When was the last time your recovery shake made you smile?
Being able to recover, measured as the capacity to repeat if not improve upon a performance in as short of a time frame as possible, has always been an important aspect of sport and fitness. To that end, recovery drinks have been a widely used nutritional strategy, especially amongst endurance athletes competing in races involving multiple heats or stages. There’s no doubt that being able to immediately refuel and rehydrate after exercise aids in one’s recovery. And, recovery drinks happen to be a very convenient way of refueling and rehydrating after a really hard workout or event when and where other foods aren’t readily available (1, 2, 3).
But, over the years I soured on recovery drinks. I became frustrated by the terrible taste, the dismissal of real food for processed chemicals, and the exaggerated performance claims that characterized far too many recovery drink products. Somehow, the simple common sense of having something to drink and eat after a workout warped into something more Frankenstein than human. More concerning to me, however, were the many athletes I knew who forced down their recovery drinks like medicine, ignoring the bad taste in their mouth and the wretched feeling in their gut, because that was the accepted norm. I saw them do this, not so much out of belief or measurable performance gains, but out of habit and the insecurity that the pseudoscience being slung at them by marketers might somehow be better than their own experience. Few who are performance driven want to give up a potential edge, even if that edge is wishful thinking.
So about a decade ago, I started working to convince the athletes I cared for to give up their recovery drinks. To do this, I had to take on the more difficult process of preparing them freshly cooked meals after their hardest workouts and races. I began traveling with a rice cooker and hot plate, making chicken fried rice in the team bus at events like the Tour de France, to quickly satiate hunger with real and delicious food. It was a major pain in the ass. But, like most difficult things, the effort was well worth it. Not only did the athletes feel and perform better, the real food made them happy and brought the team together in a way that only great food can. The experience was so profound that Chef Biju Thomas and I were compelled to share what we learned in the Feed Zone Cookbook. Our goal, then and now, was to help bring real food alternatives to the world of sports nutrition.
For me, the food and drink I give to athletes has always been deeply personal. It’s an extension of both my professional acumen and my innate instinct to nurture. I was proud to give up on recovery drinks for real food. But, eventually I found myself victim of my own hubris, since my ability to prepare fresh meals for athletes has always been bottlenecked by time. While I did my best to encourage athletes to cook for themselves, the reality was that they were constantly asking me for an effective and convenient recovery drink for those times when they were simply too tired, too busy, or too remote to make something from scratch. Unfortunately, I biased myself and others into thinking that recovery drinks were lazy, when ironically, I was too lazy to deal with the problems that plagued this category and consequently ignored the needs of many who I took so much pride in caring for.
Realizing this issue, we started to quietly explore the possibility of creating a recovery drink mix specifically for endurance athletes. Philosophically, if we were going to make a recovery drink it had to satisfy two polar beliefs - rationalism (i.e., reason) and hedonism (i.e., pleasure). Rationally, it had to be based on real science and it had to actually work. At the same time it had to bring joy to everyone who used it, satisfying our most hedonistic urge for nourishment. While, we didn’t know if this combination of rational hedonism was even possible, we were incredibly motivated to try.
Considering these two mandates as our starting point, the next question we asked ourselves was whether there was a perfect recovery drink. We knew the science around nutrition and recovery was fairly well developed and that we could balance that science with the experience of the athletes we work with. Humbly, we also understood from the outset that the answer was likely a simple no. As Victor Frankl expressed, asking if there’s one perfect choice for anything is like asking if there is one perfect chess move (4). The best choice for anything depends on context - on the varying goals and circumstances of every unique individual. Moreover, very little in life or in sport is just about a single choice. In navigating this challenge and taking a hard look at the science in practice, we acknowledge that this first attempt isn’t going to work for everyone. Still, we believe we have a product that is best in class and a phenomenal starting point for complementary products that are currently in the works. Ultimately, there were a number of formulas we played with that met the needs of a diverse group of athletes. It was when we created one that also put smiles on everyone’s faces that we knew we had it right.
What we created was an Sport Recovery Mix with a 5 to 1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. More specifically, for every 100 ml of solution, we decided on 10 grams of carbohydrate from simple sugars, 2 grams of protein from complete bovine milk protein, 1 gram of fat from whole milk, and 76 mg of sodium from salt. Since serving size is mandated by the FDA, a single 12 oz or 354 ml serving delivers 202 Calories from 36 grams of carbohydrate, 7 grams of protein, and 3.5 grams of fat with 270 mg of sodium, with a little variance depending on the flavor. Flavors that include coffee from actual coffee, chocolate from non-alkalinized cocoa, and vanilla from real vanilla beans. What’s absent from this drink is anything artificial - emulsifiers, flavoring agents, coloring agents, preservatives, or superfluous vitamins or unproven ergogenic compounds that don’t already naturally occur in our real food ingredients.
