Recovery part 3: Replacing spent fuel between games

Some sports, like football, are rigidly scheduled: one game per week. Other sports, like soccer, basketball, and ice hockey, can have variable days between contests and tournaments, with only hours between games.

The problem is how to best use the time between contests. The focus here is on food choices and timing to ensure that your "gas tank" is as full as possible for the next game.

Remember that lack of fuel (muscle glycogen) is one of the primary reasons for fatigue in soccer. When muscle glycogen is low, running distance and speed decline, especially during the second half.

With three or more days between games, there is enough time to refill the muscle glycogen tank. If there less than two days between games, and the player doesn't follow some simple guidelines, they likely enter the next game with less glycogen. This means they will tire earlier in the game because they run out of fuel sooner.

There are three main factors that go into rapid recovery of muscle glycogen: food choices, timing of food intake, and the interaction of these two with insulin.

Food choices: Glycogen in a carbohydrate, so it is best to eat carbohydrates (but don't forget the protein). Nutritionists group carbs according to their glycemic index; i.e. how intensely the carbs stimulate pancreatic release of insulin. Foods with a high glycemic index bring about the greatest release of insulin, while low glycemic index foods don't lead to a large release of insulin.

Timing of food intake: Food choice is important, but so is when the food is eaten. The best time to eat and fill the muscles is when you aren't too interested in eating the first two hours after exercise. During this two-hour period, choose foods with a high glycemic index for the fastest replenishment of muscle glycogen.

In addition, a little protein is helpful. Research shows that the largest insulin response is from a 4:1 mixture of carbs:protein. Take in 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of weight. For the 150-pound player, that would be 150 grams of carbohydrate and about 40 grams of protein (you have to read those labels!). Keep fat intake to an absolute minimum. The body doesn't care if the nutrients are as a liquid or as solid food. Most players may not want to eat anything solid or a meal in this two-hour time period, and would prefer a liquid "meal."

In the next two hours, solid food or a meal is more palatable. Choose moderate to high glycemic index foods, with 60-65% of the calories as carbohydrate, 20-25% fat and the remainder protein. This will help keep the refueling process moving along at a fast pace.

Over the remainder of the 24 hours, choose low to moderate glycemic index foods trying to take in 3-5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of weight. That 150 pound player should take in, over 24 hours, a total of 450-750 grams of carbohydrate. Keep the calorie proportions the same: 60-65% carbs, 20-25% fat, remainder protein.

Interaction of food choice and timing with insulin: Insulin has been prominently mentioned in this summary. Some people have called insulin the "master recovery hormone" because it assists in transporting glucose (blood sugar) from the blood into (muscle) cells as well as stimulating the hormones that help make glycogen just what you need during recovery.

After exercise, the muscle cells are especially sensitive to insulin meaning more sugar gets into the cells and more glycogen is made. After two or more hours, the insulin sensitivity of the cells declines. This is why getting some carbohydrate in soon after exercise is so critical.

If an insulin response is important after exercise, can the insulin response be boosted? Yes, but the optimal ratio of carbohydrate and protein seems to be 4:1. This can double the insulin response and increase glycogen production by 30%. Protein can be as food or as an amino acid supplement. Arginine is an amino acid that has been studied extensively and seems to be quite good at stimulating the insulin response.

Another amino acid, glutamine, is helpful to help with tissue repair discussed last month as well as many aspects of the immune response. Don't overdo the overall protein intake because eating too much protein can slow down this process.

Most players aren't looking to sit down to a meal or eat any solid food in the critical two-hour period after training/competition. But there are drinks that meet the important requirements. The quickest way to get carbs into the blood is from a drink that is sweetened with a glucose polymer (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrins) or high glycemic index carbohydrates.

From part 2 of this series, you can minimize damage and speed repair of cells between exercise sessions if extra vitamin C and E and glutamine are ingested. From this article, the mix of carb:protein is important in speeding along the replenishment of muscle glycogen.

Current drinks on the market may satisfy some of these criteria, but products that can do all three are limited. See below for a list of current drinks and choose the drink that best fits your needs. Most of these products can be found in specialty sports stores (e.g. cycling), nutrition stores (e.g. GNC) or grocery stores.

Choose the best foods to be eaten at the proper time so that muscle glycogen will be as high as possible for the next game. If your opponent hasn't done this, then you will be at an advantage and be able to press the attack late in the game when they are tiring.

Calories: 113; total CHO: 30; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: 0; sodium: 78; potassium: 78; CHO source: high fructose corn syrup

Calories: 100; total CHO: 20; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: C; sodium: 80; potassium: 150; CHO source: maltodextrins

Calories: 280; total CHO: 52; total protein: 14; amino acids: arg, glut; vitamins: C, E; sodium: 230; potassium: 140; CHO source: glucose, and complex CHOs

Calories: 100; total CHO: 24; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: 0; sodium: 71; potassium: 106; CHO source: maltodextrins

Calories: 75; total CHO: 21; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: 0; sodium: 165; potassium: 45; CHO source: sugars, glucose

Calories: 93; total CHO: 24; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: C, E; sodium: 35; potassium: 42; CHO source: maltodextrin, glucose, fructose

Calories: 126; total CHO: 24; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: B1, C, E; sodium: 273; potassium: 83; CHO source: maltodextrins

Calories: 100; total CHO: 27; total protein: 0; amino acids: 0; vitamins: 0; sodium: 100; potassium: 42; CHO source: maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup

Power Bar*
Calories: 230; total CHO: 45; total protein: 10; amino acids: leu, val, isoleu; vitamins: C, E, B complex; sodium: 165; potassium: 52; CHO source: maltodextrin

Based on a 12-oz. serving
* per bar
Abbreviation key: arg=arginine; glut=glutamine; leu=leucine, val-valine; isoleu=isoleucine

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