Muscle soreness is an unavoidable side effect of endurance training. The only way to avoid post-exercise muscle soreness completely is to avoid exercise. However, there are several things you can do to minimize muscle soreness – caused mainly by damage to muscle proteins – without sacrificing fitness. Some obvious ones include warming up and cooling down properly and building up your training workload very gradually.
Less known and less widely practiced are some nutritional means of minimizing post-exercise muscle soreness that are based on cutting-edge sports science research. By consuming the right balance of nutrients before, during, and immediately following workouts, this research shows, you can minimize the amount of muscle protein degradation that is caused by workouts and maximize the rate of post-exercise muscle protein repair and rebuilding. And this will allow you to perform better in your key workouts and bounce back quicker afterward.
Start with a Full Tank
Carbohydrate, mainly in the form of muscle glycogen, is the primary fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise. But amino acids, supplied in part through the breakdown of muscle proteins, also provide some energy. The longer a workout or competition lasts, the less carbohydrate contributes and the more amino acids contribute to the body’s energy needs. Athletes can minimize the number of muscle proteins that must be broken down to supply energy by beginning their workouts with more glycogen stored in their muscles.
In a university study, subjects performed a prolonged one-leg strength exercise first with a randomly chosen leg and then with the opposite leg. They began the workout with normal glycogen levels in one leg (again randomly chosen) and depleted glycogen levels in the other. The researchers found that muscle protein breakdown was much greater in the glycogen-depleted leg than in the normal leg during the course of the workout.
It is important, then, that athletes top off their muscle glycogen stores before workouts. The best way to do this is to eat a meal comprising mostly low- to moderate-glycemic carbohydrates two to three hours before exercise. In a Penn State University study, one group of athletes ate a rolled oats cereal (moderate-glycemic) while another group ate a puffed rice cereal (high-glycemic) before a stationary cycling test. Both breakfasts contained 75 grams of total carbohydrate. Those who ate the rolled oats cereal were able to cycle significantly longer than those who ate the puffed rice. These results make it clear that athletes should choose their pre-exercise foods carefully.
The pre-workout meal should also contain some protein. New research suggests that providing the body with a dietary source of amino acids (the “building blocks” of proteins) through pre-workout protein consumption can further decrease the body’s reliance on muscle proteins for energy during exercise. It also accelerates post-exercise muscle protein synthesis by increasing the availability of amino acids for this purpose.
Consuming a carbohydrate-protein supplement during exercise can further minimize muscle tissue damage and accelerate post-workout protein synthesis. Use of a conventional 6-8% carbohydrate sports drink such as Gatorade slows the depletion of muscle glycogen stores and thereby delays the rise in the use of muscle proteins as an energy source. But newer research has demonstrated that the addition of a small amount of protein to a sports drink spares glycogen even further. It does this by stimulating more insulin, which is the hormone responsible for transporting glucose to the muscles.
In a study, researchers found that the addition of protein to a carbohydrate sports drink in a 4:1 ratio enhanced aerobic endurance performance by 24% more than a conventional carbohydrate sports drink. These data suggest that the addition of protein increased insulin and glucose uptake, thereby providing faster energy to the exercising muscle. The result is increased sparing of muscle glycogen and a significant improvement in endurance.
A sports drink is the best form in which to consume carbohydrate and protein during workouts, not only because these nutrients will be more quickly absorbed in this form but also because a sports drink also provides the water and electrolytes needed to prevent dehydration during exercise. Athletes should consume a few ounces of such a drink every 10 minutes throughout exercise. The precise amount needed depends on factors that include the size of the athlete, the intensity of exercise, and the air temperature.
A study performed at St. Cloud University demonstrated that using a carbohydrate-protein sports drink during a workout can also significantly reduce post-exercise muscle tissue stress. In this study, athletes that used this supplement showed on average a 36% lower level of a physiological marker for muscle tissue stress than controls, suggesting that by providing amino acids in addition to carbohydrate, the sports drink helped maintain cell membrane integrity.
It is not possible to consume enough carbohydrate during moderate- to high-intensity exercise to replace what is burned, nor to completely offset muscle protein degradation. So it is important to consume additional carbohydrate and protein after the workout. This should be done as soon as possible, because the body is able to synthesize glycogen and protein at more than twice the normal rate due to heightened insulin receptivity in the muscle cells following exercise. For this reason, exercise physiologists sometimes refer to the first two hours post-exercise as “the muscle recovery window”.
Carbohydrate-protein sports drinks are again the best immediate post-workout nutrition source because of their rapid absorption and their water and electrolyte content. Using such drinks and/or water and solid foods, athletes should be sure to fully replenish fluid losses (i.e. return to pre-workout bodyweight) and consume 10-20% of their daily carbohydrate and protein intake within the first two hours after completing exercise.
In addition to consuming appropriate amounts of carbohydrate and protein before, during, and immediately after workouts, athletes can reduce muscle damage and soreness by maintaining a diet that is generally high in antioxidants. Oxygen radicals are believed to play a role in the cellular damage that follows the rupture of muscle fibers during exercise. By consuming plenty of antioxidant vitamins and enzymes on a daily basis athletes can limit this damage. Vitamins C and E appear to be the most effective antioxidant defenders against free radical damage to muscle tissues. Citrus fruits, melon, and berries are good sources of vitamin C. Vegetable oils, nuts, dark green vegetables and whole grains are rich in vitamin E.
The Bottom Line
While muscle tissue damage and muscle soreness are normal effects of hard training, proper sports nutrition practices can minimize these effects. If you are consistent in these practices you will recover more quickly between workouts and competitions and perform better during them. Not to mention, you won’t wake up in the morning feeling as though you had been caned in your sleep!