Amino Acids & Muscle Recovery

Woman drinking a protein shake and lifting weights
A woman is training with a dumbbell and holding a supplement smoothie. (Image: Starcevic/iStock/Getty Images)

Amino acids are the basic component of protein, which is contained in all the cells of the body. Whether you're training for the marathon or a Russian kettlebell competition, eating enough quality protein in every meal is essential to building muscle tone, repairing damaged muscle tissues and supporting a healthy immune system. Getting adequate protein is essential as amino acids determine your rate of muscle recovery, allowing you to grow stronger and more durable with each training sessions.

Not All Are the Same

Your body needs all 20 amino acids to make the complete proteins necessary for optimum muscle recovery. Eleven of these can be produced in your body, and nine must be consumed from foods. These are called essential amino acids, which derived from animal sources and soy-based foods. However, most plant-based foods, such as legumes, grains and vegetables, are missing one or more essential amino acids. For vegans to get all the essential amino acids, they must eat different combinations of foods, such as lentils and brown rice.

Under Construction

Muscle recovery is the process by which your muscles heal and adapt themselves to exercise. When you lift weights or perform heavy running, your muscles form microscopic tears from repetitive muscle contraction. Hormones called growth factors stimulate satellite cells -- which contain protein and, therefore, amino acids -- to increase the size of muscle fibers. These cells travel to the site of damaged muscle cells and fuse them together, increasing the muscles' size. This process is like stitching a wound together. Some of the cells stay at the repair site and provide new nuclei for the recently healed muscle. This triggers muscle fibers to make more proteins, allowing the muscles to grow stronger and more resistant to future damage.

Check Your Timing

When you eat is just as important as what to eat when it comes to supplying the muscles with enough amino acids to grow. After a workout, your body enters the anabolic phase in which you should consume proteins and carbohydrates and other nutrients within 45 minutes. The ratio of protein to carbohydrates should be 1-to-3. After that, your body undergoes a growth phase for 18 to 20 hours in which it steadily repairs itself and replenish nutrients. Exercise physiologist Len Kravitz, Ph.D., recommends consuming adequate protein and carbohydrates within one to three hours after your workout. The ratio of proteins to carbohydrates should be 1-to-5, he says.

Recommended Protein Intake

The quantity of proteins you eat daily would depend on your body weight, gender and health status. Registered dietitian Nancy Clark recommends that 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight if you're recreationally active. If you want to increase muscle mass or are an endurance athlete, consume between 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound for adequate amino acids to support growth. If you weigh 150 pounds and are recreationally active, you would consume between 75 to 105 grams of protein per day. Consult a sports dietitian for your specific protein and other dietary needs.

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