A study released in February made quite the splash in the sports nutrition world. Scientists compared junk foods, such as hamburgers, fries and soda to standard athletic supplements like cyatomax, gatorade, powerbars and cliff shots as they relate to exercise recovery. To do this, they asked 11 cyclists to come to their lab after fasting for 12 hours, do a 90-minute interval workout, rest for 4 hours, and then complete a 20 kilometer time trial. During the four hour recovery period, they fed them either a junk food meal or sports supplement meal that was equal in calories, protein, carbohydrate and fat. They then measured outcome markers such as glycogen, insulin, glucose, blood lipids as well as the general energy levels and feelings of the athletes during the next session.
And what did they find? There was no different between the two groups in time trial performance, lab values or general acceptance of the food. The cyclists on the junk food diet had the SAME results as those on the sports supplement diet. Results showed the diets to be equal in terms of short-term athletic recovery. Results did NOT show that junk food worked better than sports supplements, let's just get that clear.
So, let's break this down. What does it really mean? Should we throw out our cliff bars and get some fries? Make a pit stop by McDonalds on our way home from a long hike?
The point is that sports supplements are sometimes just an expensive marketing ploy aimed at athletes, and may be no better than the worst foods out there. The point is NOT that we should be eating junk food for recovery, or for anything at all.
Junk food is not for athletic recovery. Junk food is not food.
That being said, there's an important problem with this study - it was only a short term measure of some very specific outcomes. It didn't take into account the whole picture. In a post-work out, depleted state, our muscles are searching and desperate for glucose. This means that ANY form of sugar will do the job.
What the study didn't look at was how the athletes felt the next day. Sore? Tired? Ready for another time trial? True recovery is more than just replenishing glycogen (muscle energy) storage. That's important, sure. But what's also important is all the tiny repairs that need to be made and inflammation to be tamed. For this, you need not only carbohydrates, but vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. That's why foods like berries and beets have gotten such a strong reputation for boosting athletic performance.
Junk food also has a plethora of negative health effects. No matter how much you exercise, you can't run (or hike) off a bad diet. That's why we see NFL football players with heart disease and hikers with chronic injuries. This food is strongly linked to serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, hypertension and digestive problems. So, really, is that what we should be eating after a workout? Is that what we should be eating to hike 25 miles, day after day after day?
Instead, eat food that supports our body's natural ability to heal and prevent disease. Eat plants! Smoothies, fruit, nuts, beans, seeds, whole grains, vegetables.
Check out these videos to learn more about plants that can help athletic performance (way more than both junk food and sports supplements).
Reducing Muscle Soreness with Berries
Raisins vs Jelly Beans for Athletic Performance
Doping with Beet Juice
This study isn't the only one to compare two ineffective interventions and get blown up by the media. This happens a lot - a bad diet is compared to a slightly less bad diet, and suddenly... butter is back! In the face of all this confusion regarding what we humans should eat, don't let this sensationalism confuse you.
Eat plants. And keep things simple.
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Other Neat Things:
My friends Harpo and Groucho are some bad-ass thru-hiking vegans. Read their blog here.
Idyllwild is a favorite trail town for many PCT hikers. This online magazine has featured a few hikers and also keeps up with mountain-town happenings.
Future Dad is thru-hiking the Pacific Crest, Te Aurora and Appalachian Trails back-to-back-to-back, all in one year! He's also a really awesome story teller. Read his stories here.