Any type of physical activity produces some form of fatigue.  If you want to see progress in your fitness level and overall health, you need to start making neuromuscular recovery a priority. 

While there are various recovery strategies such as nutrition, foam rolling, sleep, massage, and more, for now, we’re going to focus on nutritional strategies — specifically recovery supplements. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated that some supplements have immense benefits on muscle damage and soreness and help recover muscle function after intense exercise. (1,2) To take full advantage of their benefits though, you must use them at the right time. 

So, in order to get you pointed in the right direction on your muscle recovery journey, let’s take a closer look at the best recovery supplements you can take, with a focus on how they work, and when to actually take them.

What Are The Best Recovery Supplements: What Does the Science Say?

Carbohydrates

Many fad diets have been teaching us that carbs are bad and we should stay away from them as much as possible. No, I’m not going to tell you it’s fine to eat all the cookies out there. But, there are a few things we should keep in mind. 

First, carbs are your body’s main source of energy. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, you still need some carbs. The key is finding the right type, not to avoid them altogether.

Carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen. The problem is, the body has limited capacity to store glycogen, so it is depleted very quickly.  Studies show carbohydrates are one of the main components to recovery following intense workouts or long bouts of exercise.(3)

How many carbs you need depends on the type of exercise you do — athletes like runners and swimmers, need a diet high in carbohydrates.  To properly fuel endurance training, an athlete would need about 55-60% of their diet to consist of carbs. 

Someone more focused on strength training, who wants to gain more muscle will still need carbs in their diet, but not as much as an athlete.

The key is both the type of carbs you’re eating and the time of day.  Simple sugars are best eaten before and/or the time of the workout, whereas complex carbs are best eaten throughout the day.

Protein

You’ve probably heard 100 times how important protein is for your muscles and your strength. Rapidly absorbed protein is critical for muscle recovery immediately after a workout. (4)

There are 3 types of rapidly absorbed protein:

  • whey isolate
  • whey concentrate
  • soy isolate

Each of them is absorbed by the body within 60-120 minutes. The absorption rate depends mostly on digestive enzymes.  If you’re familiar with the world of fitness and protein powders, you probably know there are many other powders, in addition to these 3. To name a few, we have milk isolate, casein, egg, collagen, vegetarian, and albumin.

While these supplements aren’t bad, they aren’t absorbed as quickly and don’t produce the same protein synthesis spike as the other ones. In short, they aren’t bad, but if you’re looking for muscle growth, you need to choose one of the rapidly absorbing ones.

By now, you’re probably wondering what the recommended amount of protein is. Ideally, you need between 10-35% of your daily calorie intake to come from protein. In the bodybuilding world, the consensus is for 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. So, someone who weighs 165 pounds will need 165 grams of protein.

Finally, is supplementation truly required? Is there no way to get all this protein from a healthy diet?  The answer isn’t black and white. You can get enough protein through diet alone, however, if you are training, either for endurance or strength, your muscles will need a bit of help not only to grow but especially to recover.

A strength training workout, in particular, can cause microtears in your muscles — there’s nothing wrong with that, eventually, your muscles will repair — but a protein supplement will ensure this process happens quickly, reducing pain, soreness, and increasing your strength and overall fitness performance.

L-Carnitine

L-carnitine is a naturally occurring amino acid that can be found in red meat and, in smaller amounts, in fish.  Deficiencies are relatively rare, however, those on plant-based diets are at a greater risk.  A good thing for non-meat-eaters, however, is that your body can produce l-carnitine out of 2 other amino acids: lysine and methionine. 

However, keep in mind you need a lot of vitamin C to produce enough l-carnitine.(5)  Supplementation has been shown in multiple studies to have benefits for weight loss, muscle repair, and brain function. (6, 7, 8)

The antioxidants in l-carnitine help repair muscle damage.  Its main role involves energy production in the mitochondrial of cells, which has an important role in healthy aging and immunity. (9)  

For muscle recovery, the recommended dosage is 2 grams per day.  This dose delays the onset of muscle soreness and damage caused by intense exercise and improves athletic performance in endurance training.

