Muscle Recovery – Quick Summary
- A low carbohydrate diet can prompt the burning of stored body fat and help preserve/build muscle simultaneously.
- Lowering protein intake (the most financially costly macronutrient) can promote the burning of more stored fat for energy.
- Tactical carbohydrate use for primal and paleo followings can lower the time of recovery and increase quality of recovery, as well as raising overall energy levels.
Muscle Recovery Guide
You probably know by now that I’m a huge proponent of the ketogenic, primal, and paleo diets. They lead to ultimate, long term, high quality health.
But I’m also a fan of fitness, building usable muscle, and having a great physique.
This leads me to an apparent paradox.
Most fitness resources tell you that for optimal muscle recovery you must eat lots of carbohydrates – the antithesis of the keto/primal/paleo health mantra.
As such, a very common question among those curious about the low carbohydrate lifestyle is…
Will radically lowering your carb intake cause muscle breakdown and ruin all your hard work in the gym?
The short answer is no. A low carbohydrate diet in combination with fitness has multiple advantages to retain and increasing lean muscle mass.
Ketones For Muscle Recovery
The ketogenic diet is the sweet spot for alternative muslce fueling.
Ketones are the secret macronutrient you’ve been looking for. Ketone bodies are produced by the liver when carbohydrates are unavailable to be burned for energy.
With no carbohydrates to use as energy, the body is forced to begin using stored fat as its main energy source – the state of ketosis (and hence the ketogenic diet name).
When ketones are being used as energy, they have a positive effect on muscle recovery, muscle preservation, and increasing muscle size and strength.
“In addition, ketone bodies exert a restraining influence on muscle protein breakdown. If the muscle is plentifully supplied with other substrates for oxidation (such as fatty acids and ketone bodies, in this case), then the oxidation of muscle protein-derived amino acids is suppressed.” 1)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1373635/
This study is clear to specify that “other substrates” includes fatty acids, which are obtained from either stored body fat or ingested high quality fats.
There are a few points that need to be expanded here.
- It can take several weeks for your body to fully adjust and begin burning stored fat efficiently.
- A weak attempt with sporadic carbohydrate bingeing will keep your body from fully adjusting, consistently producing ketones, and truly “exerting that restraining influence on muscle protein breakdown.”
- During that time of adjustment into fat adaption, you must eat lots of high quality fats – a counter intuitive concept for a seasoned, carbohydrate dependent fitness enthusiast.
A proper ketogenic diet consists of about 70% fat. 2)https://articles.mercola.com/ketogenic-diet.aspx
On a 2500 calorie diet that means you’ll need to consume 194 grams of high quality fat every day!
A seasoned gym-goer will have to reprogram their brain to accept this fact, as they’ve likely been conditioned to eat carbs, carbs, carbs and limit their fat intake.
But it’s important that you eliminate damaged or low quality fats from processed packaged foods, and processed oils.
Damaged or manipulated fats (to increase shelf life and taste) cause inflammation and disrupt healthy cellular, immune, endocrine, and hormone function. 3)Sisson, Mark. The New Primal Blueprint. Oxnard: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2017. Print.
So just remember these two things:
- Eat high quality fats, and…
- If you aren’t committing to the point where your body is producing ketones, you don’t get their muscle preservation or muscle recovery benefits.
You can’t take shortcuts here. And that leads me to my next point.
High Protein Intake Is A Sugar Binge
Conventional training recovery methods say that a high protein intake will help preserve and build stronger, bigger muscles.
For those adjusting to a ketogenic, primal, or paleo diet you may be tempted to ramp up your protein intake as your carbohydrate intake is radically reduced.
Be cautious of overdoing your protein intake. Excess protein can have the reverse effect on your low carbohydrate efforts.
Adding too much protein into a glucose deprived (all carbs are converted into glucose/sugar before used as energy) system can cause gluconeogenesis.
“This is because the liver has the ability to convert the amino acids that are found in protein into sugar. This process is called gluconeogenesis. An excess amount of protein may be turned into sugar to feed systemic infections in the body and lead to autoimmune diseases.” 4)https://bodyecology.com/articles/low-carbohydrate-dieters-beware-of-high-protein-intake
Adding excess protein into your system is the same as eating carbohydrates – they are both converted to glucose (sugar) and will hinder your ketone production.
Especially during the period where you’re transitioning to fat adaption.
Once again, this will hinder the ketone benefits of muscle recovery and preservation.
In addition, the production of insulin to counteract higher blood glucose levels is perceived as a stressful event.
Stressful events send your body into defense.
In this case the release of excess cortisol, which breaks down muscle tissue into amino acids for conversion to more glucose, can also counteract the muscle preservation of ketone bodies. 5)Sisson, Mark. The New Primal Blueprint. Oxnard: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2017. Print.
