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Sports Recovery Sensation: Skim Milk & Cereal

Carol and I made a special trip to our local supermarket to check out sports drinks. Frankly, we expected to find, at best, a limited selection. We thought we’d have to go to Vitamin Cottage or Whole Foods for a true assessment of offerings designed to quench thirst and speed recovery after exercise. Boy, were we wrong. One stop was enough. The sports drink market is flourishing, clearly a very big deal.

Bottled water and sports drinks are a multibillion-dollar industry, according to ABC News.

Sports drinks were strategically placed in our supermarket to encourage impulse purchases. Powerade was prominently displayed in the front of the store—in every flavor imaginable. The next one we came on, in the back aisle, was Vitamin Water, in all colors of the rainbow. Finally, we hit the “mother load” in the beverage and sports nutrition sections. The old standby Gatorade was there in seeming endless variety, along with more Powerade and Vitamin Water, and at least five other brands. The appeal is apparent, almost palpable; just looking at the lively array makes you feel refreshed.

Spoil sports (like Carol and I), who manage to resist the obvious appeal long enough to read the labels, will find that the main ingredients are water, sugar in one form or another (carbohydrate), sodium (electrolytes), and in some cases vitamins; a few include a modicum of protein.

Some of these products may be better than others. I’m not a consumer and certainly no expert. Sports drinks fill a perceived need; they all quench thirst and replenish the sugar and minerals lost from the body during strenuous physical exercise. They do what they say they do. No one is saying otherwise, certainly not me. The surprise (to some) is that other products in the supermarket, humdrum and relatively cheap, may do the job as well, maybe even better. That’s the finding of a new study from the University of Texas at Austin, reported May 14, 2009, in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. You can read the full report online: http://www.jissn.com/content/6/1/11

Here are some of the main details.

Scientists, led by exercise physiologist Lynne Kammer, compared whole grain cereal and nonfat milk with a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink to determine the relative effect on recovery following a typical endurance workout. The scientists included Dr. John L. Ivy, probably the best known researcher in the recovery nutrition field. Ivy discovered the short window after exercise when your muscles are primed to replenish lost energy stores three times faster than normal.

Twelve trained cyclist or triathletes, 8 males and 4 females, were recruited to participate in the study. Muscle biopsies were taken immediately following two hours of cycling at 60-65 % of maximum aerobic capacity. The athletes then consumed either cereal and milk (77 g carbohydrate, 19.5 g protein and 2.7 g fat) or the sports drink (78.5 g carbohydrate). A second biopsy was taken 60 minutes after the cereal or drink. Blood was also drawn before and after the exercise, and again 60 minutes after consuming the cereal or sports drink.

All athletes served as their own controls by doing the workout twice and consumed both the cereal and drink.

The main comparative measures were glycogen (muscle sugar) restoration and muscle protein synthesis.

In a long and detailed background section, the researchers explained the importance of post-exercise nutrition. Here’s part of what they wrote: “Endurance exercise affects skeletal muscle by reducing energy stores and increasing muscle protein breakdown….Following exercise, acute physiological changes occur in the muscles that promote glucose uptake, glycogen accumulation and protein synthesis, but optimal replenishment of the energy stores and net protein balance are dependent on post exercise nutritional content and timing. While glycogen synthesis requires glucose, protein synthesis requires amino acids.”

They also gave the resuls they expected: “Our hypothesis was that cereal and nonfat milk would be more effective than a popular carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink in increasing muscle glycogen and…protein synthesis.”

That’s because Ivy and colleagues had found earlier that a combination of carbs and protein nearly doubled insulin response, resulting in substantially more glycogen reloading and protein rebuilding than eating carbs alone; for details see my piece on why a combination of carbs and protein should be eaten after exercise: http://www.cbass.com/Post_exerciseNut.htm   

As noted above, cereal and milk contain carbohydrate and protein, while the sports drink contained carbohydrate alone.

It didn’t come out quite as the researchers expected. “These results suggest that [cereal and milk] is as good as a commercially-available sports drink in initiating post-exercise muscle recovery,” they concluded. In other words, cereal and milk was as good as the sports drink, but not significantly better.  

“We found that glycogen repletion, or replenishment of immediate muscle fuel, was just as good after whole grain cereal consumption and that some aspects of protein synthesis were actually better,” Dr. Kammer said in a press release. (Emphasis mine)

The researchers suggest that the moderate pace of the workout may not have depleted muscles sufficiently to bring out the advantages of the carbohydrate-protein combination. They were trying to replicate a typical long slow distance workout. A hard interval workout may have produced different results.

The results and discussion sections of the report are highly technical and difficult for a layman to comprehend. Again, the full report is available online for your reading pleasure. I don’t pretend to understand it all.

Here’s the bottom line as expressed by Dr. Kammer in the press release: “Cereal and non-fat milk are a less expensive option than sports drinks. The milk provides a source of easily digested and high quality protein, which can promote protein synthesis and training adaptations, making this an attractive recovery option.”

I’m sticking with ordinary food. What about you?

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