Recovery part 2: Balancing vitamin intake to repair muscle damage

Recovery is a fact of life in exercise. You run hard, you breathe hard when you stop recovering from that run. When you exercise a lot especially exercise you are not accustomed to you feel sore the next day or so. In addition, in long, hard practices you deplete the fuel used by your muscles.

While recovery between runs during a game is critical to your team's performance, recovery in the hours after a game is critical to your performance in the next game(s). Recovery from the soreness you feel the next day is today's topic.

Let's say you have been playing pick-up soccer during the off-season. Coach calls and says you're in a tournament next weekend. Your current level of play has prepared you for one thing: pick-up games. Real competition is more and harder running that you are not prepared for, and you know how you are going to feel the next day: sore.

You perceive less range of motion, muscles may be tender to the touch, may take longer to get loosened up, may even be swollen. Yes, it goes away with time. You may have even had a coach who said the best thing for sore muscles is to do whatever it was that made you sore in the first place (old adages have some truth in them).

Ever wonder why you get sore, and what you might do to minimize future soreness?

The soreness you feel is actual physical damage to the muscle cells in predictable locations. For those of you who know some muscle anatomy, the damage is found where the actin and z-lines unite, mostly near the muscle-tendon junction. Muscle cell walls are also at risk for damage.

The cause of damage is less well-understood. One thought involves lengthening contractions of muscles during high-tension activities for example, you get sore from lowering the weight during a forearm curl (lengthening contraction), not from raising the weight (shortening contraction).

You don't use as many cells when lowering the same weight, so each cell is working harder. In soccer, soreness comes from landing from jumps, stopping, slowing, change of direction and other activities.

Also, there is growing evidence that oxygen, that most important element in life, can actually trigger reactions within your body to create toxic compounds called free radicals. These highly reactive and unstable compounds have the potential to cause damage to muscles and other cells. If you exercise in smoggy conditions, the ozone and nitrogen oxide lead to even more free radicals. These free radicals can strike the walls of your muscle cells, mitochondria, heart and blood vessels and are partially to blame for muscle damage, soreness and reduced endurance.

So how do we repair the damage of exercise? One way is to exercise. One of the fastest adaptations to training we have is attacking soreness. Do something new on Monday and you are sore Tuesday and maybe Wednesday. Do that same exercise again the next Monday and you have little or no soreness the next days that is rapid adaptation. But just because you dont "feel" soreness doesn't mean there is an absence of tissue damage; there still is some damage.

What about those free radicals? Our body knows how to handle these compounds. We have enzymes referred to as "antioxidants" (superoxide dimutase, or SOD, for you chemists out there). In addition, there are classes of vitamins that possess antioxidant properties to help repair tissues and inactivate free radicals. The primary vitamins with antioxidant properties are vitamins C and E.

After exercise, cell wall damage allows some proteins to leak into the blood. The main indicator of cell damage is an enzyme called CPK (creatine phosphokinase). If CPK is in the blood, there is muscle damage somewhere.

Multiple studies have shown that athletes who supplement their diet with vitamins C and E have less overall muscle damage (less CPK) and faster recovery from exercise (circulating CPK disappears faster). This is the case no matter if the antioxidants were ingested separately (from pills or food) or as part of a nutritional supplement (a drink).

There is ample evidence that athletes should supplement their diet with vitamins C and E. The RDA for vitamin C is 60 mg/day (in 1996, NIH recommended 200 mg/day), but doses of 500 to 1000mg/day raise the antioxidant pool sufficiently (excess vitamin C can lead to diarrhea). The RDA for vitamin E is 30 IU/day, but years of high doses (800 IU/day) have shown no untoward effects. Research has shown 200 to 400 IU/day is sufficient to improve recovery from exercise.

Getting this amount of vitamins is challenging. Vitamin C is found in most fruits and vegetables, while vitamin E is found in fats/oils, meats, nuts, and legumes, but can be found in many sources.

The training athlete may need to ingest extra vitamins as a supplement. You can get these as pills or in some of the current sports drinks that allow you to remember just the drink and not all those other things. Current drinks that contain vitamin C and E are Endurox R4, IsoStar and Hydrafuel. However, Isostar has no carbohydrate, so your choices are limited.

Next: Getting a leg up on your opponent: replacing spent fuel

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