Recovery is arguably one of the most important aspects of endurance exercise. A huge component of recovery is nutrition; most impactful, nutrition during the first 1-4 hours after training. Carbohydrates and protein are both important during the post-exercise window. Is one more important than the other? If so, which? Why? Like with most sports nutrition topics, IT DEPENDS!
Carbs are nothing new to endurance fueling strategies. Strictly speaking, carbohydrates provide energy to fuel movements and cellular processes during exercise. The reason they’re so important is because they can be burned up so fast, athletes end up with no fuel left to run, cycle, swim, or anything else!
The body of an average endurance athlete can store about 400 grams of carbohydrate, or 1600 calories worth of energy. To put that in context, about 14 miles of running fuel if using carbohydrates exclusively. Thus, to run any longer than that, or to keep up a quick pace after ~7 miles, carbohydrates need to be replaced. How? By eating! Ok, so, that’s during… what about after?
For endurance athletes that follow even a semi-serious training program, it’s common to exercise on back-to-back days with the same mode of exercise (e.g., cycling each day). This burns out carbohydrate stores in the legs pretty quick, so if you train moderately hard on the first of two days, the second day will be much more difficult to complete. However, it is still possible to replenish muscle glycogen before that point, so what is so special about post-workout carbs?
During the first ~2 hours after training, the muscles are hyper-sensitive to nutrients – they want to suck up all that they can. This increases the proportion of carbohydrates that can be used to restock carb stores as muscle glycogen. Therefore, ingesting carbohydrates shortly after finishing training is an optimal period to ensure great performance day after day.
Also unique to the post-workout period, sugars are actually a good thing. Like with many aspects of life, speed is the name of the game when it comes to refueling, and sugars are best for quickly increasing blood glucose, which is then rapidly absorbed into the hyper-sensitive muscle. A combination of glucose and fructose take advantage of their unique cellular transporters to maximize absorption and glycogen resynthesis.
How much you say? 1.0 – 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (0.45 – 0.55 grams per pound) is optimal. This is the greatest quantity that can be efficaciously absorbed without going over the top.
As a fuel, protein does very little. Some protein can be used to fuel exercise, but this is very unlikely to occur under normal circumstances. Kind of how carbohydrates job is to restore muscle carbohydrate stores, proteins job is to restore muscle proteins.
You see, muscles are made from proteins (mostly myosin and actin, to be specific). Exercise causes muscle damage, yes even endurance exercise. This exercise-induced muscle damage is often not so bad that an athlete is debilitated from pain, unless it was a very long session or some downhill running etc., but enough to disrupt muscle function and be noticeable enough to distract from subsequent training sessions.
Exercise-induced muscle damage is quite literally small “tears” in the muscle fibers, called microtrauma. The body will naturally heal the microtrauma over time whether or not protein is consumed post-training, but remember, the muscle is hyper-sensitive for a short time after exercise, and it will require protein to repair the damage irrespective of when protein comes along.
Therefore, the most efficacious and logical time for protein consumption is during the post-workout “window.” In addition, consuming protein with carbohydrate increases the total amount of glycogen that is resynthesized. How much and what kinds of proteins should be consumed?
The best protein for muscle repair is whey protein. Whey has a very high proportion of amino acids that are considered essential. This means the body must acquire them in the diet. They serve many roles, and a primary role is healing damaged muscle tissue. Are other proteins just as good? They may be, but in general, a greater quantity of a different protein is required to get the same effects as any given amount of whey protein.
Similar to carbohydrates yet again, protein is best dosed according to body size. In this case, 0.25 – 0.30 grams of protein per kg body weight (0.11 – 0.14 grams per pound) will maximize rates of muscle recovery processes. If you’re math-savvy, you’ll notice that this is a convenient 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein – that’s where it comes from!
It’s really impossible to say. Depending on the circumstances, either could be most important. If you’re competing in a tournament, for example, and you race two days in a row, carbs will be most important because your performance will be in the toilet on the second day without question, but you could probably push through a little soreness.
Conversely, training with moderate to high intensities and great enough frequency, an athlete will eventually run themselves into the ground without protein even if supplying all of the carbs they need. A keto athlete may not need carbs at all (or at least they don’t know it).
Under normal training circumstances, a lack of carbohydrate or glycogen will have a more immediate negative effect on performance. However over time, a lack of protein and recovery of muscle integrity and function will limit performance. Any way you slice it, compromised training performance will compromise race performance, so it’s apparent that both are necessary!
This is one of the many reasons we’ve made RecoverElite. If you’re not someone who’s able to get the necessary nutrients in shortly after training or looking for optimal quantities, ratios, and sources of carbs and protein, this is for you! RecoverElite is the best for supplying both essential carbohydrates and protein!
What do you think? Which is more important – protein or carbs? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page!
To receive exclusive promotions & content to help you become a better athlete.