Functional training? Here's why the Zone is an excellent dietary strategy.

Elena Casiraghi – PhD Equipe Enervit

When we talk about training and nutrition, the first thing that comes to mind is the correct intake of carbohydrates before, during, and after training. Carbohydrates are fundamental, but they are not everything. For proper recovery and to optimise the stimuli gained from training at the same time, it’s necessary to manage your protein intake, which is too often underestimated. Of course don’t forget hydration.

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Everyone has their own specific needs for macronutrients. These needs must be met through food choices (and in some cases, proper supplements) with a high biological value – one protein is not as good as another, especially post-workout – and their consumption should be divided among each meal and snack throughout the day. For this reason, the Zone Diet can be an optimal guide for promoting adaptations to training sessions and recovery. Let's take a closer look.

Protein turnover

If we could accurately measure the proteins contained in the body of a sedentary person, we would see that they remain constant for months. In fact, muscle protein synthesis (or protein anabolism) of those who don’t do sports is in balance with degradation (or protein catabolism). If we evaluate what happens over the course of a single day, however, we find that continuous variations occur. In fact, when an individual has been fasting for several hours, it is the destruction of proteins that prevails; consequently, the body's protein stores (in particular, muscle mass) are reduced. When one eats a meal that also contains protein, the situation is reversed, and the protein balance returns to parity.

At the end of physical work (which may only be after a few hours, especially if the session is very demanding) the situation is reversed and it is the synthesis that prevails over the destruction, though always providing that there are amino acids available to the muscle in the correct amount and with the right percentages of essential amino acids. Strength training, in fact, stimulates the synthesis of muscle proteins for at least two days following a session. This synthesis is at its peak in the three hours following exercise, then gets halved after 24 hours, and although synthesis is reduced to one third, it is still active after 48 hours.

Protein distribution throughout the day

If the objective is to take full advantage of the stimuli derived from training, it’s wrong to consume a high quantity of protein in a single meal and not eat any in the others. There are no amino acid deposits in the body, therefore, within a few minutes from the moment they have been consumed – if they are not used to synthesize proteins, they are transformed into other molecules. If no proteins are consumed for several hours, the body "disassembles" those of the muscles and uses the resulting amino acids to synthesize enzymes, hormones, and other proteins necessary to live. Strictly speaking, a protein "reserve" exists. However, it is made up of one's own muscles and, in the case of the athlete whose objective is to increase muscle mass, this is undoubtedly a disadvantage.


The "magic moment" and protein intake

It’s equally important (even more so, if possible) to take protein immediately after a training session – within 10-20 minutes – for strength or muscle mass. Protein synthesis is greater, if, in the period following training, the muscle has a good supply of amino acids. This period immediately following training for strength and/or mass should be considered a real "magic moment" because all the conditions exist for protein synthesis to be very high. However, it is essential that the "building blocks" (amino acids) reach the muscles in the correct quantities and that one of them, leucine, is present in an ideal concentration.