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Why Protein Shakes aren’t just for “Muscleheads”


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What to eat before, during, and after a workout is one of the most common questions among exercisers. Fortunately, this also happens to be the most widely researched topic in sport and exercise nutrition today.

The progression of sports beverages has been quite dramatic over the past 50 years. Once, drinking water during exercise was thought to be a sign of weakness, as well as something that could actually REDUCE the benefits seen from exercise. Now water is only one of many nutrients contained in sports beverages

The progression started with water, and then pickle juice (seriously…it was used for its sodium content), to Gatorade, and now to sports beverages that contain protein and carbohydrate. For the purposes of this article will refer to these protein-carbohydrate beverages as Nutrient Timing Drinks (NTD).

The research and practical implications of NTD are relevant to all who are exercising, regardless of training status (beginner to advanced), goals (weight loss to marathoner), or dietary habits (poor to perfect, in fact NTD are probably more important for people with poor diets). This article will highlight the purpose of nutrient timing, how it works, the latest research, and practical recommendations for use.

Purpose of Nutrient Timing
The purpose of nutrition during and around exercise (of any type or intensity) are threefold:
1. To provide energy
2. To prevent breakdown of muscle
3. To allow for the rebuilding of muscle following exercise

In order to accomplish this purpose, nutrients have to be in the correct form (liquid), of the correct composition (whey protein and simple sugars), and dosed at the correct intervals (immediately before, throughout, and immediately after a workout).

How it Works
Since the vast majority of blood is re-routed to active muscles during (and shortly after) exercise, nearly all of the nutrients consumed will go directly to the muscles that desperately need them. This means greater energy in those muscles for performance during the workout. This also means faster recovery after a workout. The net effect of improved performance and faster recovery is better results from your workout.

Now, above you notice I was very specific about the make-up of a NTD. This formula of simple proteins and sugars is critical around exercise due to the changes that occur to the body during exercise. When the body shifts into an exercising state, blood is diverted away from the digestive organs to muscles. This change in blood distribution, coupled with hormonal changes, greatly impairs digestion nutrients. Because of this, the nutrients that are ingested have to be in the simplest, most digestible form possible. Hence, the above recommendation of a liquid supplement containing only whey protein (a fast-digesting milk-based protein ) and simple sugars (like sucrose or table sugar). Nutrients in any other form (solid foods, protein bars, etc), simply won’t digest during exercise; therefore, they’ll sit in the stomach and wait until long after exercise is completed to be digested and used by the body.

The Research
We can relate the research findings to the three-fold purpose listed above:

  1. When researchers look at the energetic effect of these drinks, they measure something called “time to fatigue.” The longer the time to fatigue, the greater the energetic effect of the drink. Researchers found protein-carbohydrate beverages outperform carbohydrate beverages by 125%, and water alone by 200%, in time to fatigue testing.
  2. When markers of muscle damage are examined, the effect observed is even more dramatic. Research indicates that by adding protein to a carbohydrate-based sports beverage (like putting a scoop of protein into your gatorade), muscle damage can be reduced by 650%. Less protein breakdown during exercise means easier protein buildup and adaptation post-exercise.
  3. Further research indicates significant reductions in Cortisol release following consumption of a protein-carbohydrate based beverage compared to a carbohydrate-based beverage. Cortisol is a stress hormone responsible for muscle breakdown and fat preservation; as such, researchers believe that decreasing its production can help to facilitate improvements in body composition.

Practical Implications and Recommendations
The research is clear and definitive. The use of NTD containing small amounts of high quality whey protein and fast acting sugars is critical to all training adaptations. The research demonstrates that it is not so much the volume of nutrients that matters, but their quality and timing.

With respect to quality, high-grade whey protein isolates are best, as this type of protein has better amino acids content (amino acids are the important building blocks of protein). Sugar quality doesn’t vary so much as it comes in different forms. Research seems to suggest the simpler the sugar, the better, hence, sucrose or dextrose is the preferable form of sugar.

More important than even the quality of the nutrients is the timing of their ingestion. Consume the nutrients at the right time, and you can see significant adaptation. Do so at the wrong time, and you won’t notice any difference. The research seems to suggest three critical periods:

  1. During exercise.
  2. Post-exercise (within 20 minutes of stopping).
  3. Pre-exercise (20-30 minutes before).

Ideally, you would consume a NTD at all three intervals (spreading out the during-workout dose for the duration of the workout). However, if you couldn’t spare the calories, you would want to consume the during-workout dose partially during and partially after exercise.

As for purchasing a NTD, there are several options from which to choose. Applied Fitness Solutions has private-labeled its own nutrient timing supplement (the Nutrient Solution), formulated from the research referenced above. Accelerade, Endurox, and Gatorade G Series Recovery also are products formulated from similar research.

Wrap-Up: NTD & Your Training Goals
At this point you’re probably asking yourself, “sounds great, but how does this relate to me and my goals? To simplify things I can break my recommendations into the following two categories:

  1. Performance or muscle building: have one serving of a NTD before, during, and after exercise.  You need the extra nutrition to perform well and/or build muscle
  2. Weight loss: have one serving of a NTD immediately before exercise. You need the sugar for energy and the protein to ensure you don’t lose any muscle while exercising.

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