Whether you use dairy or plant-based protein, we all know that healthy doses of the stuff is vital to exercise recovery and performance. Yet it’s hard to know the best way to incorporate protein supplements into our workouts. If you're an elite athlete or just pushing your fitness into high gear, we’ve put together this complete protein guide for exercise. We’ll cover what your body needs before, during and after an intense workout, and how you can get it from plant-based protein supplements, like rice and pea protein.
Understanding your workout needs
Your daily protein requirements get higher as your physical activity gets longer and more intense. Meeting those heightened protein needs supports your immune system and ensures your muscles recover and strengthen correctly. But before you go running for a protein tub or storm the deli, it’s important to consider why – or if – you need a high protein diet to reach your goals. This will also help you know if whole foods proteins or concentrated protein powders will better serve your workout needs. For example, those watching their weight don’t want any added calories, just the protein. That’s where protein powders, like Growing Naturals rice or protein, are convenient for weight management. And the average person getting sufficient amounts of whole food protein in their diet might not need a protein powder supplement. But for vegetarians, vegans or those struggling to get enough protein in their diet, supplements help fill the gaps. But, each athlete will want to want to modify your supplement to fit your needs. So let’s get into the generals of what the body needs before, during and after a workout so you can start planning your shake and smoothie recipes.
PRE-WORKOUT SUPPLEMENTYour pre-workout supplement should give your body the nutrients it needs to maximize performance. A strong pre-workout sets you up for optimal results. Ideally, you want a pre-workout that will increase your strength and endurance, decrease muscle breakdown and help rebuild muscle tissue. A really good mix can also boost your overall energy and focus. However, they are better suited for “performance-focused” individuals, like athletes and bodybuilders, rather than “health-focused” individuals. Now, while average Janes or Joes don’t need that extra boost, you might be thinking ‘What if I’m really hungry before heading to the gym because my last meal was 4 hours ago?’ or ‘I like to workout as soon as I wake up but I feel lightheaded if I don’t eat beforehand.’ In those cases, or if you’re training for something like a 10K or half marathon, you can think of a pre-workout as a sensible snack.
A whole slew of ingredients might go into your pre-workout mix, but let’s breakdown the must-haves.
Carbohydrates, the energy source for your muscles, are the most important part of your pre-workout. But a small amount of protein can increase muscle protein synthesis (tissue rebuilding), and you might want a stimulant to boost energy, depending on your preference and the time of day.
For athletes, carbs are pivotal. When energy stores (glycogen) are depleted, the body might break down muscle (and fat) to get raw material for additional energy. So carbs give the body that material without it ransacking the muscle you’ve built. And getting protein into the bloodstream also offsets that breakdown. Keep in mind, glycogen won’t run out in average workouts. You’d have to go for over 90 minutes or be doing some intense drills to risk the body raiding muscles for extra energy.
The average exerciser should be in the clear for a 30-60 minute workout, especially if they’ve eaten 4 hours beforehand. So again, for health-focused individuals, pre-workout supplements are best before a very long/intense workout, or if you are doing a morning workout and haven’t substantially eaten in 5 or more hours. Some people can exercise on an empty stomach, but going too long or hard risks that muscle breakdown. Figuring out what works for you is best.
Your carb-focused pre-workout shake or smoothie should have about 5-10 grams of protein and 15-30 grams of carbs. Take the higher range for your big workouts or games, and use the lower numbers for small boosts.
What type of carbs should I use?
Remember, those carbs should be simple sugars – found in fruit or natural fruit juice, honey, refined sugars, milk or dairy-alternatives. Simple sugars digest faster and provide a quick source of energy. Sugar and honey are the least nutritious of those options, and if you use dairy or soy milk, don’t forget to factor in the protein they both contain. Smaller individual fruits, like apples or bananas, contain roughly 20 grams of carbs. 8 ounces of most natural fruit juices will be anywhere from 20-30g carbs, and dairy alternatives range from 6-10g carbs per 8 ounces depending on the type and flavor. It’s best to check the nutrition facts panel for these.
On to protein! Both the Growing Naturals rice and pea protein serve as good options for you pre-workout supplement, and can even be combined.
- A half scoop of either rice or pea protein gives you about 7.5g protein
If you prefer solid foods, they should be eaten 30-60 minutes before a workout, while liquids can be taken just 15-30 minutes before. But do you have a slower metabolism? Again, figure out what timing is best for you. The more you’ve digested, the better, as food in the stomach during exercise might cause indigestion or sluggishness.
DURING WORKOUT SUPPLEMENT (DWS)
To Gatorade or not to Gatorade? Or, for our natural friends: to coconut water, or not to coconut water? As with pre-workout supplements, context is important.
For most health-focused individuals engaging in regular physical activity, plain and simple water is the best “during workout supplement” on the market. The purpose of taking, drinking or eating something in the middle of a long or intense workout is to replenish the fluids and electrolytes (e.g. sodium, chloride, etc.) you’ve depleted by sweating, and to get a boost in sugar/energy—so you can continue to run, lift or play.
