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What Runners Can Learn From Bodybuilders

Discover how supplementing your training with specific types of protein at precise times can take your recovery to the next level.

Discover how supplementing your training with specific types of protein at precise times can take your recovery to the next level.

It’s important for coaches and athletes to expand their base of knowledge by studying sports outside of their primary focus. While a majority of a runner’s training needs to be running-specific to maximize potential, examining the techniques and training practices used by athletes outside the running world can open our eyes to revolutionary training and nutrition insights.

Take running and bodybuilding as an example. At first glance, it might seem fruitless to look for training secrets across these two diametrically opposed disciplines: one sport celebrates the phrase “gaunt is beautiful,” while the other strives to chisel muscle like a sculptor.

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Believe it or not, runners can learn something from the training and nutrition plans espoused by bodybuilders. Specifically, how protein isolates (different types of protein) can be used to maximize recovery. Bodybuilders are masters at supplementing their training with protein intake at just the right time to fuel their muscles and spark recovery — something all runners can benefit from.

To understand how runners can capitalize on this lesson from bodybuilders, we must first examine how protein works to help muscles recover and prevent muscle breakdown. Using this knowledge, we can then understand how supplementing our training with specific protein types at precise times of day can help take your recovery to the next level.

Anabolic And Catabolic Energy Pathways

To maximize recovery, runners need to keep their bodies in a muscle-building state (or, more scientifically, an anabolic state). Running causes the muscles to break down and form micro tears, which then need to be repaired in order to get stronger and faster.  Anabolism is the metabolic pathway that repairs these muscle fibers and stimulates muscle growth.

The body needs energy for the anabolic process to occur. With an adequate supply of energy and nutrients, the body can quickly rebuild muscle and allow you to recover faster.  However, when your body doesn’t have adequate fuel to sustain the anabolic process, it begins to break down muscle to supply the body with the energy it needs. This breakdown of muscle tissue is called catabolism.

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It’s pretty obvious to bodybuilders why you wouldn’t want to break down muscle tissue — muscles are the reason they spend hours in the gym. That’s why they consume protein shakes like runners do ice cream.

Unfortunately, most runners fear that building muscle will “get them big”, so they avoid muscle-building nutrients like protein. This causes many runners to be in a perpetual state of catabolism, which hampers recovery and doesn’t maximize fitness gains.

The truth is using protein intelligently (and, more importantly, at the right times) won’t make you bigger at all. In fact, it may help you get you leaner , not to mention recover faster. In the next couple pages I’ll identify the two main types of protein supplements runners should use, as well as explain when these supplements should be implemented into the diet in order to maximize recovery.

Casein Protein: Delaying Catabolism

Your body undergoes catabolism every night while you’re asleep. While you’re sleeping, your body is literally eating its own muscle  because you’ve been fasting since your head hit the pillow. When you’re trying to recover from a hard workout or prepare your body for an upcoming track session, this is far from optimal.

To delay and lessen instances of catabolism at night, it’s necessary to supplement your diet with a protein that is slow to digest and provides your body with muscle-building nutrients while you’re sleeping. Luckily, bodybuilders have done the heavy lifting for us (pun intended) and found the perfect slow-digesting form of protein — it’s called casein.

Casein is a protein derived from milk that releases a steady stream of amino acids over a 3 to 4 hour period. Therefore, it is the perfect protein and ideal supplement to consume before bedtime. In one study, consuming casein protein before bedtime resulted in a 34% reduction in muscle breakdown. In essence, consuming casein protein before bedtime could speed up your rate of recovery by 34 percent.

Whey Protein: Restarting The Anabolic Process

Even if you’re taking casein protein before bed, you’ll still have some muscle breakdown when you wake up — one serving of casein protein can’t halt muscle breakdown for 7-9 hours on its own. Therefore, you need to halt the catabolic process as soon as possible, which means consuming a quick-digesting protein.

Again, thanks to the help of our bodybuilder brethren, we know that whey is the fastest digesting form of protein. Like casein, whey is also a protein derived from milk, and is ideal for releasing a quick dose of amino acids and proteins to starving muscles.

Drinking a shake that contains whey protein causes an increase in blood amino acids levels in under an hour, hitting peak levels in just under 90 minutes. I recommend consuming a serving of whey protein in the morning to stop catabolism and keep your body on its muscle building trajectory. Likewise, whey is also the form of protein most commonly used in recovery drinks and shakes because of it is absorbed by the body so quickly.

Putting It All Together

The final step is combining what we’ve learned from our bodybuilder friends and applying it to running.

If you really want to boost the recovery after your hardest workout days, you should consider supplementing your nutrition with a protein shake.

Of course, many runners hear the words “protein shake” and immediately think of bulking up or gaining weight. However, there is a big difference between weight gainer or meal replacement shakes and pure protein shakes. Pure protein shakes contain about as many calories (130) as a tablespoon of peanut butter. So, consuming a protein shake or two is not going to cause you to gain weight; there simply isn’t enough calories.

In the evening, you should have one serving of casein protein powder with a glass of milk. Personally, I find casein shakes blended with milk to taste pretty good (peanut butter is my favorite) and it’s a great substitute for empty-calorie desserts. As noted before, casein will reduce muscle breakdown while you sleep, whereas Oreo cookies won’t.

In the morning, try consuming one serving of whey protein powder with a glass of water. This will halt the nighttime catabolism and spark muscle recovery. If you’re training hard, especially if you’re running twice per day, this will jump start the anabolic process. Drinking whey protein with the water will also rehydrate you, so you’re covering two important bases at the same time.

When shopping for protein powders, look for the first ingredient to be whey protein isolate for your whey protein supplement and miceller casein for your casein powders. In the whey supplement, at least 80% of the supplement should be protein (divide the grams of protein by the grams per serving). For casein, this number should be over 65%.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below.