BCAAs

No guide to recovery supplements would be complete without discussing branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).  In short, BCAAs are a group of 3 essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

Their most common usages include boosting muscle growth, strength, and overall fitness performance however, they’ve also been shown to help with weight loss and to reduce post-workout fatigue as well.

On top of that, there is also evidence that BCAA supplementation aids in managing blood sugar levels by preserving muscle and liver sugar stores as well.(10)  Of the three BCAAs, leucine has the biggest impact on muscle repair and growth, while isoleucine and valine help increase energy and maintain stable blood sugar levels.

One study showed that those who supplement with BCAA, on average experienced 15% less fatigue during exercise in comparison to those who did not. (11)  These benefits can be observed in endurance sports as well. In another study, participants were asked to cycle under heat stress. 

A part of them was given a drink containing BCAAs, while the others were given a placebo. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers ultimately found that the group that was given BCAAs cycles 12% longer than the control group on average. (12)

As a post-workout supplement, BCAAs are great at reducing muscle soreness. They help decrease the levels of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase, both of which appear in muscle damage. This reduction via BCAA supplementation helps to improve recovery time and protect the muscles against damage. (13)

So, how much should you take?  An initial recommendation by the World Health Organization stated that the daily minimum is 15 mg of BCAA per pound of body weight. More recent studies suggest one might need as much as 65 mg per pound of body weight. 

With that being said, the current recommendations are as followed (14):  

women: 9 grams of BCAAs per day

men: 12 grams BCAA per day. 

Hydration

I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about why it’s essential to stay hydrated, but did you know hydration plays a very important role in muscle recovery after a workout?  In fact, a 2% weight loss from sweat during a workout can decrease your performance by 20%!

One thing to keep in mind is that consuming a lot of water during a workout will increase urination frequency.  While this is natural, it also impairs rehydration during and immediately after a workout.

The solution? Electrolytes! They are minerals that help regulate several body functions including pH balance, muscle contractions, nerve signaling, and most importantly, hydration. (15) Drinks that naturally contain electrolytes include coconut water, milk, and fruit juices. Sports drinks also contain electrolytes.

Another way to add electrolytes to your drinks is tablets. The great advantage is that you’re not adding any other calories from sugars or fat, as you would with the previously mentioned drinks.  Most tablets contain a mix of magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium. Some might also contain caffeine or other vitamins.

Make sure you always read the label, especially if you’re already using other supplements to avoid any interactions between them.  As for dosage, the recommended rehydration ratio is 1.5:1. In other words, for 1 liter of fluid loss, you need to drink 1.5 liters.

When To Take Recovery Supplements

When discussing recovery and especially supplements, we need to remember one thing: for most of them, it isn’t only the dosage or the quality that matters, but also the time of day when we take it.

Carbohydrates

Many of us are used to thinking of carbs as a quick and easy way to boost our energy before a workout.  This is not wrong as carbs are eaten before a workout to help maintain stable glucose levels.  The problem is, many go on saying you should stay away from carbs after a workout for as long as possible.

Why is this a problem? As we established earlier, carbs are stored in the body as glycogen which is depleted fast after an intense workout or a long one.  You need to replenish your glycogen stores as quickly as possible.

For that, you should consume 5-8 grams per pound of body weight in 2-3 hours after intense activity.  Failure to do so can result in a decrease in athletic performance, especially endurance, in the following session.  

Others claim the true recovery window, especially for an athlete, is 30 minutes.  While you may not be able to have a full meal as soon as you finish a workout, you can have a quick snack. Smoothies, for instance, are one of the easiest to have, because you can have it all in them: carbs, protein, l-carnitine, BCAA, and they also hydrate you.

Some of the best sources of carbs include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. If you don’t have time for a full meal or a smoothie, sports beverages usually contain the recommended amounts of carbs. Just be sure you read the label for any added ingredients that might interfere with your diet.

And if you take part in an intense sporting event, keep in mind that in the 4 hours after the event, you should aim for 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per hour.

Another thing to keep in mind is that immediately after a workout a combination of sugars, such as glucose and sucrose have amazing effects for recovery.  In short, grab a snack that gives you the necessary amount of carbs as soon as possible after you’re done working out.

