Muscle glycogen is an important energy source for prolonged moderate to high intensity exercise, an importance that increases during high-intensity interval exercise, common in training session of swimmers, runners, rowers or in team-sport players, or during resistance exercise. For example, considering marathon, about 80% of energy needed comes from carbohydrate oxidation, for the most part skeletal muscle glycogen.
Fatigue and low muscle glycogen levels are closely correlated, but the underlying molecular mechanisms remain elusive. One hypothesis is that there is a minimum glycogen concentration that is “protected” and is not used during exercise, perhaps to ensure an energy reserve in case of need. Due to the closely relationship between skeletal muscle glycogen depletion and fatigue, its re-synthesis rate during post-exercise is one of the most important factors in determining necessary recovery time.
Finally, the highly trained athlete has muscle glycogen stores potentially higher and is also able to synthesize it faster due to more efficient enzymes.
To synthesize glycogen it is necessary to ingest carbohydrates; but how many, which, when, and how often?
- The two phases of muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise
- The two phases of muscle glycogen synthesis: molecular mechanisms
In order to restore as quickly as possible muscle glycogen depots, it is useful to know that, as a result of training sessions that deplete muscle glycogen to values below 75 percent those at rest and not fasting, glycogen synthesis occurs in two phases.
To know and therefore take advantage of the biphasicity is important for those athletes who are engaged in more daily training sessions, or who otherwise have little time for recovery between a high intensity exercise and the subsequent one, less than 8 hours, in order to maximize glycogen synthesis and achieve the optimal performance during a second close exercise session.
The two phases are characterized by:
- a different sensitivity to circulating insulin levels;
- a different velocity.
The first phase, immediately following the end of an activity and lasting 30-60 minutes, is insulin-independent, i.e. glucose uptake by muscle cell as glycogen synthesis are independent from hormone action.
This phase is characterized by an elevated rate of synthesis that however decreases rapidly if you do not take in carbohydrates: the maximum rate is in the first 30 minutes, then declines to about one fifth in 60 minutes, and to about one ninth in 120 minutes from the end of exercise.
How is it possible to take advantage of this first phase to replenish muscle glycogen stores as much as possible? By making sure that the greatest possible amount of glucose arrives to muscle in the phase immediately following to the end of exercise, best if done within the first 30 minutes.
- What to ingest?
High glycemic index, but easy to digest and absorb, carbohydrates.
Therefore, it is advisable to replace foods, even though of high glycemic index, that need some time for digestion and the subsequent absorption, with solutions/gel containing for example glucose and/or sucrose. These solutions ensure the maximal possible absorption rate and resupply of glucose to muscle because of they contain only glucose and are without fiber or anything else that could slow carbohydrate digestion and the following absorption of monosaccharides, that is, they are capable of producing high blood glucose levels in a relatively short time.
It is also possible to play on temperature and concentration of the solution to accelerate the gastric transit.
It should be further underlined that the use of these carbohydrate solutions is recommended only when the recovery time from a training/competition session causing significant depletion of muscle glycogen and the following one is short, less than 8 hours.
- How many carbohydrates do you need?
Many studies has been conducted to find the ideal amount of carbohydrates to ingest.
If in post-exercise the athlete does not eat, glycogen synthesis rate is very low, while if he ingests adequate amounts of carbohydrates immediately after cessation of exercise, synthesis rate can reach a value over 20 times higher.
From the analysis of scientific literature it seems reasonable to state that, as a result of training sessions that deplete muscle glycogen stores as seen above (<75 percent of those at rest and not fasting), the maximum synthesis rate is obtained by carbohydrate intake, with high glycemic index and high digestion and absorption rates, equal to about 1.2 g/kg of body weight/h for the next 4-5 hours from the end of exercise.
In this way, the amount of glycogen produced is higher than 150 percent compared to the ingestion of 0.8 g/kg/h.
Because further increases, up to 1.6 g/kg/h, do not lead to further rise in glycogen synthesis rate, the carbohydrate amount equal to 1.2 g/kg/h can be considered optimum to maximize the resynthesis rate of muscle glycogen stores during post-exercise.
- And the frequency of carbohydrate ingestion?
