Let’s talk recovery drinks and BCAAs!

Post-workout “recovery drinks” (sometimes called BCAAs) are a growing trend in the fitness industry.  Are they any good? Are they worth the money? Should you be using one? Are they only for athletes? Let’s dive in!

What are “Recovery Drinks” ?

“Recovery drinks” are typically a mix of BCAAs (“Branched Chain Amino Acids”) plus electrolytes (sodium, potassium, etc.) — typically designed to help your muscles heal faster and give you what’s needed to rapidly re-hydrate after a heavy workout.

Adding electrolytes to a drink to increase hydration is a proven method of speeding up recovery. And, while there are cheaper ways to accomplish the same goal (gatorate, smart water, just plain tap water, etc.) — it’s certainly more efficient to recharge with a drink that has an optimized blend of sodium, calcium, etc.

The BCAA side is a little more interesting..

What are BCAAs?

The simple explanation is that protein is made up of amino acids. The human body actually needs 20 amino acids to keep you alive and functioning normally. Each of the 20 has its own “super power” to your body. Some stimulate brain functions, some stimulate digestion, some are required for muscle repair, and more.

Of the 20 amino acids that the human body requires,  your body can actually synthesize 11 on its own, from other foods. The remaining 9 are considered “essential amino acids” (meaning, your body has no way of getting them unless you eat them).

BCAAs represent 3 key amino acids that can stimulate the production of other amino acids (those 11 that the body can synthesize on its own).  By eating (or drinking) leucine, isoleucine, and valine, your body can synthesize other proteins!  (In fact, those 3 amino-acids are “essential”, your body can’t make them on its own, but by consuming them, your body CAN create OTHER amino acids.. hence the “branched chain” effect).

This is the fundamental principle behind recovery drinks that contain BCAAs. “Drink this, and it stimulates the body to start synthesizing proteins, which are useful for muscle repair, and lots of other things”. In fact, just the three amino acids in a BCAA make up 1/3rd of muscle protein all by themselves!  Cool, right?

When should you take a BCAA?

There are 4 “vital times” to take a BCAA where it can really make a difference

  • Right before a workout (especially if you’re working out on an empty stomach): This provides the body with protein fuel needed to sustain what you’ll be asking of it, without forcing the body to burn its own muscle to get it.
  • Right after a workout: Same as above, while speeding up recovery time and decreasing muscle soreness.
  • First thing in the morning, after not eating for a while: This is when the body is most likely looking for protein sources on its own, since you haven’t fed it in a while. The BCAA protects healthy muscle.
  • Right after your last meal of the day:  Same as above, providing the body with a dose of amino acids right before you shut down the “food feeding” keeps the body happy, and keeps it from robbing your healthy muscle.

Note that there are no side-effects, and BCAAs are well studied. They are not considered dangerous in any respect.

What happens when you take a BCAA after a workout?

  • Enhanced protein synthesis (what we talked about above).
  • Better muscle growth
  • Faster muscle repair
  • Decreased cortisol output (which can lead to increased fat burn)
  • Decreased muscle soreness

How to find a good BCAA:

  • Shouldn’t contain caffeine (unless you want the extra boost).
  • It should contain at least 5g (500mg) of Glutamine (extra muscle recovery!!)
  • It shouldn’t have any carbs, sugar, or fat, and a serving should be < 5 calories.
  • Powder form or pill form is fine, but you want at LEAST 5g (5000mg) of BCAA + the 5G of glutamine per serving. (There’s no way to overdose, so don’t worry about that).
  • 9:2:2 or 2:1:1 ratios are fine. The difference is minimal.