Protein 

When used as a recovery supplement, protein is best after a workout.  To maximize its muscle repair and growth benefits, you should take your protein supplement within an hour after working out.

After intense training or an athletic event combining protein and carbs will be needed. The ideal ratio is about 40 grams of protein and 80 grams of carbs in the first hour following the training.

Other researchers claim timing is not as important, or at least the window during which you can take your protein powder is much wider.  The same research suggests this window also depends on when and what you eat before a workout. (16)

Regardless of the post-workout time frame, we take into consideration, protein powders aren’t just a supplement to use immediately after intense exercise. On the contrary, many are great when used as a bedtime snack and they’ve been proven to increase muscle protein synthesis.

The best to take before bed is casein. As we already mentioned, this is not a fast-absorbing protein, which is why you’ll rarely find it recommended as a post-workout snack.  The great thing about casein is that it decreases muscle breakdown and increases recovery and lean muscle gain. 

A combination of whey and casein before bed has been shown to increase resting metabolic rate. In other words, it increases the rate at which your body burns fat.

L-Carnitine

Unlike protein, which is an essential post-workout, l-carnitine is best taken as a pre-workout supplement. Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve been using it post-workout and like its effect, you can keep using it in the same manner.

Truth be told, opinions vary and there is no official recommendation for when to take l-carnitine. It is absorbed very quickly by the body. If you’re using it as a fat burning supplement in addition to recovery, taking it 20-30 minutes before your workout is probably best.

Some formulas also come with caffeine, in which case you should probably take it in the morning or at least pre-workout. While l-carnitine on its own is not a stimulant, most agree on the fact that taking it before bedtime might not be the best idea.   Unlike casein, which is perfect before bed, l-carnitine has no proven benefits when taken at night.

BCAAs

Most people seem to agree that the best time for taking BCAA is before a workout.  Despite this seeming consensus, there has only been one scientific study on the effects of BCAA pre-training. In it, men were given 10 grams of BCAA before training their non-dominant arm, while others were given the same amount post-workout. 

The results showed those who supplemented pre-workout experienced less muscle soreness and lower markers of muscle damage than those who supplemented post-workout.(17)  Regarding the window of time, you should know the BCAA peak in your blood about 30 minutes after taking them. 

However, there is no official consensus as to how soon before a workout you should take them for maximum benefits. With that being said, many agree that taking them somewhere between 45-60 minutes before a workout may be ideal.

There are also claims that supplementing with BCAA during endurance training can lead to better results, although studies are inconclusive. In one such trial, those taking BCAA during an event didn’t see any improvement in their performance and ultimately didn’t run faster than those who hadn’t taken any. (18)

Hydration

It should be clear by now that hydration is crucial before, during, and after a workout.  Electrolytes and sports drinks aren’t always needed. Sometimes, water is enough to keep you hydrated. It all depends on the type of workouts you do and the environmental condition. Exercising in the heat will dehydrate you much quicker than exercising on average and cold temperatures.

Another factor is the duration of your workout. If you’re exercising for less than an hour at moderate intensity and normal environmental conditions, you’re safe with just water. However, if you exercise for longer than 60 minutes at a moderate to intense pace, electrolytes are required.

The main element lost while sweating is sodium, so make sure to get enough of it through your drink, although, don’t forget that not everyone sweats in the same way.  If you know you always sweat more than others during the same effort level, it’s a sign you can benefit from more electrolytes and you need to make hydration a priority.

Also, if you see a thin layer of white on your skin or your clothes after a workout, it means you’re losing a lot of salt through your sweat. Again, this is an indicator you need to supplement with electrolytes, especially sodium.

Wrap Up

Recovery supplements help reduce muscle soreness and damage, fatigue, and more. Quantity and quality matters with all supplements, so make sure you’re getting the right amounts for your body and your level of physical activity.

Timing is also important with several recovery supplements. Protein, but also carbs need to be taken within a certain time after a workout to have the best effects. BCAA on the other hand should be taken before a workout in most cases.In short, don’t just take these supplements whenever you remember.

Keep in mind the best time for each and try to adhere to it.  For more tips and reviews to help you choose the best supplements or the best gear for your home gym, please check out dumbbellsreview.com.