What do you drink after you exercise?
Of course, you should have water. If you work out at one of the local fitness centers that have a juice bar, you may get something there after exercise. You may even have seen signs around the gym reminding you to get a specialized recovery drink in order to meet your exercise goals. But will recovery drinks really help you meet your goals?
Recovery drinks generally contain some combination of carbohydrates (sugar) and protein and come in liquid, shake or smoothie form. There are also energy bars specifically formulated for use after exercise. Research shows that these carbohydrate-protein recovery drinks enhance muscle recovery and adaptations to training in some athletes. The key words here are “some athletes.”
Let’s look at when and for whom these drinks might be useful.
Intense endurance training – think of a distance runner training for the Olympic marathon – relies on muscle glycogen as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged training sessions that last at least 60 to 90 minutes, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted. It turns out that the best time to consume carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen levels is immediately following exercise. It has also been shown that combining the carbohydrates with some protein results in more rapid muscle glycogen synthesis. A recovery drink following an intense training session makes good sense for competitive athletes.
Athletes who are engaging in intense resistance training to build muscle mass and strength may also benefit from a recovery drink. Weight training stimulates protein synthesis in the muscle. As new muscle protein is formed, both strength and muscle size are increased. It makes sense that consuming additional protein would be beneficial. Research shows that combining the protein with carbohydrates increases muscle protein synthesis. Just as with endurance training, the muscle is most responsive to the extra protein immediately following exercise. Again, for athletes who are actively training to gain muscle mass and strength, a recovery beverage may be helpful.
But what about people who engage in regular exercise to improve fitness or to lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense endurance or strength training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink.
These recovery drinks, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible for people to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than they burned during exercise. Consuming that many or more calories immediately after exercise could easily reduce the amount of weight you lose and may lead to weight gain.
Even if you do exercise at an intensity that is high enough to warrant post-exercise nutrition, you don’t need a specialized recovery drink. Research shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis! A peanut butter sandwich is also a good way to get additional carbohydrate and protein.
There is nothing wrong with treating yourself to something from the juice bar at the gym from time to time. But keep in mind that these supplements are not always necessary, and you can get the same benefits from regular food.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet. Parr lives in Aiken with his wife, Laura, and sons Noah, Owen and Simon.