplement: 250mg – 500mg daily
- When to supplement: Best taken daily, with many incorporating the supplement into daily nutrition routines
The legalization of marijuana has made the use of cannabis plan constitutes slightly less taboo. Though many people are only beginning to understand its benefits, cannabis has quite a rich history of human use. As it’s become more widely available, research on it’s use as a supplement for recovery has increased.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the 104 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found in cannabis. CBD is extracted from the cannabis plant and then diluted with a carrier oil. Its use for athletes is slowly becoming more widespread.
CBD isn’t psychoactive–that’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is also found in cannabis and causes the psychoactive feelings often associated with marijuana. The absence of psychoactivity may be part of the reason for CBD’s increasing adoption as a natural pain relief alternative to pharmaceuticals.
For recovery, it has been used as a pain treatment for thousands of years.
Interestingly, the body has a system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which helps regulate several bodily functions from appetite to sleep to pain. The body produces these endocannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the nervous system. Essentially, our bodies have a special way to process and use cannabinoids.
Studies on both rats and humans illustrate the benefits of CBD. Two studies (in rats) showed reduced pain response to surgical incision, and reduced sciatic nerve pain and inflammation. In humans (using a product called Sativex), studies in subjects with rheumatoid arthritis have shown CBD improved pain during movement and at rest, and improved sleep quality.
For delivery methods, the most popular is orally, through a dropper–but other methods include topical creams and through foods mixed with CBD oil.
- How to supplement: 1mg is a standard serving size (about one dropper full), but depending on experience with CBD and size / weight, that dose can be increased or decreased
- When to supplement: As needed
In our next Blog @ www.fitnesspropelled.com we will discuss Building a Recovery Schedule