There IS A Place For Carbohydrates (Ketosis <50g Carbohydrates Per Day)
For those simply wanting to lose weight without lots of time in the gym, the ketogenic diet is an excellent option. It’s advantage is burning stored body fat for energy.
50 grams or fewer carbohydrates per day are suitable to achieve this goal. In fact, Doctor Joseph Mercola suggests getting just 5% of your diet from carbohydrates. 6)https://articles.mercola.com/ketogenic-diet.aspx
That’s just 31 grams per day on a 2500 calorie diet (I’ve been doing this for a while and I LOVE it.)
You can also build muscle and reduce body fat when adapted to the ketogenic diet.
I can almost hear the fitness enthusiasts crying foul, but stay with me.
We’ve been told all our lives that you can’t add lean muscle while reducing body fat at the same time.
We’ve also been told for decades that glucose and glycogen (more on these below) are essential for increasing muscle recovery, strength, and size – particularly post workout.
Both of these mantras are incorrect. You don’t need post-workout carbohydrates to stimulate muscle growth on a low carb diet.
In The Art And Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, Jeff Volek, PhD, and Stephen Phinney, PhD use their combined decades of ketosis research to show that keto-adapted athletes don’t need post workout carbohydrates to avoid an energy crash. 7)Volek, Phinney. The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.
Their research shows that while non-keto athletes need to replenish muscle glycogen (stored glucose in the muscle that’s burned for fuel during workouts), athletes in ketosis don’t need to ingest carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen.
This is because blood leucine, a catalyst of muscle production synthesis, increases on a ketogenic diet.
In addition, lowering your carbohydrate intake decreases the destruction of highly unsaturated fatty acids in the muscle cell membranes.
When your body is adapted to using fat for energy instead of carbohydrates/glucose/glycogen, your muscles are cable of efficiency using fatty acids in the muscle for energy in their place.
Drs. Volek and Phinney report that the human body stores about 2,000 calories of carbohydrates for fuel, but more than 40,000 calories of fat for fuel.
You can immediately see the potential for athletes to perform much longer without having to stop and refuel or experiencing an energy crash.
The bottom line is that keto-adapted fitness enthusiasts absolutely don’t need carbohydrates after a workout.
In fact, consuming post-workout carbs on a ketogenic diet can hinder muscle recovery.
I HIGHLY recommend The Art And Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance.
It’s an extremely powerful study into athletic ketosis that’s backed by decades of research and 77 scholarly citations.
It’s the best athletic ketogenic resource I have yet to see.
Your total carbohydrate intake on a ketogenic diet (less than 50g per day) will be secondary as you enjoy a combination of meats, nutrient rich and non-starchy vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fruits used sparingly. 8)https://articles.mercola.com/ketogenic-diet.aspx 9)Sisson, Mark. The New Primal Blueprint. Oxnard: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2017. Print. 10)Volek, Phinney. The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.
There IS A Place For Carbohydrates (Primal/Paleo 80-150 Carbohydrates Per Day)
For those who are more interested in a primal or paleo approach to health (non-keto adapted), things are a little different.
If you are adamant about overall health and fitness, there are other considerations where tactical carbohydrates are an essential part of muscle recovery and overall energy output.
(Again, these notes are for non-fat adapted people.)
This is because intense exercise depletes glycogen – the body’s glucose reserve for energy during exercise.
It is very important that these glycogen stores be replenished as quickly as possible.
“The major source of fuel used by the skeletal muscles during prolonged aerobic exercise of a strenuous nature is muscle glycogen. The importance of muscle glycogen as a fuel source cannot be overstated. In general, it has been demonstrated that aerobic endurance is directly related to the initial muscle glycogen stores, that strenuous exercise cannot be maintained once these stores are depleted, and that perception of fatigue during prolonged intense exercise parallels the decline in muscle glycogen.” 11)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905295/
It’s also important to understand that muscle damage can continue long after your workout is complete, and that failing to replenish glycogen levels can inhibit your recovery and limit your increases in muscle strength and size.
“Not only will such tissue damage limit performance due to delayed onset muscle soreness, but it will also compromise the replenishment of muscle glycogen and limit muscle training adaptations.” 12)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905295/
This study goes on to reveal how to most effectively replenish glycogen levels and maximize your recovery. After all, muscle growth happens during your rest, not during your workouts.
The answer to depleted glycogen is tactical intake of a carbohydrate and protein mix immediately following your workout and in 30 minute intervals after your workout. 13)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905295/
A Proven Approach To Muscle Recovery (Ketosis <50g Carbohydrates Per Day)
Muscle recovery on a ketogenic diet is a little different than on a paleo or primal diet.
Even after a few weeks of very low carb intake and becoming adjusted to using fat for fuel, I was still experiencing energy crashes near the end of workouts and basketball games.
