To Speed Recovery, Try Pre-Sleep Pushups and Protein

New research shows a food/exercise combo results in greater overnight muscle synthesis.

Drinking warm milk before going to bed has long been recommended as an aid to a better night’s sleep. Preceding the milk with resistance exercise could also lead to recovering more quickly from that day’s training, suggests a study that will be published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands had 24 young men drink a protein shake about two hours after dinner and soon before going to bed. (The protein shake was a Gatorade product; one of the eight researchers involved in the study is a Gatorade employee.) Just before drinking the protein shake, half of the men did an hour of lower-body resistance exercises, while the other half were sedentary.

In earlier work, this team of researchers showed that consuming protein just before going to bed results in increased muscle synthesis overnight. In this study, the men who did resistance training just before downing the protein shake had overnight muscle synthesis rates 30+ per cent greater than the men who only consumed pre-sleep protein.

These findings about muscle protein synthesis are important not just for body builders. Long and/or hard runs cause temporary muscle damage. Recovery from hard training consists of allowing, and even helping, muscle tissue to repair itself so that it becomes better adapted to the demands you place on it. So doing things that increase the rate at which that muscular repair occurs means better recovery, which allows better training.

“For example,” lead researcher Jorn Trommelen told Runner’s World about following the study’s protocol, “the muscle will synthesise more mitochondria (the powerhouses that produce energy in the muscle).” Developing more and better-functioning mitochondria is one of the primary benefits of aerobic workouts; this study suggests a method to bolster the number of mitochondria in your muscles.

As noted above, the pre-sleep workout in this study was an hour long, consisting of 15 minutes of stationary cycling, then six sets of 10 repetitions of leg presses and leg extensions on a machine. Trommelen said that less-ambitious pre-sleep routines would also be effective.

“Any amount of physical activity can stimulate muscle protein synthesis, albeit to a lesser extent,” Trommelen said. “Just walking gives a small increase in muscle protein synthesis. Bodyweight exercises or dumbbells exercise can be very effective if you perform repetitions to volitional muscular failure.”

Trommelen said that multiple sets are more effective than one set, and offered as a real-world pre-sleep routine three sets of pushups and three sets of pull-ups to failure. A combination of squats, leg lifts and hamstring curls just before consuming pre-sleep protein should also be practical for many people.

The protein shakes used in the new study contained 20 grams of protein. Other foods with that amount of protein and that require little or no preparation include 470ml of low-fat milk, three egg, or one can of tuna, Trommelen said. Smaller amounts would likely result in less but still measurable increases in overnight protein synthesis.

When Runner’s World shared the new research with Drew Wartenburg, coach of the NorCal Distance Project, he said, “Such recent, and more refined, research regarding muscle protein synthesis is definitely worth taking into consideration.” Wartenburg, whose group includes US Olympians Kim Conley and Kate Grace, said that his athletes already consume pre-sleep protein on some occasions, including during the heaviest periods of training. Trommelen said that the pre-sleep resistance exercise/protein combination would be most effective for recreational athletes after their hardest training days.

“I think measuring the impact of protein ingestion before sleep as an isolated component would be difficult,” Wartenburg said, but he considers it an example of “general best practices” that can help a runner train hard without getting injured. He added, “While also unmeasurable, I don’t think you can discount the power gained by an athlete who feels good in, and about, their body.”


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