Athletic nutrition is a a ridiculously complex topic that I won’t claim to fully understand. In fact, I’m a bit of a nutrition idiot. For the most part, this doesn’t hurt me— I think that long-course or IM athletes are the ones who really need to treat race day nutrition as a “fourth event” in triathlon (or a third event in duathlon). But I do have some ideas about recovery nutrition and I think I have some of this down pretty well. The purpose of this short post is to share a quick tip for making this cheap and easy.
There are a few ideas motivating this post. First, training nutrition can be super-expensive and I’d rather not tithe my limited income to the sports nutrition industry. Consider, for instance, my absolute favorite recovery supplement— Ultragen by First Endurance. This magical powder does an amazing job at enabling my body to recover, but at $45 per bottle (which comes out to $3.00 per serving), I rarely use it except when I absolutely have to. If I used it everyday, it would cost me $90 a month, which is fine if I didn’t have to buy a bunch of other supplements, eat, pay a mortgage, etc. Second, this post is about recovery nutrition and not daily nutrition. My quick tip below is NOT something that I would recommend to anyone in terms of your regular meals or snacks. Matt Dixon makes a big point of this distinction
and I think it’s really important to remember— Ultragen and the stuff I mix up is hardly health food. Instead, it serves one purpose and one purpose only: to help you recover quickly from a hard workout. And it’s only meant for consuming at one specific time only– right after a workout or big race.
My trick came to me one day and I was feeling guilty about gulping down a serving of Ultragen after a hard workout. Looking on the back of the bottle, I read through the list of ingredients. While all the ingredients in Ultragen work synergistically, the two main ingredients are whey protein isolate and glucose— both of which are relatively inexpensive. These two ingredients also make a lot of sense to put into a recovery drink. Glucose (which has a glycemic index of a perfect 100) floods into the blood system almost immediately. This is THE most important ingredient because muscle cells soak up glucose much more readily in the first 20 minutes after exercise— so the faster you can get that glucose into the bloodstream, the better. Any other types of sugar (sucrose, fructose, etc) or longer sugar chains (e.g. maltodextrin) need to be broken down or converted into glucose molecules before they can be used by your body. Whey protein isolate also makes sense because it is the most “broken down” of all the variations on whey protein (e.g. whey protein, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein isolate). This means that the protein chains are the shortest and it is the easiest for the body to break down into individual amino acids. Using purified amino acids might be even faster, but that would likely be prohibitively expensive and yield a product that tastes awful.
Glucose and whey protein bought in bulk is also pretty cheap. For instance, I recently bought a 50 pound bag of dextrose
(the same chemical as glucose— dextrose is the name used in the food industry) for $50 (shipping itself was about $40)! When the UPS guy delivered the bag, I was shocked and initially thought that he was dropping off a bag of cattle feed. Whey protein isolate is far more expensive but still a relative bargain compared to commercial sports recovery supplements. I recently bought a 10 pound bag of it for $132 on Amazon Prime
To make my supplement, I grab a ziploc sandwich bag and scoop out two large scoops of glucose and a little less than one scoop of whey protein isolate. Immediately after my workout, I mix this up in a water bottle and slurp the whole thing down. It doesn’t taste completely awful (how’s that for a ringing endorsement)— a bit like a sweet watered down milk. It also does a great job at kickstarting the recovery process. Again, it doesn’t work as well as First Endurance Ultragen, but I think it meets or exceeds the performance of any other supplement out there. I calculate that it also costs about $0.70 per serving (10 cents for the dextrose and 60 cents for the protein), so it can easily fit into any budget as a great recovery supplement. I still use Ultragen a lot on a couple of occasions. For instance, for particularly grueling workouts where I know that I will be suffering the next day, I need the extra recovery power of Ultragen. I also use Ultragen during the taper period leading up to my A races. In both these cases, I want perfect recovery— and I figure that the extra cost is worth it. Any other time, I just stick with my cheaper alternative.
While I’m at it, I’ll mention some pre-workout supplements that I really like. Before any really tough workout, I tend to use First Endurance Multi-V. Yes, yes, I know it’s sold as just a multi-vitamin, but it also has a nifty enzyme in it that takes your pre-workout meal (my favorite is a bagel with almond butter and blueberry jam) and helps your body convert it into glucose. In the pre-workout arena, you really don’t want to gulp down a bunch of glucose directly as it can lead to some pretty severe cramping (mostly due to the low molecular weight of glucose– so solutions with high concentrations of glucose will have a very high osmolarity). But using Multi-V with a more substantive meal is a neat way of bypassing this gastric distress. I get Multi-V for about $40 per bottle at Amazon
, which is good for about 30 workouts.
A final supplement that I sometimes take is Champion Nutrition’s Muscle Nitro. This supplement is very “old school” as it’s been around forever. It can cause diarrhea if taken on an empty stomach so it works great when I take it at the same time as my bagel and Multi-V (about an hour before a hard workout or about 90 minutes before a race). I can’t tell you what it is about Muscle Nitro that works— it just does. It’s also pretty cheap and you can find it at a bunch of places on the internet (Champion Nutrition may have put production of it on hold as they now advertise a PM version which is an entirely different product).
Most people are pretty skeptical when I mention that these two products do a great job at improving the quality of my workouts and my recovery. All I can say is that, if you are interested in improving the quality of your workouts, it’s really worth trying them.