This was frustrating, since the ketogenic diet is supposed to unlock access to roughly 38,000 onboard calories for immediate use. 14)Volek, Phinney. The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.
A typical fitness enthusiast is taught to ingest more carbohydrates to negate energy crashes.
But carbohydrates for energy are counterproductive to a ketogenic athlete.
The solution to my energy crash was, surprisingly, a lack of sodium.
While adapted to using fat for energy, the body is more likely to discard water and salt. This can…
“…make you feel sluggish and compromise your ability to perform outdoors in the heat or in the weightroom. As a result, some people get headaches or feel faint.” 15)Volek, Phinney. The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.
Dr. Volek goes on to explain that a lack of sodium also has negative effects on muscle preservation.
“This state of salt depletion causes a compensatory loss of potassium, which has a negative impact on muscle mass since potassium is a necessary cofactor in building and maintaining skeletal muscle.” 16)Volek, Phinney. The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.
The practical solution?
Volek suggests making sure you get 1-2 grams of sodium per day to compliment your ketogenic diet – which is a lot more than it sounds.
As soon as I read this I started mixing two bullion cubes per day into my bottled drinking water. Each cube is has 950mg of sodium.
I drink 1 gram of sodium half an hour before my workouts.
My energy crashes immediately stopped. I can now play ball for two hours straight without feeling tired, hungry, or weak.
You don’t have to be the best player. You just have to wear everyone else out.
Here’s the takeaway from this sodium alert.
Don’t confuse a low sodium issue with a false “need” for a carbohydrate spike. If you’re on a ketogenic diet, you don’t need carbs for energy. Ever.
A Proven Approach To Muscle Recovery (Primal/Paleo 80-150 Carbohydrates Per Day)
(I no longer use this approach, as I find being keto adapted works better for me. But he following used to work well for me and will likely work very well if you’re taking the primal or paleo approach, like I used to.)
I find that I have more total energy, am less sore, and experience a faster recovery when using this tactical carbohydrate strategy.
For example, after a high intensity strength training workout (not the typical weight lifting you’ve been doing for years with lousy results) I immediately drink half a whey protein shake and half of a pear, banana, or a handful of blueberries.
30 minutes later I’ll finish the shake and the rest of the fruit. The only time I eat fruit is to replenish glycogen levels. It’s a nice treat and doesn’t spike a cyclical insulin response.
This strategy has totally stopped my energy crashes near the end of workouts, following my workouts, or crashes later in the day.
This is because the body needs glucose immediately after intense work. Rather than forcing my body to get that glucose from protein and causing gluconeogenesis, which takes a large amount of energy…
“Forty-two percent of the increase in energy expenditure after the H [carbohydrate free] diet was explained by the increase in gluconeogenesis. The cost of gluconeogenesis was 33% of the energy content of the produced glucose.” 17)https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/90/3/519/4597025
…ingesting fruit removes the process of converting amino acids from the protein into sugar and allows the body to immediately use glucose from the fruit.
This is much more efficient and leaves more energy for the rest of your day. Plus, fruit has other health benefits and is typically cheaper to buy than protein.
I would highly recommend that fitness enthusiasts use a primal or paleo approach to get the rest of their daily recovery carbohydrates – somewhere between 75-150 grams of carbohydrates per day.
While neither of these intake approaches encourage intake from grains, sugars, or processed carbohydrates, they are very liberal in their inclusion of nutrient dense foods like vegetables.
I was extremely active when I made the switch to a low carbohydrate diet. And, like most fitness enthusiasts considering the switch, I wasn’t convinced that I could preserve and build muscle.
But the right combination of diet and recovery strategies has serious advantages:
- Ketone bodies will prompt the burning of stored body fat and help preserve/build muscle.
- Lowering protein intake (the most financially costly macronutrient) can promote the burning of more stored fat for energy.
- Tactical carbohydrate use (fruits and vegetables) can lower the time of recovery and increase quality of recovery, as well as raising every overall energy levels to keep being awesome.
Personally, I am a huge proponent of the ketogenic diet and have had excellent results with higher energy levels, greater muscle strength, lower body fat, and very relaxed food intake strategy.
Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to chat or have a question. I love meeting new people and talking shop.
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References [ + ]
|2, 6, 8.||↑||https://articles.mercola.com/ketogenic-diet.aspx|
|3, 5.||↑||Sisson, Mark. The New Primal Blueprint. Oxnard: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2017. Print.|
|7, 10, 14, 15, 16.||↑||Volek, Phinney. The Art and Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, 2012. Print.|
|9.||↑||Sisson, Mark. The New Primal Blueprint. Oxnard: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2017. Print.|
|11, 12, 13.||↑||https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905295/|