The decision to go with a lot more carbohydrate than protein was based on our desire to prioritize the replenishment of sugar or glycogen from depleted muscles. That said, the difference between a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein vs. a 5 to 1 ratio for a 12 oz serving amounts to 2 grams of protein, so the differences are likely marginal. Ultimately, there’s a large body of existing literature that shows that for an equivalent amount of calories, a ratio of carbohydrate to protein ranging from 3:1 up to 5:1, consumed post-exercise enhances glycogen re-synthesis and recovery better than carbohydrate alone. While, calorie for calorie, a pure carbohydrate solution may work just as well as one with additional protein, what is clear is that as long as a recovery drink is primarily carbohydrate, when matched for calories adding some protein never hurts and may really help (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Because, we were looking specifically to help endurance athletes, who are likely to be the most glycogen depleted post exercise, we decided to go with a formula on the higher side of carbohydrate without neglecting the importance of protein for improving glycogen re-synthesis, replenishing essential amino acids that may have been catabolized as fuel, or providing protein to help rebuild and maintain muscle.
We decided to go with a 10% solution (10 grams per 100 ml) of carbohydrate because this was the upper limit, in our experience, that could be handled without causing any gastrointestinal distress. It’s a compromise between maximizing calories while minimizing a bad gut. Still, we don’t recommend that our Sport Recovery Mix be used during exercise, nor do we recommend that you drink it fast. Drink it after your workout and relish it.
There’s a lot of controversy around simple sugars, especially as it relates to diseases like diabetes and obesity. Ironically, it’s exactly those reasons why we went with the simple sugars sucrose and glucose, which make up 80% of the carbohydrate in our Sport Recovery Mix, with the remaining 20% from lactose. The moderate to high glycemic index of these sugars, which can cause large spikes in the hormone insulin and which may predispose inactive people to metabolic disease, are also the same attributes that enhance glycogen re-synthesis in someone that has just finished a really hard and really long endurance workout. The release of insulin, which is one of the most anabolic hormones in the body, is critical for shifting the body from a catabolic state (break down) to an anabolic state (build up). In addition, immediately after exercise the muscles that were used and depleted are extremely sensitive to insulin, so almost all of the fuel we consume after exercise preferentially gets taken up by those muscles. Normally, when at rest, insulin works on both muscle and fat cells. The advantage of eating immediately after exercise is that more of those calories end up getting stored in muscle where they can be easily accessed, not in fat cells where they are not. Thus, when used in the right context, simple sugars can be incredibly performance enhancing. Used in the wrong context and they may exacerbate disease. This drink is intended as a post workout recovery drink for people who are very depleted and need to refuel as quickly as possible. It’s not intended for casually drinking while hanging out and playing video games.
While some might argue that a more complex carbohydrate like maltodextrin is a better or “healthier” choice, by the time a complex carbohydrate like maltodextrin enters the stomach and small intestine it’s already been broken down to it’s individual glucose units. What might start out as a more complex carbohydrate before it’s consumed is actually a simple sugar before it actually crosses the small intestine into the body. The notion that calorie for calorie, these carbohydrates even though they are not listed as sugars on a food label are somehow better or healthier is a grave misnomer. In fact, when assessing the glycemic index, or the capacity for a given food to increase blood sugar, maltodextrin (105) has a higher glycemic index than glucose (100) or sucrose (65) (11). Ultimately, all types of carbohydrates, especially those used in liquid solutions, need to be considered as simple sugars with all of the potential benefits and pitfalls. Though it might have been rationale to use maltodextrin because of it’s higher glycemic index, calorie for calorie, this carbohydrate isn’t very sweet tasting, giving, in our opinion, the taste advantage to sucrose and glucose.
