Original Author: Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
Even if you’re hard at work, putting in the time and effort to increase your endurance and improve recovery—certain nutrition myths could be keeping you from optimal muscle building and repairing your body. Overlooking other areas of your health, including sleep, might be setting you back. For my top tips to optimize your athletic recovery while sleeping, keep reading.
There are a variety of chemical compounds in the body that impact metabolism and ability to recover from exercise. Two of the most important are growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). The two strongest stimuli for release of GH are exercise itself and sleep. However, don’t go thinking that GH injections will help you. “Research suggests there would only be benefits if you’re deficient in the hormone,” says Natalie Rizzo MS, RD, and author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner. Therefore, in addition to the workouts you engage in to increase strength and muscle size, adequate sleep is necessary for optimal muscle synthesis.
The importance of sleep to enhance all areas of health may seem obvious, but have you considered how your food intake impacts your ability to recover while asleep? It’s widely known in the fitness community that what you eat immediately after a workout is important for recovery, aka, maximizing muscle repair and growth. A mix of carbohydrates and protein within two hours of exercise will stimulate recovery and repair while refueling you for later. Since GH and IGF-1 are released in response to exercise and soon after you fall asleep, we can easily apply our knowledge of what to eat post-workout to what we should eat before bed.
“Not only can skipping a meal or snack when you’re hungry negatively influence appetite later, but it’s also reducing your body’s ability to repair.”
It’s Okay to Eat at Night!
Many people hear they shouldn’t eat before bed, but Rizzo says, “I don’t know where this myth came from, but you absolutely shouldn’t skip a snack at night if you’re hungry. This can mean you’ll wake up starving and overeat the next day.” Not only can skipping a meal or snack when you’re hungry negatively influence appetite later, but it’s also reducing your body’s ability to repair. Registered Dietitian and marathoner Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RD says “newer research actually demonstrates that overnight muscle protein synthesis may be blunted if there is inadequate amino acid availability.”
A protein-rich snack closer to bed makes those amino acids available as building blocks once GH and IGF-1 levels rise. It isn’t just about protein though. Schlichter adds, “undereating or skipping an after-dinner snack may lead to less optimal blood sugar control throughout the night and greater muscle protein breakdown.” When blood sugar is low, you’ll be more likely to use the protein you eat or muscle protein as a fuel source. This is just one of many reasons carbohydrates support fitness.
Your Intake Should be Unique to You
It may sound like a good idea to eat exactly what your trainer eats, or your workout buddy, or that guy you follow on Instagram. But, their lifestyle, genetics, and preferences aren’t identical to yours. When you exercise later, you may need to use some trial and error to determine the best eating pattern for you. “If you know a big meal will interfere with sleep, stick to a snack. If you do eat dinner late though, I would suggest staying away from overly spicy food or foods heavy in fat—such as a cheeseburger and fries—as both may cause indigestion or sleep disturbances in some people,” says Rizzo. Since you still need to eat enough to support your active lifestyle, having dinner in the early afternoon and a snack post-workout is an option. Or, mini-meals before and after workouts can be beneficial. Still, Schlichter adds that “not having rigid rules around mealtime can be a helpful nutrition strategy for athletes with unpredictable training schedules.”
Focus Less on Supplements and More on Real Food
While supplements like shakes, bars, and powders are convenient, they might be missing some essential proteins for optimal athletic recovery. Despite common knowledge, for muscle repair, you actually want a whole food protein source. Many people don’t realize that BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), found in many supplements, are only 3 of the 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) and that collagen protein, another popular supplement, is missing the essential amino acid tryptophan.
Both BCAAs and collagen are trendy supplement choices for athletes, yet all 9 EAAs occur naturally in protein-rich foods, especially those that come from animal sources. “In addition to a variety of amino acids, whole food sources offer other nutritional components that supplements don’t readily offer, such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and more,” says Schlichter. She adds “while it seems more convenient to rely on protein bars, shakes, and powders at night, in order for protein to work effectively, we need to consume other nutrients through a well-balanced diet, too.”
Easy Meal and Night Time Snack Options
As mentioned earlier, pairing carbohydrates with protein is best not only for muscle repair, but also to replace muscle glycogen (energy) stores for your next workout. To maximize muscle repair further, you’ll want to eat foods rich in the amino acid leucine. Dairy and eggs are convenient protein sources rich in leucine, and also provide plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to aid in repair. Chicken and beef also contain all essential amino acids with plenty of leucine. If you’re looking for vegan options, edamame and peas are good sources of leucine, too.
Snacks and Meal Suggestions
- Pair cottage cheese or Greek yogurt with fruit.
- Throw together a post-workout smoothie an hour before bed.