Muscle Recovery

My elite athletes have branded me “the recovery specialist” since my main focus lies in helping athletes perform the maximum amount of training with the minimum amount of rest while avoiding or minimizing over training.I’ve been fascinated with recovery for the last few years. However, recently I have spent considerable time designing detailed research protocols to answer some relevant questions dealing with CNS recovery, recovery of protein balance, recovery of muscle glycogen and recovery of the ATP-PC system. My focus in these areas has been the interaction between the exercise and nutrition/supplementation. In fact the dissertation project that is going to earn me a PhD has been designed toexamine the recovery of skeletal muscle biochemical parameters (ATP, Creatine Phosphate, Free Creatine, Fiber Type, PH, etc.) after very intense weight lifting. And as a follow-up I will be testing several old and several new supplements for their impact on recovery of the ATP-PC system after a single exercise bout and after chronic exercise training. It’s exciting stuff that can be applied to all sorts of trainees at every level.

Below I will discuss some “secrets” that I use with my athletes. Remember, however, although there are nutritional and supplemental strategies listed here, there is no substitute for a comprehensive nutritional program in terms of promoting progress and recovery.

When talking about recovery from training and competition, there are basically 5 areas to focus on.

1.) Replenishment of muscle glycogen stores

After many types of training, muscle glycogen levels are depleted. Rapid replenishement of muscle glycogen stores has a favorable impact on the prevention of muscle protein catabolism, on cellular rehydration, and on subsequent exercise performances within the same day or on subsequent days. Basically, if you don’t replenish glycogen rapidly, your performance will suffer next time you train and you may even lose some muscle along the way. Achieving the most rapid replenishment of muscle glycogen stores is especially important to my endurance athletes because they often train several times per day. However this can also help those training for bodybuilding as bodybuilding training (9-12 reps) often can deplete muscle glycogen.

In terms of glycogen replacement, the main difference between the two types of athletes is that endurance athletes usually need more glycogen replacement than do weight trainees. With endurance exercise the athlete should consume more carbs over the 4-6 hour period after the workout than the weight lifter. In endurance athletes, I usually recommend consuming a liquid meal immediately after training that contains 0.4g protein and 0.8g of carbs per kg of body mass. Then I instruct them to consume food meals in similar proportions every 2 hours for 3 subsequent meals. This means that there will be 4 total meals in the 6 hours following training that conform to the 0.4g protein and 0.8g fat recommendations. Some fat may be included in these latter meals but since carb intake will be high, fat intake should be modest. In weight lifters, I recommend the consumption of an identical meal after training however there should only be 1 follow up meal (about 60-90 minutes later) that consists of the same macronutrient profile. Then the next meal beyond that should conform to the lifter’s particular meal plan and should be eaten somewhere around 3 hours later.

So why protein and carbs in these meals to promote glycogen storage? Well there is some literature to suggest that the synergistic insulin response promoted by carbs and protein will enhance muscle glycogen storage. While some studies have disputed these findings, I continue to recommend the inclusion of protein in these meals due to the second area of recovery…protein balance

2.) Recovery of protein balance

Protein balance is calculated as the difference between protein synthesis (protein anabolism) and protein breakdown (protein catabolism). As I’ve written before in my Solving the Post-Workout Puzzle articles (which can be found at, after training, protein synthesis tends to go down in endurance trainees while it may stay the same or minimially increase in weight trainees. However in both types of athletes, protein breakdown goes way up, thus creating a negative protein balance and a good potential for muscle loss. Although this eventually rebounds and the body goes into an anabolic state, in the time immediately following training, muscle can be lost. Since no athlete can afford muscle loss, this is an important focus for recovery and subsequent muscle gain. While weight trainers jump for joy at even the slightest prospect of a weight gain, endurance athletes aren’t so excited about the possibility of any weight gain. However, the endurance athletes have nothing to fear. Since endurance athletes have a predomination of slow twitch fibers, the recovery of protein balance in these athletes is designed to prevent muscle loss as a result of intense training. These types of fibers just don’t grow very well so there is no big danger of packing on the pounds. But in bodybuilders, the fast twitch fibers respond quite differently than the slow twitch fibers. You will grow when a positive protein balance is initiated with nutrition and supplementation. And this means you get big.

So how does one initiate the recovery of protein balance after training?Conveniently, the best way to do so is to consume the nutrient recommendations from the last section (glycogen replenishment). By consuming the mentioned ratios (with the addition of some individual amino acids like glutamine, bcaas, and phenylalanine in the first post-workout drink) you will quickly create the optimal anabolic environment by minimizing protein breakdown and increasing protein synthesis.

3.) Recovery of the CNS (neurotransmitter balance)

Neurotransmitters are responsible for many functions in cell signaling and play a big role in the communication between different brain areas and between the brain and the rest of the body. Research on these regulatory chemicals and their effects in exercise training has just recently begun to get the attention it deserves. But this field is still in its infancy due to the fact that it’s difficult to study the brain and central nervous system.

Some evidence exists showing that when neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine get depleted, physical and cognitive performance suffers. Since these neurotransmitters can be depleted from intense repeated bouts of strenuous exercise, this is bad news. I believe that certain types of fatigue with endurance training as well as many of the symptoms of over training (altered appetite, inability to sleep, etc.) are a result of this type of depletion of neurotransmitters. In addition to this evidence, there is research showing that even the ratio of tryptophan to BCAA in the blood can increase 5-HT (serotonin) levels in the brain. This is due to increased tryptophan uptake in the brain. Tryptophan is a precursor for the fatigue promoting neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Since neurotransmitters can be depleted during exercise and this depletion can cause fatigue and over training, nutritional strategies may offer some support. Supplementation with 1-2 g of phosphatidylcholine (lecithin) per day may prevent the depletion of acetylcholine seen with training. Since acetylcholine is active in promoting muscular force, memory, and awareness, this would offer both cognitive and performance benefits. In addition, 6-8 g of tyrosine supplementation per day may help with dopamine and noradrenaline depletion. Depletion of these neurotransmitters may lead to CNS fatigue, reduced motivation, poor memory, loss of motor control, and poor mood. Finally, supplementation with 5g of BCAA during training may prevent serotonin increases during and after training due to the fact that BCAA compete with tryptophan for uptake into the brain, thus reducing the precursors for serotonin production.

Since the research in this area is so new, I recommend that most endurance athletes try the supplements I mentioned to see if they impacts performance. If not, we simply eliminate them from the program. There is simply not enough evidence to know if the neurotransmitter alterations seen in training have that much of an impact on performance and whether or not supplements can help in this regard.

4.) Maximizing the anabolic to catabolic hormone ratio

In very intensely trained athletes, the anabolic hormones (testosterone) tend to decrease while the catabolic hormones (cortisol) tend to increase. This phenomenon is present in most endurance athletes and can manifest in weight trainers who do a high volume of exercise. This imbalance can lead to muscle loss, performance decrements, depression, and fat gain.

Several supplement strategies can be employed in an attempt to correct this. In a study done by Steve McGregor, Tribex supplementation increased the free testosterone to cortisol ratio in elite cyclists. This indicates it may be useful in balancing the anabolic and catabolic hormones. In addition, supplements like vitamin C, phosphatidylserine, and plant sterols may help prevent exercise induced increases in cortisol levels.

5.) Recovery of the ATP-PC system

The ATP-PC system is responsible for repeated muscular contractions at the start of all exercise. It is also extremely important for brief, all-out bursts of maximal effort. ATP (the best energy source for muscular contraction) is broken down during such efforts and PC comes to the rescue to resynthesize the ATP that was broken down. This system is usually very efficient. However when you really challenge the system with high intensity muscle-damaging contractions, the ATP is broken down faster than it can be resynthesized and some of its degradation products are lost from the muscle. This means that for each ATP that is lost, that’s one less ATP to be resynthesized for further work. Over the next few days following an exercise bout, ATP levels can be lowered by about 20% due to this. Sure, a few days later it will be back to normal. But most athletes don’t train once every 3 days or so but every day. So they need more rapid recovery of ATP.

Creatine supplementation and ribose supplementation may come in handy here. High starting levels of muscle creatine before the exercise bout may be beneficial in preventing the overwhelming of the system and therefore the ATP loss. In addition, ribose supplementation has been shown (in vitro) to increase the rate of ATP resynthesis after exercise-induced depletion. So the creatine-ribose combination may be beneficial in partially preventing ATP depletion with exercise and may help lead to more rapid recovery of ATP to previous levels.

With the knowledge of these 5 areas essential to recovery after training, athletes can target their weakest areas. Proper identification of what system may not be recovering will help to target nutritional strategies for maximizing performance and minimizing symptoms of over training.

Of course, if you want a complete guide to doing this yourself, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Precision Nutrition, where I’ll show you in great detail exactly what to do.

About the Author Dr. John M. Berardi PhD, CSCS

Dr. Berardi’s philosophy is simple: people from all walks of life, from soccerstars to soccer coaches to soccer moms, should have access to the most recentdevelopments in health, exercise, and nutrient science. Dr. Berardi and his company,Precision Nutrition, Inc. have one purpose: to take the latest in advanced nutritionresearch and teach it to others in a way that doesn’t take an advanced degree tofigure out. Dr. Berardi has earned a doctoral degree from the University of WesternOntario (2005) with a specialization in the area of exercise biology and nutrientbiochemistry. Prior to his doctoral studies, Dr. Berardi studied Exercise Scienceat Eastern Michigan University (Masters program; 1999) as well as Health Science,Psychology, and Philosophy at Lock Haven University (Undergraduate program; 1997).Currently, Dr. Berardi is an adjunct professor of Exercise Science at the Universityof Texas at Austin. Through his company, Precision Nutrition, Inc., Dr. Berardi hasworked in the exercise and nutrition arena for over a decade, working with individualsfrom all walks of life, from the sedentary to athletes at the highest level of