Recover to Keep in Shape

Recover to Keep in Shape (Health Intelligence Magazine Edition 33 May/June 2015)

Most professional sports people and fitness enthusiasts would agree that today’sperformance is only as good as yesterday’srecovery, says fitness expert Mario Van Biljon.

Intense exercise can be taxing on the body and if recovery is not adequate then one can end up taking a step backwards for every step forwards. This can result in deterioration in not only appearance (loss of lean muscle and related muscle tone) but also in performance (lack of energy and a loss of strength and endurance). Equally worrying is the fact that the risk of injury increases, and susceptibility to and frequency of infection and other illnesses rise dramatically with insufficient recovery.

If you’re not getting the results you want despite your best efforts, are prone to injury, often experience a general feeling of malaise or are frequently stopped in your tracks by illness or infection, it may just be that you need to take a closer look at your recovery efforts, or lack thereof.

Before we delve into some strategies to improve both your appearance and performance, let’s get a better understanding of the body’s responses to exercise.


The sculpting and toning of muscle is very much an adaptive response. Lean muscle is a dynamic tissue in that it is constantly either breaking down (catabolism) or building up (anabolism). If your goal is to accrue new lean muscle tissue and enhance muscle shape then you need to work hard to tip the scales in favour of anabolism. And for this, the recovery process is critical. Intense exercise causes micro-trauma to muscle fibres, with the result that muscle tissue is broken down and important building blocks, for example, amino acids like glutamine and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), are lost. Further tissue damage and muscle loss result from the increase in exercise-induced free radicals, which “attack” muscle cells.

After a workout the body sets in motion an adaptive response to repair and rebuild the damaged tissue. If conditions are favourable then the body will ultimately build its muscle back bigger, stronger and more resistant than before. This is how we sculpt our way to a more shapely,  more toned body.


1. Don’t neglect the post-training “window of opportunity”

The post-exercise “window of opportunity” is considered to be the hour or so following a workout, in which your body’s ability to absorb and utilise nutrients is enhanced. It’s important to therecovery process and ultimately your training progress that you make maximum use of this period by consuming  anutrient-rich, easily digestible meal straight after completing your training sessions.

Liquid carbohydrate / protein blends or a combination of fruit and whey protein are examples of good post-training choices,as they are low in fat and provide easily digested carbohydrates and high-quality proteins, which aid the recovery process.

2. Eat enough high-quality protein

Protein is the main structural component of muscle tissue and as such it is essential for the optimum recovery and building of muscle after exercise. Research shows that active individuals need more protein than sedentary folk, and this requirement can be as high as 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (120g per day for someone weighing 60kg) in order to maintain and build new lean muscle tissue. Insufficient daily protein intake results in what is known as a negative nitrogen balance, which in effect equates to a loss of muscle tissue.

Considering that most lean meats, like chicken breast, ostrich, fish and fillet steak, contain around 22–25g of protein per100g, a glass of fat-free milk less than 10g of protein and an average egg white around 3–4g of protein, you can understand why some individuals don’t eat sufficient daily protein to optimise muscle recovery (vegetarians are at particular risk in this regard).

Ideally, the average individual needs to be eating at least 4–5 small, protein-rich meals per day (supplying 25-35g of protein per meal). The best sources of high-quality protein include fat-free dairy (milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese), chicken breast, ostrich, lean beef, fish and seafood. Protein powders, meal replacement powders and high-protein snacks make this task a lot easier for those unable to prepare and eat 4–5 high-protein, whole-food meals each day.

3. Stay well hydrated

With blood being comprised of around 82% water, your brain 76% and muscle tissue around 75%, water is considered the most important nutrient in your body. Optimum health, peak performance and maximum muscle recovery are absolutely dependent on adequate fluid intake and good hydration. We need to be aware that every biochemical reaction in the body takes place in the presenc eofwater. You couldn’t even blink without sufficient hydration levels, let alone swim a race, run a marathon or workout at the gym.

With water accounting for around 70% of your total body weight (that’s around40l in a 60kg person), the loss of even a tiny portion of this water significantly reduces exercise performance and recovery efforts. For example, even slight dehydration (2–3%) can result in an upto 10% loss in both strength and speed.

The most successful gym-goers and fitness enthusiasts generally place an emphasis on staying well hydrated during the day because they realise that water plays avital role in building muscle and burning fat. Optimal hydration also significantly enhances workout performance, focus, training intensity and recovery inbetween sets.

With a common sweat rate of around 50–75ml per five minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, evidence suggests that a good rule of thumb is to drink about 750–1,000ml of fluid per hour during training. Once your workout has ended it’s important to keep drinking water throughout the day so that you are fully hydrated before your next training session.

4. Ward off infection with vitamins C & E

Active individuals produce more free radicals and therefore need more important antioxidants such as vitamins C and E than can be obtained from diet alone. Left unchecked, free radicals wreak havoc in our bodies, damaging cell membranes, delaying recovery, increasing post-workout pain  andcurtailing  protein synthesis, leading to a loss in lean muscle tissue.  

Hard-training individuals are generally at increased risk of illness and infection because of a sub optimal nutritional status resulting from the increased nutrient demands of intense exercise. Since nothing derails our efforts in the gym more than the flu or other infections, a pro active approach would be to supplement with free- radical-scavenging antioxidants that support our immune system. I recommend at least 500–1,000mg of vitaminC and 400IU of vitamin E daily.

5. Supplement with L-Glutamine

Our immune systems are heavily dependent on glutamine, anamino acid. Intense exercise can overwhelm the body’s ability to produce adequate glutamine, and so both muscle and immune cells end up with a short supply, with a consequent loss of muscle mass and strength, as well as a decline in immunity and recovery ability.

So when the body is under stress, from intense exercise or illness, for example, glutamine supplementation can plan an invaluable role in protecting muscle tissue, and supporting both recovery efforts and the immune system. Consider supplementing with 5-10g of L-Glutamine after workouts to bolster your immune system, protect your muscles from the ravages of intense exercise and optimise post-workout recovery.

6. Supplement with BCAAs

BCAAs have been shown to promote the building of muscle tissue by enhancing recovery and post-exercise protein synthesis rates. Plus, muscle cells are able to use BCAAs as a direct fuel source, which spares lean tissue from being broken down for energy during training.

Because of these perks, as well as the fact that our bodies need to get BCAAs from our diet as we can’t make them, it should come as no surprise that whey protein and free-form BCAAs are two of the most popular supplements among gym-goers looking to enhance recovery and boost their fitness. Whey protein is rich in essential amino acids and, most importantly, has on average a 25% BCAA content.

A daily serving or two of whey protein is therefore a very effective way of ensuring ample BCAA intake.

Alternatively, consider supporting your efforts in the gym by supplementing with 3–5g of BCAAs once or twice daily, the most important dose taken 30–45 minutes before training.

7.  Get enough sleep

One of the greatest recovery aids and progress boosters is often overlooked. The concept of getting enough sleep is seldom considered by most of us, yet it can do more for our training and recovery efforts than 90% of the other things we obsess over. Sufficient sleep is crucial to optimal recovery and if you don’t make the effort to get the recommended 7–9 hours a night, you may suffer injury, illness or frustration from a lack of progress.

If you’re unable to get adequate sleep everynight, taking naps may offer a solution. The afternoon fatigue that sets in for almost all of us who aren’t getting enough sleep is a normal thing. It’s your body’s way of telling you it needs rest. The smartest plan is to take a short nap–about 20–30 minutes is ideal. Getting a good night’s sleep and taking a regular afternoon nap will help you to recover, build lean muscle faster, boost your immune system, focus, and enhance your well-being and health.