According to a review article by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld, you do not need to have your recovery drink within 20 minutes after your workout.
Over the past two decades or so, we have been told repeatedly that we should have our recovery drink within 20 minutes after our workout or race. Taking it two hours or more afterwards was considered much too late, almost useless.
To rehydrate as soon as possible feels indeed right, but to have a lot of carbohydrates and proteins on a still contracted stomach can be a bit over the top.
Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld reviewed all the evidence in the latest issue of Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and concluded that a healthy diet and the usual eating habits are usually enough for a good recovery.
During a hard bout of exercise, you use your glycogen stocks and you disrupt muscle fibres, and as your glycogen stocks are getting empty, you start burning some proteins. During your recovery, you have to rebuild your reserves and repair the damage. Normally your body will “overdo” it, which means that your stocks will become slightly lager and the new muscle fibres stronger. Thanks to a correct balance between exercise and recovery you are becoming a better athlete indeed.
Immediately after a workout that has depleted your glycogen reserves, your muscles are craving for glucose, and they can take up much more than otherwise. During the first hour you are therefore able to rebuild your reserves much quicker than at any time afterwards. If you have your carbohydrates two hours later, the rate of glycogen rebuilding will be 50% slower.
Taking in glucose leads to an increase in blood insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone necessary for the uptake of glucose by cells. It also decreases muscle protein breakdown, and studies have shown that muscle protein breakdown can rapidly increase after exercise. Higher insulin levels are thus beneficial if you want to build up your muscles.
Several studies have shown that adding a small amount of proteins makes the process even faster. It would also give you the opportunity to start rebuilding damaged muscles fibres. Proteins are made of amino acids and one of them, leucine, acts as a signal to start the re-synthesis process.
You will have rebuilt your glycogen stocks within 24 hours, even if you have not been able to have a recovery drink within the first hour. Your new stocks will still be slightly larger than the previous ones; it will only have taken much longer to build them up. The advantages of replenishing them very quickly are not clear. It is certainly important for athletes participating in a multi-day event and for those who want to repeat the same exercise within about 8 hours, but it does not matter if you are taking at least 24 hours rest.
The results of studies about the value of amino acids supplements after exercise are controversial. They are very difficult to interpret properly, because they all use different set-ups and products.
In theory, a recovery drink containing amino acids and carbohydrates (leading to high insulin levels) would promote protein synthesis and decrease its breakdown.
On the other hand, after a normally healthy mixed meal it takes insulin at least 3 to 6 hours to drop back to fasting levels, and the amino acids blood levels remain increased for about three hours. It is therefore likely that after your workout, you will still have everything you need in your blood to start your recovery. Having your next meal one or two hours later will be fine.
However, if you train more than three to six hours after your last meal, you will benefit from a carbohydrate-protein recovery drink.
Further research is necessary to fully understand the interplay of pre- and post exercise meals.
Moreover, most studies have been carried out on untrained volunteers, and the needs of well-trained athletes might be different. Some studies even suggest that age also influences what you need for an optimal recovery.
What is your experience with recovery drinks?