In step 2 of our Fuelling Performance guide, we discussed hydration and its role in exercise.
Ever wanted to know how best to fuel your athletic endeavours?
We took your top questions to Ted Munson a top Performance Nutritionist to produce this series of blogs.
Exercise Nutrition: Protein & BCAA's
Protein is the building block of muscle, with each cell in the body made from protein. Proteins are made up from smaller units called amino acids. You must consume protein, ideally high in amino acids to help your body repair the cells and muscle fibres that are constantly being broken down through intense exercise.
There are 20 amino acids that we need to help our body grow and function properly. Some amino acids are actually created by the body, but there are eight ‘essential’ amino acids, which you have to take in from your diet. The most important essential amino acids are known as ‘Branched Chain Amino Acids’ (BCAAs) which comprise of leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAAs actually make up around a third of the muscle that we have in our bodies.
If you’re an endurance athlete, why would you consume BCAAs?
You may have heard gym user or body builders supplementing, but why would an endurance athlete use BCAAs? You can rest assured that protein and BCAA supplementation will NOT make you ‘bulky’ unless you train to increase mass.
BCAAs have a number of important functions:
1. Triggering muscle protein synthesis – Leucine is often seen as the most important BCAA, known to act as a ‘switch’ for muscle rebuild to start. That’s why whey protein or high protein meals are often consumed post-exercise. For muscular adaptation, we require high quality protein, rich in BCAAs.
2. Reducing muscle breakdown – Evidence suggests that consuming BCAAs prior to or during training sessions can help to reduce muscle protein breakdown and stimulate muscle protein synthesis post-exercise, conditions that can facilitate training adaptation. These could be longer endurance sessions (2 hours +) or fasted sessions (e.g training pre-breakfast). Afterall, muscle gives us power and strength and we don’t want to lose it!
3. Energy source – BCAAs actually act as an alternative energy source during exercise. They are ‘branched chain’ which makes it easier to convert each amino acid into energy during exercise. This can also helps reduce muscle breakdown during prolonged or fasted sessions.
Protein is high in BCAAs, why not just consume protein during sessions?
Many pro athletes (especially cyclists and ultra-endurance athletes) do consume protein during exercise, particularly during tough sessions that promote muscle breakdown. This may be tough on the gut for the average athlete. If you have the goal of maintaining muscle mass but still want to fuel during tough sessions, then consuming BCAAs in your carb-electrolyte drink could aid performance.
You’ll often see BCAAs in a ratio of 2:1:1 or 4:1:1, with the all important leucine the first number. Should you require BCAAs, choose one with a 2:1:1 ratio and ensure that it is highest in leucine. Don’t expect the same amount of BCAAs in a sport drink than what you’d find in a protein shake- this would make your drink taste very bitter! If you’re doing tough sessions, it is expected you’d consume more than one serving to make the most of the carbs, electrolytes and BCAAs.
What about recovery?
Post exercise nutrition is arguably the most important aspect of recovery. Our bodies will recover in time naturally, but feeding it the right nutrition allows you to adapt optimally, by replacing energy stores or supplying the building blocks needed for rebuilding muscle mass. This can help reduce the muscle soreness associated with racing. Recovery also affects your bodies’ general function as well. The immune system can be supressed for up to 24 hours after prolonged exercise, making the body less able to respond effectively to threats of infection.
Recovery involves four main considerations; carbohydrate, protein, hydration and vitamin intake. Including carbohydrate in your recovery strategy is essential for glycogen replenishment. Many athletes believe recovery is just about protein, but for most endurance athletes, it’s about total recovery, not just muscular recovery. Carbohydrate is the fuel that needs to be replaced so that you are able to go again. Protein assists muscle rebuild, while re-hydration helps the body’s water to return to a normal state. Current guidelines for recovery immediately post exercise equate to 1.2 g/kg body mass of carbohydrate (e.g. 90 g of carbohydrate for a 75 kg athlete) and at least 20-30 g of protein.
Taking vitamins post exercise, particularly vitamin c and iron can help support immune function, which may be suppressed after intense exercise. Exercise causes oxidative stress, or the release of free radicals – molecules with unpaired electrons, which can cause damage to cells. A range of fruit and vegetables high in antioxidants and polyphenols can help combat this oxidative stress and further aid recovery
The ideal time to take on nutrition post-exercise is within the ’30 minute window’. This refers to the 30-minutes after you finish your session when the metabolism remains high. Here, your body will absorb nutrients like carbohydrate, protein and vitamins more effectively and transport them around the body to be used.
Taking vitamins post exercise, particularly vitamin c and iron can help support immune function, which may be suppressed after intense exercise. Exercise causes oxidative stress, or the release of free radicals – molecules with unpaired electrons, which can cause damage to cells. A post exercise meal including a range of fruit and vegetables high in antioxidants and polyphenols can help combat this oxidative stress and further aid recovery by replenishing carbohydrates.