Protein Intake: How to Time It With Your Workouts

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The importance of protein intake in regards to exercise recovery, muscle gain and fat loss is well understood. Protein supplementation has existed in the world of exercise and nutrition for more than 60 years. And is more popular now than ever. 

But, are we getting the most out of this amazing nutrient? 

Timing is everything. This age old adage is well known and respected. When it comes to exercise nutrition, this phrase is the most important thing to consider. So, when is the optimal time to take in your protein around a workout? Is it pre? During? Post? All are viable options, but one is the most efficient. Read on to discover which might be the best option for you..

Pre-Workout Protein. Yes or No?

First off, there is no “wrong” time to ingest protein around a workout. Rather, there are “optimal windows” to make the biggest impact in relation to specific goals. When it comes to pre workout protein intake, the key things to bear in mind are how soon are you exercising, how well can you digest this supplement, and what is the goal of the session. 

As a personal trainer, I do not recommend pre workout protein due to the risk of indigestibility. It takes at least 1.5-2 hours to digest even the most absorbable forms of protein: Hydrolysate and Isolate. That said, not all digestive systems are the same and some folks may have no problem taking that protein in. What about goals? If fat loss is the key goal, having a shake 1.5-2 hours before the workout may increase the rate of protein synthesis and increase the breakdown of fat cells. A fasted workout has also been shown to cause the body to burn stored body fat. So, neither is a bad option. 

My personal preference is to maintain muscle while increasing the rate at which the body burns fat. That method is making sure I ingest a high protein shake, no closer than 90 minutes before a workout. By ingesting a high protein shake before, but not too close to my workout, I am able to increase the thermic effect of feeding (protein has the highest thermic effect of all macronutrients) as well as fuel my workout with increased protein synthesis. Though effective, it could still not be considered the most “effective” method for workout recovery. 

And as I stated at the beginning, I do not recommend this for most of my clients. Rather, bodybuilders like myself and many athletes and fitness enthusiasts that I train do need to add this window of intake to increase daily protein amounts. In this way, it is done more as a way of overall nutrition intake rather than used for exercise recovery or improvement. If it sounds like something you might benefit from, hardgainers specifically, I recommend giving it a try!

Intra Workout Protein

Intra workout protein consumption? That has “puke” written all over it, right? Truth is, not so much. As it turns out, intra workout nutrient delivery is the most effective window to take advantage of when it comes to exercise recovery. Albeit least convenient. But, how does that make sense? After all, I stated that digestibility is a top concern when taking in protein before a workout. How on earth would taking it during a workout not cause issues? This is a great point. To unpack it, let us consider what a protein is.

Protein is a chain of amino acids strung together. Upon digestion, these proteins break down into polypeptides. These polypeptides are then further broken down into free amino acids. They are uptaken by the gut and shuttled to where they are most required. Now that we’ve covered the basic biology, the question of “how we can digest protein during the workout” still remains. 

Enter amino acid powders. These supplements have only emerged to prominence in the last decade or so, though they have been around for many more. More specifically, the Essential Amino Acids or EAAs, are the most easily digested forms of “protein” that can be ingested. EAAs are amino acids that our bodies must get from outside sources, as they cannot produce them endogenously. I put protein in quotations because amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Once ingested, the body knows what to do with the raw materials. The 8 (or 9, depending on the situation) EAAs contain the 3 BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) which are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. These 3 amino acids are essential for muscle protein synthesis.

During a workout the muscles are like a dry sponge desperate for nutrients. It asks a lot of our bodies to digest fully formed protein structures during a time of high sympathetic nervous system stimulation. So here is where these EAAs come in. Already broken down into their simplest forms, these amino acids rapidly uptake into the bloodstream and deliver to the front lines: our muscles. This is like a blast of nutrient dense water to those sponge-like muscles and they soak up every bit they can get. Furthermore, most of these supplements contain other aminos like Taurine which is great for hydration, Glutamine which is essential for recovery of every type of tissue, as well as electrolytes for hydration and sometimes more. This is akin to turning on a fire hose of nutrition to the muscles. Recovery speeds up, hydration optimizes and performance increases.

So, intra workout protein intake is not at all optimal. But intaking the much simpler form of protein known as EAAs is a fantastic way to improve muscle recovery en route to the most important nutrient window. Not to mention, they taste a lot better than plain old water!

Post Workout Protein

You might’ve guessed this would be where the story ends up. Of course, nutrient timing and intake can be understated. So everything mentioned prior was necessary. Now that it is understood that pre and intra workout protein and amino acid intakes are not only practical but warranted, let’s look at the last line of defense against catabolism (muscle wasting). Post exercise protein intake is the barrier separating a great workout and what I refer to as under-recovery. Some may call it overtraining, though I disagree with the utility of that word. It is much easier to under recover than it is to over train.

Someone comes to me and says, “Adam. I don’t have a ton of money, and I don’t want anything super complicated. I want to work out and take only what is necessary.” What I will answer that challenge with is what you might expect by now. “Alrighty, let’s get you some protein.” It is that simple. 

Protein post workout is the most important nutrient to ingest for a multitude of reasons. Not least of all for recovery, muscle protein synthesis, stamina, cortisol reduction, insulin stimulation (to help blunt catabolism), appetite reduction, and more. Ingesting a protein shake after a hard workout can make the difference in working out 2-3 days per week and expand the capacity for exercise double those numbers. 

The reason behind this is the body’s need to recover and refuel. We are a spoiled society that likes things easy and quick. So, one might miss that post workout nutrition and think that dinner will take care of it. And fair enough. The problem here lies in our ability to remain accountable. Cortisol rises during a workout, as it should. Without it we wouldn’t burn fat or maintain energy levels.

But there needs to be a cutoff switch to that pesky cortisol or it begins to cause problems after 1.5 hours or so. It begins to cause hunger and cravings. It causes a spike in hunger hormones and even a stimulation of insulin that will reduce the sugar that was circulating in our bloodstream to help fuel the workout. Now, we have hunger induced from many angles and nothing standing in our way except a fleeting cry from our coach or friend who told us to not go crazy with the post workout meal. That pizza in the freezer never stood a chance. Now, bloated and depressed, we set our sites on the workout tomorrow hoping things will be different. And crazy as it may sound, adding in a protein shake after that workout to blunt the cascade of hormones might be all that was needed. 

In my 15 years of training and coaching, believe me when I tell you I have been there more than a few times myself. I have seen clients and professionals both fall victim. Our bodies need nutrients to function. And though protein may seem like a silly thing to ensure proper intake at the correct times, it can make all the difference for your goals. 

The average protein shake costs between $1.50-$3.00. A small price to pay to ensure all that hard work is not in vain. Some of my favorite shakes are the following companies:

Transparent Labs Grass fed Chocolate Whey

NutraBio All-Natural Grass fed Whey Isolate

BlueBonnet Grass fed Whey Isolate

Protein post workout is the most important nutrient to ingest for a multitude of reasons. Not least of all for recovery, muscle protein synthesis, stamina, cortisol reduction, insulin stimulation (to help blunt catabolism), appetite… Click To Tweet

Want to Learn More? 

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