Once we decided on the ratio of carbohydrate to protein as well as the amount and type of carbohydrate, we focused our attention on the type of protein to use. As we assessed the proteins used in other recovery drink products and reviewed research studies examining recovery drinks, proteins from milk were the most common. There’s good reason for this. First, milk proteins, either as a complete milk protein or as their constituents, casein and whey, are widely available. Second, milk proteins contain all of the nine essential amino acids - amino acids that can not be made by the body and that must be eaten to provide the basic building blocks for tissue maintenance and growth. Third, per gram of protein, milk proteins have the highest levels of essential amino acids. Fourth, the essential amino acids from milk proteins have a greater rate of absorption into the body compared to the essential amino acids from all other sources - a measure known as the true ileal amino acid digestibility percentage. Lastly, because the biological quality of protein for humans is assessed against the essential amino acid profile of human milk and because there are marginal differences in this profile between mammalian species (Davis), the protein quality of cow milk - the most common source of complete milk protein, whey, and casein - is effectively as good as it gets when using the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIASS) - the latest standard for assessing protein quality (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32). For all these reasons, we were compelled to focus our efforts on milk protein.
What many people may not realize is that in a glass of cow milk, there are two major types of proteins - casein (80%) and whey (20%). Casein is a more complex protein structure that curdles in an acidic environment. This curdling is what forms cheese, leaving whey, a simpler protein structure as the byproduct. Because casein also curdles in the acidic environment of the stomach, it empties much more slowly into the small intestine with a steady entrance into the body. In contrast, whey empties from the stomach and enters the body through the small intestine quickly. Thus, casein is considered to be a slow and steady source of protein while whey is considered to be a fast source (30).
While there are many theories about which milk protein - casein, whey, or a combination of the two - is more effective at enhancing recovery or stimulating muscle growth and repair, it’s important to note that the essential amino acid profile of casein and whey are very similar, despite differences in their structure or rate of entrance into the body. For example, the essential amino acid leucine - a critical amino acid in stimulating protein synthesis - is the most abundant essential amino acid in both whey (105 mg per g protein) and casein (101 mg per g protein) (Hall). That said, it’s thought that what rate limits protein synthesis is the essential amino acid with the lowest value. From this perspective, the differences between whey and casein are again marginal. In whey, that rate limiting amino acid is either histidine or methionine at 16 milligram per gram of protein. In casein, that rate limiting amino acid is tryptophan at about 14 milligram per gram of protein. Alone, there may be a slight but non significant advantage to whey compared to casein. But, in a complete milk protein from cow, the rate limiting essential amino acid becomes tryptophan at 17 mg per gram of protein because the higher tryptophan value in whey bolsters the lower tryptophan value in casein. Ultimately, while differences in the essential amino acid profile between whey, casein, and complete milk are very small and likely not significant, based on the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, that assesses protein quality on the rate limiting essential amino acid, complete milk protein scores slightly higher than whey alone, which scores slightly higher than casein alone (27).
Given these marginal differences, we made a conscious decision to simply go with the complete milk protein as designed by nature rather than whey alone, casein alone, or some combination of the two. Not only did we not believe we were smarter than nature, for us, we consciously prioritized taste, functionality, and purpose. As a complete milk protein, we felt that the taste was significantly better. In addition, as part of a complete milk protein, casein is a great natural emulsifier which allowed us to not use added emulsifiers like soy lecithin. Finally, our priority was to build a drink mix that actually improved recovery, as measured by a functional performance test.
Reviewing the scientific literature, when matched for calories, chocolate milk, did this job as well if not better than a multitude of recovery drink products (32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44). The efficacy of chocolate milk as a recovery drink reminded us to keep things simple and reinforced our belief in real food as a staple of athletic performance. But, unlike chocolate milk, especially ready to drink chocolate milk, which is the most common form that it is sold in, we knew we could make a product that had a longer shelf life, that was easier to travel with, and that did not contain a number of excess ingredients like xantham gum, emulsifiers, and flavoring agents. What we could not do, however, was assure that all of the lactose was removed from our milk protein, making our Sport Recovery Mix a potential problem for those who are lactose intolerant or sensitive. Compared to chocolate milk, our Sport Recovery Mix does have significantly less lactose because much of it is removed when the milk protein is isolated. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to remove all of the lactose. Thus, we estimate about 20% of the carbohydrate in our Sport Recovery Mix is from lactose. For those who have problems with lactose in milk, even though the amount is small, this may not be the right product for you.
