I’m back in the saddle and I’m hungry. Back on my bike, back on the trails, back to a deep-down bona fide hunger—and I love it. I love the growling gut, the clarity of mind, the sense of hard-won fatigue after a grueling battle with wind and heat. My husband, Jerry, and I spend half the year in Asia, with smoke-choked skies and roads of insanity, and in those months I miss most the chance to huff and sweat like a madwoman.
This addiction to movement all started at the end of junior high when I laced an ugly pair of sneakers and trotted from our house to Barker Road and back—one full suburban mile, but it felt like a marathon to me. I ran competitively for the next four years, in that 80s era of Friday night pasta feeds before Saturday track meets. The training and nutritional wisdom back then: stuff yourself with carbs to power you through the race. Then bulk up with more carbs after.
That’s how I continued to eat and run, and that’s how I trained for my first marathon a decade later. I’d conquer a 15-mile training run, then collapse into a bowl of buttery pasta on the couch. I’d been told for years it was what my body needed. So why did I feel so crappy?
Things are different these days. I’m another decade older and I feel stronger than ever. How can that be? We generally think fatigue and age go hand in hand, so why this extra pep?
For starters, I discovered several years back that my body and wheat don’t agree (and no, this is not just a fad for millions of people who suffer ill effects after eating gluten. Don’t believe it? Read this.). There went all those pasta dinners, all those mornings of Jerry’s homemade bagels with salmon and cream cheese (and I do mourn the loss of perfect boiled-then-baked bagels, still warm from the oven, with little crystals of salt and garlic on top). But curiously gone, too, was the lethargy that inevitably settled into my workouts.
I started listening to my husband (far more the cycling fiend than I—he just finished assembling his fourth bike: an aluminum-carbon monster withCampagnolo parts and hand-built wheels). Jerry says: eat more meat. And not just meat, but a variety of proteins, which necessarily enhance post-workout muscle recovery. Instead of spaghetti, I now indulge in more cheese, sausage, nuts and protein-rich grains (such as quinoa, which is not only high in protein, but offers complete protein with all essential amino acids).
I distinctly remember an afternoon when Jerry, his sister and I tackled an up-down, sweaty, pounding, hour-long mountain bike route through the Sandia foothills, all above 6,000 feet. Afterward, we ate buffalo brats and old-fashioned beef franks (locally made; no nitrates, nitrites, MSG, preservatives or fillers) fromKeller’s Farm Store. With a mixed salad, a plate of fried blue and golden potatoes, a couple glasses of wine—I couldn’t think of a better way to recover. And I was right. The next morning I ran comfortably, nearly an hour in 90-degree heat.
Studies support the whole post-exercise protein idea (or at least they did, and perhaps they still do—it’s a bit confusing. More on this in a moment.) In 2007, theInternational Society of Sports Nutrition came out with claims that the U.S. recommendation of .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or .36 grams per pound) falls short of what an active body needs to repair itself after exercise. The Society advised athletes to eat 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day—roughly double government guidelines—depending on the intensity and duration of a workout, as well as the athlete’s physical condition.
The study’s authors claimed quantity isn’t the only factor when it comes to food for fuel. Timing is important, too. Eating protein “immediately before and following exercise training is beneficial for increasing muscle mass, recovery following exercise, and sustaining immune function.” That assertion followed years of research by John Ivy, professor and department chair of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas in Austin, whose book Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition emphasizes not just what to eat, but when.
Two summers ago, The New York Times published a similar article, noting the benefits of protein intake immediately after exercise.This followed the heels of a Runner’s World formula for a protein-packed “Powerful Day,” including three meals, a mid-morning snack, and a protein drink immediately before and after a run.
But now we learn of one teensy little problem: men. It was all about men. It turns out, a key study in this whole post-performance protein business examined 12 “well-trained” male cyclists completing three high-intensity rides over four days. Guess what—women wanted in on the action. So, The Times reports this week,Dr. David Rowlands of New Zealand’s Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health conducted a follow-up study. And here’s where it gets really murky, because the new study shows no clear benefits of protein packing for women. In fact, some women reportedly felt tired and sore after their post-ride protein.
So what do we make of this? I’m honestly not sure because my own experience tells me I feel peppy when I eat protein after exercise. According to The Times, the new study sends a clear message that sports science fails to fully understand women. And that women should “view with skepticism” the results of male-only studies. Fair enough.
I’ll gladly view all such further reports with a skeptical bite of brat in my mouth, a smear of mustard on my chin and the hard-earned sweat of a kick-butt ride still caked to my skin. Feels good to me.
This article originally appeared in The Faster Times on 07.01.2010