Since the mid 1980’s, athletes, coaches, and exercise physiologists have studied the science of exercise recovery. Perhaps no area of study receives more attention than the study of nutritional fueling following exhaustive exercise. To this end, a multibillion-dollar industry has emerged focused on shakes, bars, chews, gels, and drinks that purportedly help us recovery faster after exercise (as well as prepare us for our next bout of exercise).
Researchers at the University of Montana designed a study that sought to better understand the value of these recovery foods and drinks.
Specifically, researchers had subjects fast for four hours. Next, the subjects completed an hour and a half, intense, treadmill run. Following the grueling run, half the subjects consumed popular recovery products: Gatorade, power bars and, organic peanut butter. The other half of subjects? They consumed McDonalds: hotcakes, hash browns, burgers, fries, and soda. Two hours later, the subjects cycled 12 miles as fast as they could. Again, the research question was: What is the optimal way to refuel and recover from intense exercise (to prepare for another bout of intense exercise).
About a week later, the subjects flipped intervention groups (known as a cross-over design). Subjects did the same exercise but those who had the recovery products consumed McDonalds and vice versa.
McDonalds was just as effective as the specialized recovery products. The researchers concluded, “There were no differences in the blood glucose and insulin responses. Similarly, rates of glycogen recovery were not different across the diets. There was also no difference across the diets for time trial performance. These data indicate that short-term food options to initiate glycogen re-synthesis can include dietary options not typically marketed as sports nutrition products such as fast-food menu items.”
This study was well conducted. The researchers performed muscle biopsies of the quadriceps; analyzed blood samples for glucose, insulin, and blood lipids; and performed a time trial on the bike. The researchers also sought to balance out the protein and carbohydrate between the specialized recovery products group and the fast-food group.
Take home message:
Although we should aim for a healthy, balanced, nutritious diet, consuming specialized recovery products appears to be no more valuable than consuming less nutritious, fast-food. Perhaps ingesting adequate amounts of protein and carbohydrates is more important than the source of these nutrients. Maybe Usain Bolt was on to something when he consumed 100 chicken McNuggets per day for 10-consecutive days during the 2008 Olympics (perhaps the greatest Olympic performance of all time).
Final note: I love reading research like this because it challenges my own previously held assumptions. I have a pantry full of every recovery drink, bar, chew, bean, and potion than you can fathom because I want to believe that this will fuel my marathon running workouts, performance, and recovery. I’m not a fan of fast-food but this study nudges me to be less dogmatic about my approach to recovery nutrition.