It was observed that if carbohydrates are ingested frequently, every 15-30 minutes, it seems there is a further stimulation of muscle glucose uptake as of muscle glycogen replenishment compared with ingestion at 2-hours intervals. Particularly, ingestions in the first post-exercise hours seem to optimize glycogen levels.
The second phase begins from the end of the first, lasts until the start of the last meal before the next exercise, hence, from several hours to days, and is insulin-dependent i.e. muscle glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis are sensitive to circulating hormone levels.
Moreover, you observe a significant reduction in muscle glycogen synthesis rate: with adequate carbohydrate intake the synthesis rate is at a value of about 10-30 percent lower than that observed during the first phase.
This phase can last for several hours, but tends to be shorter if:
- carbohydrate intake is high;
- glycogen synthesis is more active;
- muscle glycogen levels are increased.
In order to optimize the resynthesis rate of glycogen, experimental data indicate that meals with high glycemic index carbohydrates are more effective than those with low glycemic index carbohydrates; but if between a training/competition session and the subsequent one days and not hours spend, the evidences do not favor high glycemic index carbohydrates as compared to low glycemic index ones as long as an adequate amount is taken in.
The combined ingestion of carbohydrates and proteins, or free insulinotropic amino acids, allows to obtain post-exercise glycogen synthesis rate that does not significantly differ from that obtained with larger amounts of carbohydrates alone. This could be an advantage for the athlete who may ingest smaller amount of carbohydrates, therefore reducing possible gastrointestinal complications commons during training/competition afterward to their great consumption.
From the analysis of scientific literature it seems reasonable to affirm that, after an exercise that depletes at least 75 percent of muscle glycogen stores, you can obtain a glycogen synthesis rate similar to that reached with 1.2 g/kg/h of carbohydrates alone (the maximum obtainable) with the coingestion of 0.8 g/kg/h of carbohydrates and 0.4 g/kg /h of proteins, maintaining the same frequency of ingestion, therefore every 15-30 minutes during the first 4-5 hours of post-exercise.
The biphasicity is consequence, in both phases, of an increase in:
- glucose transport rate into cell;
- the activity of glycogen synthase, the enzyme that catalyzes glycogen synthesis.
However, the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes are different.
In the first phase, the increase in glucose transport rate, independent from insulin presence, is mediated by the translocation, induced by the contraction, of glucose transporters, called GLUT4, on the cytoplasmatic membrane of the muscle cell.
In addition, the low glycogen levels also stimulate glucose transport as it is believed that a large portion of transporter-containing vesicles are bound to glycogen, and therefore they may become available when its levels are depleted.
Finally, the low muscle glycogen levels stimulate glycogen synthase activity too: it has been demonstrated that these levels are a regulator of enzyme activity far more potent than insulin.
In the second phase, the increase in muscle glycogen synthesis is due to insulin action on glucose transporters and on glycogen synthase activity of muscle cell. This sensibility to the action of circulating insulin, that can persist up to 48 hours, depending on carbohydrate intake and the amount of resynthesized muscle glycogen, has attracted much attention: it is in fact possible, through appropriate nutritional intervention, to increase the secretion in order to improve glycogen synthesis itself, but also protein anabolism, reducing at the same time the protein-breakdown rate.
The coingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free amino acids) increases postprandial insulin secretion compared to carbohydrates alone (in some studies there was an increase in hormone secretion 2-3 times higher compared to carbohydrates alone).
It was speculated that, thanks to the higher circulating insulin concentrations, further increases in post-exercise glycogen synthesis rate could be obtained compared to those observed with carbohydrates alone, but in reality it does not seem so. In fact, if carbohydrate intake is increased to 1.2 g/kg/h plus 0.4 g/kg/h of proteins no further increases in glycogen synthesis rate are observed if compared to those obtained with the ingestion of carbohydrates alone in the same amount, 1,2 g/kg/h, that, as mentioned above, like the coingestion of 0,8 g/kg/h of carbohydrates and 0,4 g/kg/h of proteins, allows to attain the maximum achievable rate in post-exercise, or in isoenergetic quantities, that is, 1.6 g/kg.
The greater circulating insulin levels reached with the coingestion of carbohydrates and proteins, or free amino acids, might stimulate the accumulation of ingested carbohydrates in tissues most sensitive to its action, such as liver and previously worked muscle, thus resulting in a more efficient storage, for the purposes of sport activity, of the same carbohydrates.
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