Saturday, July 16, 2011

Recovery Pt. I: Protein

I'll make this the first of several posts that deal with recovery.  A common thread throughout my eight months of Crossfit is pain.  At first, the muscle soreness in the days after workouts was downright debilitating.  Now it's something I pretty much depend on, to indicate that yesterday's work is yielding progress, and today's work will adjust according to how heavily I'm in recovery.  What I rarely do is skip a WOD day simply because of soreness.  There are many things that help with recovery, and a very major one of them is protein.

This started as an email to Wayne, one of my Crossfit NYC buddies.  He asked me about my experience with protein and my response morphed into a decent enough passage to share with everyone here...

You can Google all variations imaginable on post-workout nutrition and read for days.  After I did that, I came to the collective conclusion that:

1> Protein ingestion within 15-30 minutes post-WOD is a net positive for muscle growth and accelerating recovery.

2> Combining proteins will enhance the effectiveness of post-WOD nutrition, so it's best to find a product that combines whey with egg and/or casein proteins.  The whey gives you immediate benefit, the egg is nutrient-rich, and the casein is slow-digesting to allow for a steady stream of muscular protein ingestion for several hours (though not as effective as the post-WOD time window).  I happen to use Nitrean, which is made by Chris Mason of At Large Nutrition.  He has written several articles for the Crossfit Journal and I've found him to be a stand up businessman with excellent products.  Nitrean is a powdered shake that comes in several tasty flavors, with minimal sugar content and very low carbs.  Each scoop provides 23-24 grams of protein (a mixture of the ones I mention above).

What is whey protein you ask? Whey is a dairy product (don't tell the Paleo police) that is separated from milk during the process of making cheese.  The whey is dehydrated, or often "hydrolized" to preserve its nutritional benefits and shelflife.  Whey contains amino acids that are hugely valuable to muscle recovery.  Most of the time whey comes in powder form.

The importance of timing your protein ingestion post-WOD deals with the torn-down state of your muscle tissue.  Picture your muscles like a sponge...after a workout they are highly absorbent for the first 30 minutes, and the amino acids in whey protein are absorbed most efficiently during this time. 

3> People who are looking to gain mass (or are at least not focused on weight loss) have an ideal opportunity to maximize their recovery by adding a significant amount of carbohydrate to their post-WOD meal/shake.  The general thought on carbs is that a ratio of 3:1 (carbs to protein) results in optimal protein/amino acid synthesis.  The carbs cause an insulin spike (as carbs convert to glycogen, or blood glucose [sugar]), which serves as a vehicle for the protein to absorb optimally into the muscle tissue within the 30-minute window.  Apparently the absorption level drops off significantly after the first 30 minutes.  The above 3:1 theory is the basis for chocolate milk being the post-workout meal of choice for so many athletes (both in and out of Crossfit).  I have found that a 16-oz Nesquick has 8g of protein, and that's only 33% of the protein content in a scoop of  Nitrean.  But with 24 grams of carbs it nails the 3:1 ratio on the head.  Milk protein, however, differs from whey in its ability to be absorbed as efficiently.  Also, since I am looking to lean out, I can't see ingesting 75g of carbs to balance out my standard 24g of protein, so I ingest the protein with little to no carbs, and feel that I still get benefits, even if they are sub-optimal.  There is a significant amount of discussion about the benefits of ingesting low-glycemic carbs (like sweet potatoes) post-WOD.  I could see eventually adding this once my weight comes down.

4> Casein before bed - For those looking to continue the protein intake beyond post-WOD for muscle recovery, it's recommended to consume casein protein before bedtime (or at least have it be the last thing you eat).  Casein is the protein found in the chunks in cottage cheese.  It is also known as "curds" (remember Little Miss Muffett eating her curds & whey?) This slow-digesting protein activates your metabolism as you sleep, while giving your muscles a steady stream of protein for recovery.  I've had great success with this.  I use Optimum Nutrition's casein protein (low sugar, no carbs), which is typically best priced online through either Vitamin Shoppe or Amazon.

5>  How much protein is enough? Well it seems the mean theory suggests one gram of protein daily for every pound of lean body mass.  So for instance I'm now around 280 lbs, and while I haven't measured body fat I'm guessing I'm still in the range of 30% body fat despite my sizable weight loss.  Based on this I estimate that I have a lean body mass of around 185 lbs.  Now I'm not at all suggesting that I consume 185 grams of protein daily, but I make sure that I get into the triple digits if i can help it.  Just with shakes post-WOD and at bedtime I cover 50 grams, so that leaves 135 more throughout the day and night...I usually get somewhere around half that, and I've had excellent results.  Some doctors have expressed concern with overdoing it on daily protein intake volume.  Some mentioned potential kidney issues, and a common thread was to space the intake out throughout the day.

In the coming weeks I will also feature non-protein supplements and foods I've added to the recovery menu.  By no means am I saying that the above info will work for everyone, but having made so much progress in such a short time I figured it would benefit at least some of you.  I hope so anyway...drop me a line in the comments and let me know your thoughts.

Here are some interesting articles/discussions on workout recovery:

Journal of Applied Physiology 

Health & Fitness

Running Times 2009

Crossfit Board

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