Thursday, February 24, 2011

Recovery drink

The issue of recovery drinks came up again yesterday after someone posted an article and ad from Erdinger Alcoholfrei touting its benefits as a recovery drink. Although Erdinger is a beer and the title of the report read Athletes Replacing Sports Drinks with Beer, I need to point out that Alcoholfrei means free of alcohol, so the beer that is being sold here is not a real beer. Certainly not real in the Belgian sense of beer. It is simply a brewed concoction that had the alcohol removed.

The article was news to cyclists but triathletes have long known about this brand through none other than  Faris al-Sultan, the former ironman world champion.

Erdinger sponsors triathlon events

I am not sure why people are so convinced that they need a recovery drink, but in America at least, the consensus seems to be that one cannot perform well without them. It is like stretching prior to running, or massage after an ironman. People simply assume that one cannot recover well or perform well without those rituals and potions. As I have pointed out many times before I do not lend credence to these beliefs. Furthermore I am living proof that one can improve -and improve quite significantly I might add- without all this stuff.

The issue of recovery drinks got a big boost last year when none other than Fabian Cancellara was seen gulping down a protein shake after winning the Tour of Flanders in a rather decisive way. His action had a profound impact on the normally cynical Europeans, and before anyone thought of the infamous cancellara-motor, the protein shake was widely mentioned and credited with magical powers.

Fabian on the kapelmuur

Years ago when I ran Ironman Switzerland, which was not one of my best performances by the way although I had the shortest T1 there, I was treated to Erdinger after the race. It tasted really good and due to its low (or absent) alcohol content I was able to drink quite a bit of it without getting drunk. I must admit though that as soon as my biggest thirst was over, I did top it off with a good bona fide beer, before jumping into the hot tubs that were provided at the finish line by one of the race sponsors.

Beer is a very popular recovery drink for many master athletes and when it is available it appears most prefer it to sodas or other drinks. Nonetheless, these people would not dare call it a recovery drink (other than jokingly) or even admit that they consumed it after the race or ride.

True recovery drinks are protein drinks or protein shakes. In essence they are usually nothing more than chocolate milk, although some like chocolate milk shakes (i.e. with ice cream). The commercial versions sold by PowerBar and other companies are essentially chocolate milk with some added salts and vitamins.

The rationale behind recovery drinks -apart from having more stuff to sell- seems to be the finding that muscle is more eager to take up protein (read amino acids) in the first twenty or thirty minutes after hard exercise. The finding by itself is not surprising and one would expect muscle recovery to involve enhanced amino acid uptake. The real question of course is whether supplying oral protein immediately after exercise will actually lead to better recovery.

I.e. it may well be true that muscle is more receptive to circulating amino acids for a limited time  immediately after exercise. But that does not necessarily mean that supplying oral protein will make a difference. The first issue to consider is whether we can get the amino acids that are being supplied by eating or drinking protein to the muscle in time. Even if you gulp down a protein drink immediately after the race, it will take quite a while for your digestive system to process it. Unlike carbohydrates (sugars) protein digestion is a rather slow process. Add to that the fact that in many individuals the digestive tract is essentially shut down, and you can see that we are faced with more than a theoretical hurdle.

But there is no reason to worry. There is ample time for muscle recovery to take place. Even for those involved in multi-day stage races, the overnight hours are all it takes. And unless activity is at a very high level from day to the next, a few hours recovery is all it takes. Without the need for special food items. Such is the lesson we learn from RAAM. As a matter of fact, the more normal your diet, the better you will do.

It is really only at the end of 2-3 week high intensity stage races that people tend to fall behind and end up in a catabolic state.

And one last thought. Drinking or eating protein during the race is definitely unnecessary. There is no way muscle can build protein during an event so all the protein you ingest gets burned as either carbohydrate or fat (the explanation needs a bit of biochemistry here but suffice it to say that some amino acids get burned as carbs, while others go down the fat pathway). All the protein ingested during an event -to the extent that you can digest it- gets burned as fuel.

Many people however, do like to eat some protein in a long event such as ironman. Although the protein per se won't help muscle recovery, there is also no reason to avoid protein either- as some would advise. The extra nitrogen load is negligible and unless you have advanced kidney disease -in which case you probably would not compete- there is nothing to worry about.

The bottom line: don't spend your money on fancy recovery concoctions. Have a beer or drink some chocolate milk. And don't worry about eating a sandwich during Ironman. You will feel better and hence you will do better too!

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