Sore muscles, sluggish workouts, minimal gains.
This could be you if you aren’t pairing your workout with the right recovery routine, which includes things like proper rest, hydration, stretching, cryotherapy, and of course, nutrition.
To gain strength and build muscle, your body requires fuel. If you are in training, you need to eat enough of the right nutrients to power your basic bodily functions and encourage muscle growth and recovery. When your recovery is optimal, you don’t feel as sore, you have more energy, and you notice better gains.
We won’t be going into detail about specific diets here. Instead, we’ll present you with the science behind muscle recovery so you can make an informed decision about what food you choose to put in your body.
Let’s start by breaking down what muscles are made of. Then we’ll talk about what happens to your muscles when you train, and then we’ll finish with what nutrients you need to eat to help your body recover more quickly.
Under the Microscope
At the microscopic level, our muscles are multi-layered and complex. If you focus on a single muscle on your body - your bicep, for example - that muscle is comprised of hundreds of thousands of muscle fibers. Muscle fibers are organized into bundles called fascicles. This fiber bundle is in turn surrounded by a layer called the endomysium, which is itself surrounded by another layer called the perimysium. Embedded in these two outer layers are blood vessels, capillaries, and nerves. These spaghetti-like bundles works in tandem with collagen to fuse to the necessary bones and tendons and facilitate movement when the nerves within your muscles receive the signal from your brain.
Did You Know? Your body is comprised of 3 different types of muscle fibers: slow oxidative, fast oxidative, and fast glycolytic.
Your skeletal muscles contain all three types of muscle fibers, but the ratio will vary depending on your genetics and the amount of time and effort you spend working out. For example, if your sport of choice is weightlifting, sprinting, or other heavy resistance training, you have more fast glycolytic muscle fibers, as these are responsible for intense bursts of activation over a short period of time. If you’re a cyclist, marathoner or prefer other endurance sports, your muscles are predominantly comprised of slow oxidative muscle fibers. These allow you to maintain long periods of repetitive movements. However, if you train in both endurance and resistance-training, your muscles can contain equal amounts of both fibers.
So how do our muscles become stronger?
Ripping Muscles a New One
If you’ve ever been sore after exercise, you’ve felt the sensation of damaged muscle tissue. Each time your muscles are activated beyond normal levels, the fibers we talked about in the previous section burn up something called muscle glycogen, the basic energy source for your muscle fibers. Often, you’ll hear people describe this effect by saying the muscle fibers are ripped or torn apart. This happens on the microscopic level, so it’s really nothing to worry about. The amount your muscles are damaged depends on the intensity of your workout. The harder you push, the more glycogen you expend. The more glycogen you expend, the more your muscles are damaged and torn. Our bodies immediately begin repairing these microscopic tears using proteins and glycogen floating around in our blood.
It’s important to note that your muscle fibers are not the only tissue impacted by exercise, as detailed in this excerpt from an Oregon State textbook of anatomy and physiology:
“In addition to the increase in muscle fiber diameter, resistance training also increases the development of connective tissue, adding to the overall mass of the muscle. Increases in connective tissue help to contain muscles as they produce increasingly powerful contractions. Tendons also become stronger to prevent tendon damage, as the force produced by muscles is transferred to tendons that attach the muscle to bone.”
As it turns out, we’re also strengthening the tissues that help facilitate muscle movement - not just the muscles alone.
Fuel for Reconstruction
Just as important as your workout is your recovery from that workout. Although it’s true that your body needs rest and sleep in order to properly recover, we’re going to focus on nutrition here.
Earlier, we mentioned proteins and glycogen that float around in your blood, waiting to help repair muscles. How do you think these proteins get there in the first place? After you’ve eaten a meal, your body digests that food and lets loose a torrent of nutrients into your bloodstream. The trick is ingesting the right foods to put the right nutrients into your body. And It’s not all about protein powder, folks. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that 3 months of soy-dairy protein blend supplementation only nominally increased lean body mass in 18-year-old men, but it did not increase strength.
Here’s the solution: add carbohydrates to your post-workout meal. Carbohydrates, once digested, are converted to muscle glycogen. Many studies have found that combining protein with carbohydrates after exercise will more efficiently route glycogen and protein to your muscles, which initiates recovery and replenishes lost muscle glycogen (think: carbo-loading).
The trick is consuming nutrients that work well together. It’s the same concept as combining your leafy salad with an oil-based dressing; the molecules in the oil attach to the molecules in the greens, making it easier for your body to capture them both and use them for fuel. Same goes for protein and carbohydrates, especially when consumed as a post-exercise meal or supplement.
Talk to your nutritionist or your physical therapist for guidance. Since it’s easy to fall into the trap of fad diets and start counting points, you should be as educated as possible before you try a carb-free or other unbalanced diet.