Recovery is arguably the most overlooked aspect of any training program, and yet it is often the key to building functional strength, preventing injuries and breaking through performance plateaus. The quality of an athlete’s recovery or speed at which muscles recover from intense training can have a direct impact on an athlete’s ability to perform at subsequent efforts. Similarly, inadequate recovery can have long term negative impacts, linked to overtraining, that may result in a decline in performance and potentially injury. So what are the primary factors affecting the quality of recovery? Although a good recovery practice is multi-faceted, nutrition plays a key role and should be a priority for all athletes.
What is meant by recovery? For the purpose of this article we are defining recovery as the period of rest between successive training sessions. For most runners that do one-a-day workouts, this period is 24 hours. During those 24 hours, both the quality and quantity of nutrition can facilitate recovery and adaptation to training. For those training twice a day, this recovery period becomes significantly shorter and the importance of not just nutrition quality, but the timing of nutrition becomes paramount. In the following paragraphs we will talk about how fine tuning your recovery nutrition, through the use of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and increased dietary protein, can help you recover more efficiently and ultimately help you perform better.
Do runners really need to worry about BCAA and protein intake?
Protein and BCAA supplementation often gets associated with strength related sports, but of the macronutrients, protein is unique in the differential role it plays in endurance vs. strength training. While both endurance and strength training increase the need for protein, increased protein in endurance exercise is needed, predominantly, for an increase in mitochondrial density and related proteins, while increased protein for strength athletes is required for the synthesis of new muscle and/or to repair muscle damage (Phillips et al., 2006). Mitochondria
So first, a little bit about amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are essential, meaning they cannot be synthesized (produced or created) by the body and must come from our diet. Of these essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine are known as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) Unlike other essential amino acids, which are broken down in the liver, BCAAs are transported directly to skeletal muscle where they play a critical role in muscle recovery and synthesis. Leucine, isoleucine and valine, the three BCAAs, work together to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and reduce the rate of muscle catabolism, or breakdown – exactly what we’re looking for to maximize recovery. Taking BCAAs before and during exercise decreases delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS which has a direct impact on the ability to perform in subsequent training efforts.
Taking BCAAs seems like a good idea, but is it possible to get a good dose of BCAAs by simply eating a good source of protein?
Yes and no. Although protein contains BCAAs, different sources of protein contain varying amounts and complete proteins have to be fully digested in order to access free form amino acids, and this process takes time and is not efficient. Because free form, or individual, amino acids don’t require digestion and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream, they are a much quicker and more efficient way to increase BCAA concentration in the body directly before and during exercise.
That being said, if you are diligent and consistent with your protein intake than BCAA supplementation may not be necessary. What does diligent and consistent protein intake mean? Research suggests that in a single sitting, 20-30g of protein maximally stimulates muscle protein synthesis and consuming this amount of protein every 3-4 hours will lead to higher levels of total muscle protein synthesis when measured across the course of a day (this is in contrast to skewed protein intake where an individual consumes the majority of their daily protein at one end of the day).
How can you put all of this together to optimize your recovery nutrition plan?
On a daily basis you should aim for getting in 20-30g of high quality protein every 3-4 hours. Look for protein sources that are easily digestible and high in essential amino acids (EAAs), specifically the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine. Great options include meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, legumes and most commercially available protein powders (collagen and beef protein isolate being exceptions). Take BCAAs 15-20 minutes prior to training. Research has shown that BCAA concentration in the blood elevates within 15 minutes and peaks 30 minutes after ingestion, so supplementing with BCAAs starting about 15 minutes before training is ideal. Finally, follow your training session up with a good source of carbohydrates and protein, ideally in ~3:1 ratio (e.g., 60g of carbohydrates and 20g protein) to replenish spent glycogen stores and promote muscle protein synthesis.
Having and executing a recovery nutrition plan will increase your ability to recover and benefit from multiple hard training efforts. Will it negate the tender feeling in your quads after a super hard day hill workout? Not entirely. But what it will do is make a measurable difference in your ability to train hard. Again. Soon. This will lead to both immediate and long term performance gains. So, make recovery nutrition a priority and give it the attention and focus you normally reserve for race day.