The very last step that we considered in making our Sport Recovery Mix was the added benefit of being able to begin the rehydration process post exercise. To this end, we made sure to add enough salt to help replace the sodium lost in sweat. Sweat sodium concentration can be highly variable ranging anywhere from 400 mg of sodium per liter of sweat all the way to 2000 mg of sodium per liter of sweat with an average somewhere in the 800-1000 mg of sodium per liter of sweat. To balance this wide range with taste, we settled at 760 mg of sodium per liter - a value just a little higher than the sodium concentration in our Sport Hydration Mix (800 mg sodium per liter). Of interest, there’s some good evidence that milk combined with additional sodium and carbohydrate can be an extremely effective rehydration solution, resulting in less urinary output and more fluid retention post exercise compared to plain water or a sports drink. This may be due to the combination of both sodium and a slower rate of fluid absorption due to the protein and fat, which paradoxically, may allow the body to hold onto more fluid by relieving a sudden increase in pressure at the kidneys that may inadvertently cause excess fluid loss (45, 46, 47).
Despite all of the thinking and tinkering that went into developing our Sport Recovery Mix, the reality was that we weren’t going to release it unless we knew that it was a home run with the athletes we work and care for. To that end, once we thought we nailed the formula internally, we began testing the product with our wide network of ambassadors and athletes at the beginning of many of their summer season with a specific focus on an almost 2 month long cycling training camp held out of Skratch Labs as a lead up for the Olympic Games in Rio. The feedback we got was extraordinary. Our ultimate mission is taking care of people and what we discovered was that our Sport Recovery Mix was accomplishing that in a way that truly made the athletes feel nurtured. While we didn’t have any data to quantify performance changes or gains, we trusted them when they told us that they felt better using our Sport Recovery Mix, that it helped them fill that critical gap post workout or race when they didn’t always have the time to prepare a meal, and that they would not only use the drink but they would recommend it to their friends and family. The bottom line is that we always viewed our Sport Recovery Mix in the same way we view anything we cook or serve to our own family - as food - not as rocket science. Before we introduced it to the world, we had to get the approval from the people that inspired us to create a better alternative. And we did.
Given all the details that went into developing our Sport Recovery Mix, it’s important to remember that big picture, When we exercise, we become catabolic, breaking down fuel sources like the sugar or glycogen stored in our liver and active muscle, fat stored in muscle and adipose cells, and if the activity is long and hard enough precious protein from tissue. We also dehydrate, losing water and salt. From a nutritional perspective, this means that to fast track the recovery process, we need to replenish fuel, water, and salt as quickly as possible. Big picture, the simple reality is that if someone eats and drinks right after a workout, they’ll always recover faster than if they didn’t.
With that in mind and based on our real world testing, we recommend that athletes drink enough servings of our Sport Recovery Mix to satiate themselves immediately after exercise. While it’s tempting to specify an exact number of servings and be done with it, the amount of calories needed to maximize recovery depends in large part upon the amount of calories depleted, which is the difference between what was burned and what was consumed during exercise. Given the myriad of possibilities here, this a tough nut to crack without making a lot of assumptions.
At the most extreme, a well trained athlete can store about 10 grams of carbohydrate in the form of glycogen per kilogram of body weight. So for a 70 kg (154 lb) athlete that’s about 700 grams of carbohydrate which at 4 Calories per gram of carbohydrate gives about 2,800 Calories of glycogen fuel. My typical recommendation is that athletes try and consume about half of the calories they depleted during exercise in the first hour after exercise. Assuming that someone completely depletes themselves during a bout of exercise, the most I can imagine someone needing to try and consume in the first hour post-exercise is in the 1,500 Calorie range depending upon one’s body weight.
The easier recommendation is that if you’re hungry, simply eat as many calories as you can after exercise. For most people, this means eating until you’re satiated, not until you’re sick or you explode. In some cases, our Sport Recovery Mix will be all you need. In other cases, it will be a gratifying and much needed prelude to the more ample nutrition of a solid meal. This product is the sharp end of the blade to help cut the fatigue from depleted athletes. It is not the entire sword. And yes, there are a lot of suitable alternatives even to this product like cooking your own meal, chocolate milk, or even putting down a handful of beef jerky with a liter of soda - which we’ve seen done, but don’t recommend. That all said, in most cases, we think you’re going to like our Sport Recovery Mix better as well as the reasoning behind it.
So to put this to a quick conclusion, we hope the next time you need some convenient and delicious food after a workout that you try our Sport Recovery Mix. When you’re totally fracked, next to a bowl of chicken fried rice or a hug, this is the best way we know how to nurture the frack out of you (48). Give it a try and see if it works for you.
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47. Battlestar Gallactica - The New Series. Frack Me!