So grinding an athlete into the ground is the easiest thing a coach can do, and something athletes are great at doing to themselves. In the entire scope of the training process, piling on workload is the easy part. The trickier parts are knowing how much workload to apply, at what time, addressing what system, and followed by how much recovery.
Myths are abound in all areas of training and nutrition, and there are a lot of misconceptions about the role of protein and the amount of protein endurance athletes need for recovery. Here are a few of the myths we need to dispel:
Myth: Large amounts of protein are necessary for recovery
No. Some protein is helpful for recovery, but it is unlikely that you need protein supplementation. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams/kilogram of protein per day. This increases to about 1.2-1.7 g/kg for athletes in a medium- to high-workload training plan (in terms of volume and/or intensity). But consuming more than 2 g/kg of protein doesn’t do you any more good in terms of recovery, muscle synthesis, immune function, or energy metabolism. Whether you are a carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan, you should be able to consume 1.2-1.7 g/kg of protein daily through your normal meals and snacks.
Myth: The best time to consume protein is immediately after exercise
In terms of timing, you should be careful not to focus too many of your post-workout nutrition choices on protein. Immediately post-workout you want to focus on replenishing carbohydrate and adding some protein to your food/drink choices may help accelerate the uptake of carbohydrate. So, when should you consume the most protein?
Actually, never. It’s better to spread your intake throughout the day. You need fuel for building and maintaining muscle tissue, your immune system, and all the other functions of protein throughout the day. And you don’t store protein, so unlike fat or carbohydrate you can only use protein from food when you have it on board. In addition, protein is satiating and slows digestion, which helps keep energy levels from spiking and crashing and helps keep you from feeling so hungry. That last point can be very important for athletes who are simultaneously trying to gain fitness and lose weight.
Myth: You need a recovery drink after every workout
Recovery drinks are great. They conveniently deliver carbohydrate, electrolytes, fluid, and protein and they are typically consumed immediately after exercise when your body is ready for rapid replenishment. This 60-90 minute post-exercise period is often referred to as the “glycogen window” because it is when your body is able to replenish glycogen stores most rapidly. But that still doesn’t mean you need a recovery drink after every workout.
Replenishment of fluid, electrolytes, carbohydrate, and protein doesn’t cease after the first 60-90 minutes post-exercise. It just gradually slows down. If you only trained for 60-90 minutes, glycogen replenishment shouldn’t be a big challenge because most likely you didn’t empty the tank in the first place. And even if you did, your glycogen stores will be completely replenished in 24 hours just from your normal food intake.
When should you use a recovery drink? If you are training or competing more than once in a single day, a recovery drink after your first session is a good idea. If you are riding back-to-back days of long miles (like during a bike tour, cycling camp, or stage race), then it’s a good idea as well. Following individual bouts of exercise a breakpoint I use with some athletes is that a recovery drink may be warranted following rides that accumulate about or more than 1500-2000 kilojoules of work (this can vary a bit based on the athlete).
This could be very hard 90-minute interval session or a 3-4-hour moderate pace ride, but the rationale is to base the need for a recovery drink on the whether there was sufficient energy expenditure to substantially deplete carbohydrate stores and cause significant training stress.
What should a recovery drink should look like
Even when a recovery drink makes sense, the most important ingredients are fluid and carbohydrates, followed by electrolytes and protein. You want to look for a recovery drink with more carbohydrate than protein, like a 2:1 ratio or greater like Fluid’s Recovery drink mix. In contrast, consuming a high-protein recovery drink that contains little to no carbohydrate is not a good idea for recovery. It may supply a nutrient you need for repair and synthesis, it doesn’t supply the nutrient you need for energy replenishment, the urgency of replenishment is not as big, and you can get the protein you need for repair and synthesis through meals.
Similarly, a drink that contains a lot of protein and a lot of carbohydrate is also not ideal, mostly because it is likely to be very high in calories.
Athletes who consume these high-calories drinks typically overcompensate with total post-workout calories because they follow up the drink with a regular size or over-sized meal.