It used to be that water was the preferred after-exercise drink. Nowadays, though, you are likely to find that recreational and competitive athletes of all ages consume a specialized recovery drink after a game or training session. These drinks and, sometimes bars, have become part of a post-workout routine recommended by coaches and personal trainers.
Most of these recovery beverages contain some combination of carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes, vitamins, and water, although the specific nutrients and relative amounts of each vary from brand to brand. Depending on the formulation, these supplements may help with rapid recovery from a bout of prolonged exercise, promote muscle growth following resistance training, or reduce muscle soreness after an intense workout.
While research supports consuming some of these nutrients, alone or in combination, in recovery, there are some considerations for determining which supplement, if any, may be right for you.
Sports nutritionists have long recommended carbohydrates for endurance athletes before, during, and after a training bout or competition. Replenishing glycogen—a storage form of glucose, the sugar used as a fuel by muscles—after prolonged, intense exercise is essential for recovery and to prepare for the next exercise session.
Protein is known to promote muscle repair and growth in combination with strength training or other high-intensity exercise. The protein requirements for an athlete engaged in intense resistance training to build muscle mass may be 50–100% higher than that for a person who does more typical training. The goal should be to meet protein needs through the diet, but research shows that consuming additional proteinafter a training session can enhance muscle adaptations.
More recent research has shown that combining protein with carbohydrates has benefits beyond consuming either nutrient alone. Adding protein to carbohydrates after exercise can result in faster and greater muscle glycogen replenishmentand enhanced protein synthesis, the adaptations that lead to increased muscle mass and strength. A carbohydrate-to-protein ratio in the range of 2:1 or 3:1 seems to be effective, but consuming them immediately after exercisemay matter more.
Many recovery supplements also include antioxidants as vitamins, such as C and E, which have been shown to reduce muscle soreness following intense exercise. However, these antioxidants may interfere with long-term muscle adaptations, like increased muscle mass.
Recovery drinks also contain water and electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, which are important for rehydrating after exercise. The water and minerals lost in sweat must be replaced, so fluid intake after exercise is essential.
Most commercially available recovery drinks are properly formulated and convenient, making it easy to consume them right after exercise when they do the most good. They also tend to taste good and the wide range of flavors mean that you are bound to find a drink or shake you like. But you don’t need to use a supplement to get these benefits. In fact, most sports nutritionists recommend using conventional foods and beverages, not supplements, to meet nutritional needs.
There is no doubt that these recovery supplements can benefit athletes and people involved in intense training. If you are engaged in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight, these nutrients are unlikely to have a significant benefit. In fact, it is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beveragethan you burned during an exercise session. For most of us, water is sufficient before, during, and after exercise!