The complete guide to sports drinks: Recovery

Either homemade or shop bought, recovery drinks form an integral part of any rider's training and racing

Recovery, sports drinks

What are they?

Recovery powders, bars and products containing either a single source or a blend of proteins (whey, casein, soy) with or without added carbohydrate.

Why use them?

The immediate post-exercise period presents a unique opportunity for maximising muscle recovery and replenishing carbohydrate stores. Consuming a protein supplement alongside carbohydrate can stimulate muscle synthesis, repair muscle damage and enhance glycogen storage, all of which improve recovery.

Specific recovery products contain either a single source of a blend of different proteins - namely casein, soy and whey. Although these proteins are all nutritionally ‘complete' (they contain all of the essential amino acids needed by the body) they are digested at different rates.

A by-product of cheese production, whey is a ‘fast-acting' protein which is rapidly digested. It also has the added benefit of high levels of branched chain amino acids, which have been shown to stimulate muscle synthesis. Thanks to its rapid absorption, studies show that whey is superior to casein or soy in stimulating muscle repair following resistance exercise.

In contrast, casein (also from cow's milk) is a slow-acting protein, which takes up to seven hours to digest, as it forms a ‘gel' in the stomach providing a slower release of amino acids. Soy is somewhere in the middle, being an ‘intermediate' acting protein, with different levels of amino acids which have been linked to improved immunity.

Although whey is usually the favoured protein in recovery products, research shows that a blend of proteins may be better, as this provides a timed release of amino acids to the muscle - the whey delivers quickly, while the soy and casein provide a more sustained rise, extending the window for muscle building.

How do I use them effectively?

Combining protein with carbohydrate at a ratio of 3:1 (carb:protein) offers maximum benefit in the recovery period. For the majority, this will equate to around 20-30g of protein - a scoop of whey powder typically contains around 20g.

Most protein supplements are designed to be added to water or milk to make a recovery drink. If you choose one without carbohydrate, you'll need to think about this too - aim for around 1-1.2g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight eg 70-84g for a 70kg adult.

Research shows that higher levels of protein aren't necessarily better. Instead, several protein doses of 20-30g are thought to be the most effective. To achieve this, try having a shake directly after your ride, and then follow up with a protein-containing meal in the next two-three hours.

Are they better than real foods?

Although recovery products are convenient, you can achieve a similar blend of proteins by eating a mixture of whole foods after a session on the bike (see ‘protein power'). A smoothie containing one pint milk, one large banana, one tbsp honey and 100g Greek yoghurt will provide 30g of protein and 70g of carbohydrate for the ideal 3:1 ratio.

Chocolate milk has also shown to be as effective as other supplements in restoring carbohydrate and stimulating muscle protein synthesis - milk itself is 20 per cent whey to 80 per cent casein, which goes some way to explaining its benefit.

Make your own

How to make your own recovery and energy drinks

Protein power

10g of protein = two small eggs, or 300ml milk, or 30g cheese, or 100g Total yoghurt, or 50g meat/chicken, or 400ml soy milk, or 200g baked beans.

>>> Back to the complete guide to sports drinks introduction page

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