Train Hard, Recover Harder.
When you’re putting your body under stress through training, you want it to recover well in order to get stronger and fitter, particularly at higher volumes of training. Getting a good dose of protein around training is especially important for women, because of how the hormones progesterone and oestrogen work in a women's body. A little bit of protein before and definitely after training helps counteract the impact of progesterone in the high hormone phase of a woman’s cycle, and helps our muscles to recover and adapt.
As women’s Sports Physiologist Stacy Sims explains in her groundbreaking book ‘Roar’, progesterone increases muscle breakdown (catabolism) and is elevated during the high hormone phase of the menstrual cycle – the two weeks before a period. During this time oestrogen levels are also high which impacts women’s capacity to access and used stored carbohydrate (muscle glycogen turnover).
Our bodies need available carbs to prevent us from eating into our muscles during exercise, and to help us to recover quickly when we’re done. So during the high hormone phase, it’s especially important for women to get a good dose of protein and carbs to counteract the progesterone aspect, particularly post exercise.
Stacy has outlined a few simple ways to counteract the effects these hormones have on performance and recovery. She recommends:
10 grams of protein before exercise
20-25 grams of protein after exercise, within 30 minutes
Protein before exercise increases the amount of amino acids circulating, so you end up with less of a signal to break down muscle tissue from progesterone. It also kick starts your ability to recover by having these amino acids circulating.
Protein after exercise helps with muscle repair and adaptation. Ideally you want a mix of a fast release protein (for example whey) then a slower release protein (for example casein, found in dairy products). Then you have a longer time of circulating amino acids to help with recovery. Rice or Pea protein has a similar amino profile to whey as a plant-based alternative.
What could this look like in practice?
For me, before exercise, I find a Nothing Naughty plant-based protein bar is a really good option – they are around 12g of protein per bar, sit well in my stomach, are convenient on the go and delicious! I like to have one with a coffee for morning tea in advance of a lunchtime HITT or strength class at my gym.
For immediately after exercise a scoop of protein in a smoothie is around 20-25g protein. Other good options are yogurt with protein powder and fruit, or rice cakes with nut butter and banana. Our muscles are most receptive to storing glycogen immediately after exercise, so including some carbohydrate with the protein is also important for recovery, particularly after intense training.
I like to make what I call a ‘berry protein smush’ – it’s quick to prepare, portable and can be made in bulk and frozen/defrosted beforehand. Easy to make it plant-based. See below for recipe!
Stacy Sims also recommends increasing hydration and salt intake right before and during a period and explores hydration in more detail in her book 'Roar'.
In summary, consuming protein around training helps women maximize adaptation and recovery, which helps you maintain consistency of training, which is ultimately key to success, particularly in endurance-based sports.
Protein Berry Smush
1 scoop protein powder (I use nothing naughty unflavoured rice protein powder)
Some frozen berries – blueberries are great
Some cocoa powder – make it as chocolatey as you want
Shake of cinnamon
Mix up with some milk – I use coconut but any type is fine - into a yoghurt-like consistency
(For a higher-glucose option, add some honey, rice syrup or maple syrup)
Optional: decorate with something like desiccated coconut or cacao nibs or chopped nuts.
Variations: add some green smoothie powder for added nutrient boost.
Time saver: make a batch put them in containers – you can even mix in the container or just shake to mix with the lid on, freeze and take one out before you go – it defrosts in a couple of hours or so – a great option for straight after an event like a running race. (I also like it for afternoon tea).
Written by Rebecca Speirs – find out more about Rebecca at madetomove.co