Why doesn’t the average person need Gatorade during a workout? Basically, it’s the chemistry. Gatorade contains water and electrolytes, but also a fair amount of sugar – 20-35 grams per bottle. And remember our carb storage, glycogen? The average person has sufficient glycogen to get through a regular workout without needing extra sugar. Electrolyte depletion might vary depending on how much you sweat or how salty it is, but as long as you don’t begin a workout thirsty or dehydrated, water is going to serve the average workout just fine. And that does double if you are exercising to control or lose weight. It doesn’t make sense to work off 300 calories in 30 minutes and drink back 100 of them rehydrating.
Coconut water – Gatorade’s “natural” counterpart – is fairly similar. It contains sugar (typically less than Gatorade), your body doesn’t need unless you’re in the middle of a 2-3 hour soccer game, marathon run or something extraneous. In the case of bigger exertions, you lose fluids and electrolytes and might run low on glycogen, so the sugar in Gatorade or coconut water makes sense. It keeps you going. But you can also use simple sugars like we mentioned above for pre-workouts.
Now, what about protein? Infusing some protein into a DWS containing sugar/carbs has shown benefit for performance-focused individuals/athletes engaging in both endurance and resistance exercise. That extra protein helps offset muscle damage and breakdown while generally increasing performance.
For a DWS, protein is best utilized at a 3-4:1 carb to protein ratio. For example, 15-20g carbs and 5g protein. The during workout supplement should also employ easy-to-digest simple sugars so as to avoid upsetting your stomach. The DWS recipes end up looking very similar to the pre-workout series, with the addition of electrolytes. They are vital to a during workout supplement, helping your muscles contract or relax and communicate with the rest of the body. Running too low on electrolytes can cause muscle cramping and hinder overall performance. Aside from Gatorade or coconut water, a variety of electrolyte gels, powders and gummies are available for use. Just be aware of the carbohydrate levels involved.
POST WORKOUT SUPPLEMENT
Post-workout supplements are what most people know to take, but how many of us feel we know how to put together a really effective shake or smoothie? There’s a lot to consider! Your post-workout nutrition should help with recovery, soreness, muscle repair and even support your immune system. What can do all that? You guessed it. Here’s where protein really comes in to play.
A post-workout’s biggest function is increasing protein synthesis to both repair any muscle damage from the workout and, of main interest to athletes and gym rats, increase muscle size and quality. (By the way, nervous about getting your protein from plants? Don’t be. Check out this university study, that compared muscle building and recovery effects for athletes taking our rice protein vs. a whey protein.)
But you also need to replenish energy stores, which means getting carbohydrates to restock glycogen. Carbs are also vital for enhancing absorption of protein into the cells, which is why it’s problematic that we often neglect carbs post-workout.
Now, if you exercise before breakfast or before dinner, you could certainly eat a whole food meal afterwards that meets these requirements. That will be the best option for the average health-focused individual. But sometimes it’s tough to get everything you need from that meal. You might not be hungry right after a workout or might not have quick access to a well-balanced meal with complete protein. Even if a meal can be waiting for you, whole food digests slower, and for athletes it’s important to get that nutritional boost into your system soon after your workout.
Performance-based individuals should try to get that protein and carb shake down within at least an hour of completing a workout for optimal effect, following up with a balanced (protein/carbs/fat) meal afterward. Whether you eat it or drink it, the important thing is to get adequate protein into your body.
According to ISSN, you want post-workout protein at about 0.2-0.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, with a carb to protein ratio of 3 to 1. That ratio has been shown to stimulate protein synthesis and replenish glycogen. Other sources simply suggest about 20-25 grams of high quality protein after a workout.
To make it easy on you, we’ve put together a couple post-workout or recovery recipes using 25 grams of protein and 75 grams of carbs. Although you can use either plant protein in your recovery supplement, mixing Growing Naturals rice and pea protein at equal amounts (50/50 ratio) offers a complete range of essential amino acids.
A 25 gram protein serving of this rice/pea blend provides:
- Just over 9,700mg of essential amino acids (the ones you have to get from food)
- About 4700mg branched-chain amino acids (valine, isoleucine and leucine), supporting muscle protein synthesis, reducing muscle breakdown, spurring muscle recovery. BCAAs are also the only amino acids metabolized in the muscles rather than the liver, and about 1/3 of muscle protein is made up of BCAAs
- 2148mg of leucine, the amino acids shown to independently trigger muscle protein synthesis.
Interestingly enough, a study found that the leucine in rice protein has can be absorbed 30% faster than leucine from whey protein. The scientists conducting the study believe this may be the reason why athletes in a previous study were able to build muscle and strength using rice protein to the same extent as athletes taking whey protein.
So given everything we’ve covered, how do you determine your perfect set of pre, during and post workout supplements? It’s all really comes down to figuring out what works best for your body. You should consider how you exercise, the time of day, the time of year and also your personal goals, but this guide is a great foundation to get you started. And if you are an athlete or you frequently engage in intense exercise, it’s best to talk to a certified sport nutritionist who can help determine the best pre-, post- and during-workout supplement recipe based on your needs and goals. Train smart!
Written By: Matthew Stoffel Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian