About a year or so ago I met one of my clients for the first time (let’s call her as Amethyst). During our initial consultation, like many others before her, she confessed that she was terrified at the prospect of experiencing any kind of pain during or after exercise. I explained to her that there are different types of pain that mustn’t be confused with each other: there is the “burn” that we experience when we work a specific muscle group over and over again and that’s a good sign that we are creating the right stimulus to instigate changes. But we must beware of the “injury about to happen” type of pain when we are exerting ourselves past the point of safety or not exercising with correct form.
There is also the pain and stiffness that we might feel between 24 and 48 hours after exercising: the much dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). The latter was the pain that Amethyst was referring to and was afraid of.
I could have lied to her or try to soften the blow, instead I decided to be honest and told her that both the “burn” and DOMS were inevitable if she decided to take up regular exercise but that both are manageable and with a bit of strategy DOMS can be made to become milder and can be overcome fairly quickly.
Admittedly in many years of working as a Fitness Coach (as well as being an athlete all my life) I have yet to experience a DOMS-free first workout of any kind, with the exception of totally pointless workouts executed less than halfheartedly. If I work out a different muscle group for the first time in a while I will feel it the next day, if I take up a new sport or activity I will definitely feel it the next day because I will have used my muscles differently from my normal patterns of movement.
The reasons for DOMS are not fully understood yet. The mainstream theory seems to be that it’s mostly due to micro-tears in the muscle fibres being caused by the lowering phase of an exercise (for example, returning the forearms to the start position after doing a biceps curl), this is also known as “negative”. There is also a theory that says the pain and stiffness stem from the inflammation following the muscle damage and another theory that states DOMS could be due to Nerve Growth Factor. Regardless of the probable cause there seems to be a strong interest among researchers in finding a way to get around this issue as it affects equally athletes and non-athletes.
When we exercise our body uses different sources of fuel: glycogen and fat. Glycogen is stored in the muscle fibres, reserves are low and are typically all used up in a very short time after which fat becomes the main source of energy. However, what also happens during exercise is that some of the protein making up our muscles is converted into glucose to be then used as fuel. This, effectively, causes us to lose some muscle as we workout. Although the metabolic mechanisms governing this process are still not totally clear we do know that protein plays a major role in the building and repairing of muscles after exercise. The breakdown and repair processes carry on for up to 48 hrs after exercising with an emphasis on eccentric (lowering) movements.
What does this mean for my client?
Firstly it means that if she wants to look buff and trim she needs to take her resistance training seriously and not be afraid to go at it wholeheartedly. The thing is “wholeheartedly and seriously” refer entirely to whatever she is capable of doing when she starts, they are not absolute measures. In order to achieve the much coveted “toned body” look she will need to stimulate the breakdown-repair process big time over and over again and in order to ensure that she keeps on building lean body mass and lose fat she needs to be meticulous with her nutrition.
The effect of different types of sports recovery supplements on muscle damage have been tested in a variety of ways in many different experiments.
Protein shake supplements, whey in particular (not the isolate form), have come up trumps together with BCAAs (Branch Chained Amino Acids). Carbohydrates taken in isolation haven’t been found to be beneficial in the slightest, however the winning combination seems to be Protein + Carbohydrates taken together.
In addition to these both caffeine and Omega-3 Fatty acids have been found to be useful in containing the inflammation resulting from the muscle repair process (read the studies here, here, here and here).
It’s important to note that a good quality pure whey protein supplement will have abundant quantities of BCAAs in it and in most cases it will suffice. However because amino-acids are recruited in the production of energy if your workouts tend to be intense it makes sense to supplement with them in addition to the whey.
When does she need to take the supplements?
Again, different studies were carried out on this aspect of supplementation and the findings were all over the place (read the reviews here and here). Some studies showed a benefit in taking the protein+carbs supplement BEFORE exercise while others supported the hypothesis that there is a “window of opportunity” of 1 hr immediately AFTER a workout when supplementation would be most beneficial whereas other studies showed no benefit at all from following either protocol. Or both. The problem with drawing accurate conclusions from the research available is mostly due to the fact that none of the studies followed the exact same exercise protocol nor used the exact same supplements. Some participants were untrained, whereas others were fit bodybuilders who exhibited a slightly different response to protein uptake.
Having said all this, and after practically comparing apples with plums and pears, it appears that the winning solution for Amethyst might be to take some BCAAs immediately before her workouts to slow down the natural breakdown of amino acids for energy production during exercise AND then take a combination of proteins+carbs within 1hr of finishing her workout. This should ensure that her lean body mass increases and that the effects of her DOMS will be minimized.
How does this translate into practical, everyday terms?
Well, my client works from home. She prefers to exercise in the middle of the day and is able to schedule her meals around her commitments. She is not keen on using “products for body builders” and so for her the best strategy would be to use foods for muscle recovery after workout that she can find at the grocery store. She could have a glass of low fat milk before the start of her workout and then either have a full balanced meal afterwards to include a source of protein, vegetables, healthy fats and perhaps a slice of bread OR she could make herself a milkshake with low fat milk, cacao, nuts and fruit (berries are perfect for this). Ideally I would like her to add some protein powder to this but as she doesn’t want to go through a radical transformation the milkshake is perfectly fine.
The “more accurate” way of doing this involves purchasing the various nutrients from specialized suppliers and get a little bit more scientific. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve: if you are happy to shrink a couple of dress sizes and look a little bit toned the first example is more than valid and will give you results. If you want to see radical changes and completely transform your body composition to lean and trim then you will be better off jumping into the supplements world with both feet.
The reasons are multiple: you know exactly how much of each nutrient you are taking, they are standardized (quality is consistent), they are practical and will save you from eating a whole chicken every day just to get enough proteins. Thus they are also cost effective. Unless you start buying one of everything.
Regardless of what the research suggests I find the use of post workout supplements highly beneficial both physically (my training sessions are usually intense because I like it that way) but also psychologically as the stress of a jolly good workout, the type that every fibre in my body is aware of, typically brings on the cravings for all manner of starchy things. If I can access a proper post workout meal everything calms down very quickly and I barely feel the DOMS the next day or so.
I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I did my first “proper” figure building training session for a competition that never happened. I didn’t take adequate supplements immediately after the workout and although I was fine the next day, 48 hours later I was more or less paralyzed and had to spend the next day or so sliding down the stairs on a bin liner. I had to avoid drinking water so that my laying down on the sofa wouldn’t get interrupted by the need to use the bathroom. It was funny even at the time but very painful.
Where do you find good post workout protein food?
There are many recipes for recovery shakes and protein bars on the internet. I experimented a bit with various combinations of ingredients and have now settled on a couple of things that seem to work consistently. During the winter months, when I tended to train during the day, my post workout protein shake consists of whey protein mixed with cacao powder, cinnamon extract, konjac, berries and mineral water.
However, during the time of the year when there is more daylight I tend to exercise later in the day and no longer have the time to prepare and drink the milkshake. So I turned my post workout recovery shake into protein bars that I can take with me and consume on the go. I adapted a recipe that I found on another website to suit my specific needs and taste and so far the results have been encouraging. As well as experiencing minor DOMS after my workout I didn’t get crazy hungry and in fact felt full for a number of hours after eating them.
The process of making these is fairly simple and I much prefer the slightly bitter taste of my protein bars compared to those available commercially that taste like a sugar bomb to me. There is no baking involved and the ingredients are easily available from the grocery store. All you need is a food blender and some elbow grease.
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