Protein for Muscle & Exercise Recovery
Protein is a key player for any exercise enthusiast, but especially if you are looking to stay in shape or gain lean muscle definition. But when is the best time to take protein, how much and which type of protein should you use?
Protein Requirements for Active Lifestyles
As you amp up your exercise routine, your protein requirements will increase because amino acids are your muscles’ building blocks–how they recover and get stronger. Our GNcalculator can give you an estimate of the protein you require on a daily basis depending on various factors like age, gender and physical activity level. Men typically have higher needs due to more muscle mass and thus heavier weight than women.
Food allergies aside, you should try to meet your protein requirements using various sources of protein throughout the day, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian. Each protein source contains a unique array of essential amino acids and other nutrients like vitamins and minerals. If you’re consuming protein from one or two sole sources, your body may or may not be getting all the nutrients it needs on a daily basis.
Tissue regeneration occurs even when our bodies are not physically active, it just happens at a slower rate and it may not even be visible to us. The old skin you shed, the new nails you grow, small tears in muscle tissue–all need protein to do so.
If you’ve been to a gym or read anything about protein and exercise, then you’ve probably heard or witnessed with your very eyes the protein powder shakes that people guzzle down immediately before or after their workouts. Or perhaps you’ve done so yourself without really knowing why. Should you take protein before or after a workout? Or both?
If you’re activity level is moderate to low then you may not need the extra protein in a shake. But if you’re looking to tone your body or gain some muscle, then maybe it’s something to consider.
Taking protein after a workout has been the tried and true method for helping muscles to recover and gain strength (so long as you are doing the proper weight training exercises). In fact a 2013 study published in the Nutrition Journal and a 2018 study published in EC Nutrition both showed that taking GN rice protein post-workout helped both collegiate and elite athletes gain muscle mass, power and strength just as well as whey protein did.
The amino acid composition as well as timing of the protein supplement is important for optimal muscle rebuilding after a workout. Research has suggested that consuming protein immediately after a workout and up to 3 hours after, can help to increase physical performance and muscle recovery (1,2,3). Additionally, you should have the protein with some carbohydrate (preferably simple sugars, like honey or fruit) in a 3:1 (carb to protein) ratio in order to help protein get absorbed into body more easily.
Taking protein before a workout can help to provide some fuel to the muscles and it will also kick start the recovery process during the workout. If you plan to workout for longer than 90 minutes or partake in very long, intense workouts, consuming protein before a workout is a good idea to help preserve your muscle mass.
During a workout, the body relies primarily on glycogen (storage form of carbs) for energy–but if your stores are low or your workout is very long, the body can begin to break down your muscles for the needed energy. In this case it would be wise to have a substantial snack (e.g. dates and nuts) before your workout. However, if you just got done eating lunch or a good size meal (containing protein) at least 30-60 minutes before a workout you might not need to take protein on top of this.
All in all you don’t need to take protein both before and after a workout. Just figure out what works best for your body and your schedule. Maybe you can’t stomach the idea of drinking something right before a workout. Or maybe you don’t have much of an appetite immediately after a workout. Ultimately, meeting your protein needs throughout the day is most important.
How much protein do I need after a workout?
The main purpose of taking protein after a workout is to help your muscles recover from any damage they may have incurred during the workout and/or to build stronger/bigger muscles. When you recover properly you experience less muscle soreness within the next couple of days which means you can continue to train harder the next time around.
If you just walked or did some sort of low impact exercise for 30-60 minutes, then you probably don’t need a protein shake so much as you need a good balanced meal afterward. However, if you engaged in moderate to high intensity activity especially dumbbell or body weight training, then a protein shake might be helpful. Studies indicate that proper strength exercises combined with adequate protein intake can help to increase muscle mass and overall body strength.
A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition published in 2013 advises 20-25 grams of high quality protein after exercise to maximize recovery and benefits (1). This can be consumed as whole food within a meal or as a plain protein shake before a meal. And that begs the question…
Is it better to drink or eat my post workout protein?
Some research has suggested that the faster your body gets replenishment of amino acids (in which case liquids would digest faster than solid food), the better your body recovers after a workout–but this has yet to be confirmed. Eating your protein from whole, natural foods is always preferred rather than from a supplement. Of course, this is an easier task for those able to consume meat/poultry/fish rather than for vegans/vegetarians or those with dietary restrictions. As such, protein powders are a convenient form of protein which can be used to fill dietary needs especially after a workout.
Rice vs. Pea Protein
If you’re considering our plant proteins, you may be trying to figure out which one to use for your post workout shakes. The answer really depends on your dietary restrictions, taste preferences, or protein needs. If you have no food allergies to either, a combination of both proteins at a 1 to 1 ratio of pea:rice (for protein content, not serving size) would maximize the efficiency of the amino acids in your body.
In terms of absorption, a “faster” absorbing protein is touted as more beneficial post-workout. But both rice and pea are known to be “intermediate-rate” digesting proteins, being slower than whey but faster than casein (dairy proteins). Despite their varying digestive rates, two studies to date showed both rice and whey protein supplements produced similar effects on muscle mass and recovery as published in the Nutrition Journal and EC Nutrition.
Ultimately, consuming some dietary protein after your workout is more important than rate of digestion or type of protein. The choice is yours.
By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian
- Potgieter S. Sport Nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. S Afr J Clin Nutr. 2013; 26 (1).
- Kerksick, et al. Review: International Society of Sports Nutrtion position stand: Nutrient timing. Int J Sport Nutr. 2008; 5: 17.
- Wolfe RR. Protein supplements and exercise. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000; 72(suppl): 551S-7S.