Carbohydrate-rich foods promote muscle glycogen replenishment after strenuous exercise. The best foods for glycogen replenishment are bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, cereals, vegetables, fruits, beans, and even sweets! Foods high in protein are also crucial for increased glycogen repletion.
Why are high glycogen levels important for athletes?
Muscle glycogen plays a key role in sport performance, fatigue, and recovery after exercise. Full muscle glycogen stores significantly increase aerobic endurance. High glycogen levels are crucial for strenuous exercise lasting more than 90 minutes. Athletes feel fatigue when muscle glycogen stores are depleted.
Glycogen is actually glucose stored in the liver and muscles. It’s an instant source of fuel for the muscle tissue. The body stores glycogen when we consume more carbs than we need.
But, glycogen isn’t the only source of energy in the body. In fact, glycogen is only a small portion of the body’s stored energy. Actually, body fat is the main source of energy. But, fat is burned slowly. Explosive exercise or training at a high VO2max demands high amounts of glycogen. Glycogen provides energy much faster than fat.
Reduced glycogen stores are bad for sport performance
If glycogen stores are depleted, the body will burn more fat and protein. This could lead to decreased performance, fatigue, muscle soreness, muscle breakdown, and delayed muscle recovery, though.
How can athletes restore muscle glycogen?
The body stores approximately 450-550 g of glycogen within the muscle tissue and the liver. This amount of glycogen is enough for 90 to 120 minutes of intense exercise.
Glycogen burns rapidly. However, empty glycogen stores can take more than a day to be restored. The body can replenish 2-5% of muscle glycogen stores per hour after a workout when food that stimulates glycogen synthesis is eaten.
Foods high in carbs right after exercise significantly increase the replenishment rate of glycogen. In fact, the first 2 hours after exercise are crucial for fast glycogen replenishment.
In general, the human body can synthesize 2% of glycogen per hour. But, according to studies, this rate can be increased by up to 5% by consuming 50 g of carbs every 2 hours after exercise. Small doses of carbs (28 grams) every 15 minutes seem to further increase the repletion rate of glycogen.
In most cases, muscle glycogen stores need at least 20 hours to be fully replenished. Even with the best diet.
Therefore, as glycogen levels need many hours to be completely replenished, what you ate yesterday is more important for your energy levels than the food you’ll eat today!
Eat food high in carbs after exercise to replenish glycogen!
Athletes who need the fastest glycogen replenishment and muscle recovery should have 5 meals every 2 hours after exercise, containing a total of at least 400 g of carbs and 100 g of protein. Your first meal should be as soon as possible after a workout!
Muscle insulin sensitivity is significantly increased after exercise. Thus, muscle can absorb more glucose! Right after exercise, the rate of glycogen synthesis is 50% higher, as compared to several hours after a workout.
How many carbs for optimal glycogen replenishment?
According to many studies, key factors of glycogen replenishment are:
- the amounts of carbs
- the frequency and
- the timing of meals
Athletes should consume a high-carb meal immediately after exercise, followed by many other frequent high-carb meals to rapidly increase muscle glycogen levels.
One study reported that a total carbohydrate dose of 550-625 g a day can restore muscle glycogen stores to pre-exercise levels within only 22 hours. Another study found that, 3,100 kcal of carbs (775 g carbs) can completely restore glycogen stores within 24 hours.
In order to maximize muscle glycogen storage, athletes should have many high-carb snacks. In fact, athletes can significantly improve the rate of glycogen synthesis having a high-carb meal every 2 hours! Furthermore, athletes should consume about 0.6-0.7 grams of carbs per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per hour.
For instance, a 70 kg (155 lb) athlete should have 5 meals every 2 hours after exercise, with 84 grams of carbs per meal. So, this athlete should consume about 420 grams of carbs the first 8 hours after exercise to maximize muscle glycogen storage.
Moreover, athletes could further increase the rate of glycogen synthesis having high-carb snacks every 15-30 minutes. The glycogen synthesis further increases by approximately 30%! Also, adding some protein to your post workout meal can further increase the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis!
Best foods to replenish glycogen
Athletes should eat a wide variety of nutrient-dense, carbohydrate-rich foods, such as:
- whole grains and pseudocereals (e.g. quinoa),
- corn flakes,
A combination of simple (monosaccharides, disaccharides, maltodextrins) and complex (starches and fibers) carbohydrates along with a variety of micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants is ideal for fast muscle recovery.
These sources of carbs can be quickly digested, and absorbed by the muscles for fast replenishment of glycogen stores. So, the best time to eat high-glycemic carbs, such as white bread or sugar, is right after exercise. These foods can further maximize the rate of glycogen synthesis.
Moreover, in athletes who have to compete in less than 24 hours, the total amount of consumed carbs is more crucial than the frequency of meals.
Keep in mind that runners and other endurance athletes should avoid consuming fiber before a race.
Add protein to your post workout meal for faster muscle recovery!
Moreover, athletes should consume protein in their post workout meal. Strenuous exercise causes muscle tissue damage, due to physical stress, as well as hormonal changes. Without protein intake, exercise may lead to breakdown of the muscle protein to provide fuel for muscle contraction.
Most noteworthy, muscle damage doesn’t occur only during exercise. It goes on after exercise for many hours. Furthermore, muscle damage can inhibit the replenishment of muscle glycogen.
Therefore, athletes should consume protein along with carbs in their post workout meals. Getting carbs with protein accelerates muscle recovery.
For optimal glycogen synthesis, athletes should consume protein to a 1:4 ratio. 1 gram of protein per 4 grams of carbs!
The addition of protein to a high-carb post workout meal increases the rate of glycogen synthesis by approximately 38% over the first 4 hours of recovery!