Whether you’re about to exercise or you just completed a grueling workout, what you eat can make a difference. If you consume the right foods at the right times, you’ll provide your body with plenty of good-quality fuel for the workout or help your body recoup the energy you depleted and build muscle.
Yet, many people don’t realize how important this nutritional nuance is for fitness benefits. Or, they harbor misconceptions about the role that good nutrition plays in their exercise gains.
Sometimes, people – namely those who practice intermittent fasting – exercise on an empty stomach because they believe it helps them burn more body fat. Or, they skimp on food afterward because they don’t want to consume calories they just burned. These are both bad ideas.
The reality is, consuming foods with carbohydrates and protein before and after a workout can affect your performance and well-being for better or worse – and the timing matters.
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The Role of Protein in Muscle Recovery
When you exercise, your muscles develop microscopic damage, known as microtears, especially during strength training. That’s why it’s important to consume protein, which supplies the building blocks (amino acids) that make up your muscles, after a workout to help rebuild and repair those damaged muscle fibers. Over time, consistently nourishing your body with adequate protein promotes muscle growth, known as muscular hypertrophy, which allows you to develop stronger muscles with greater endurance.
According to conventional wisdom, the optimal period of time when people should consume protein, known as the “anabolic window,” is 30 to 60 minutes post-workout. The theory is that muscles are more sensitive to protein and, therefore, more likely to absorb and use protein immediately after exercise than later in the day. However, the window may be broader than that.
In fact, Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York who has studied protein timing in exercisers, notes that prioritizing protein consumption within the anabolic window may not be that crucial.
“If there’s any benefit to getting protein within a half hour and 45 minutes of your workout as opposed to a few hours later, and I’m not convinced there is, it would be small,” says Schoenfeld, who is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “As long as you hit your daily protein intake, you can build muscle.”
The Timing Dilemma: What to Eat Before vs. After Workouts
It’s important to consume a combination of healthy carbohydrates and protein to fuel your workouts, as well as help you recover and maximize the benefits from your exercise sessions. But the relative amounts of each vary, depending on the timing, and these macronutrients serve different purposes, pre- and post-workout.
It’s simple: Don’t put junk fuel in your tank. The quality of that fuel matters on both ends of the exercise session.
Before a workout
Consuming good-quality carbs before a workout will provide your body with the energy it needs to engage in aerobic or strength-training exercise. Carbs from healthy sources, such as a piece of fruit or a slice of whole-wheat toast with jam, help your body maintain blood glucose levels during the exercise session, explains Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian and owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. They replace glycogen stores, the glucose that’s stored in the muscles and liver, thereby preventing your body from breaking down muscle for energy during the workout.
Before a strength-training workout, it’s smart to fuel up with a combination of carbohydrates and a little bit of protein, Bonci advises. The carbs will provide the energy you’ll need to perform the workout, while the protein will help you build muscle mass and strength and repair the microtears that naturally occur in muscle fibers when you lift weights. (Greek yogurt with berries or a piece of toast with nut butter would give you the right stuff.)
“It doesn’t matter what time of day you’re doing it. You should always have at least a light snack before a workout,” says Tara Collingwood, a certified personal trainer and sports dietitian in Orlando.
Eating a snack between 15 minutes and two hours before exercising will be beneficial, but the closer it is to the session, the smaller the quantity of food it should be, Collingwood says.
“If it’s 30 to 60 minutes before a workout, have a snack in the 100- to 200-calorie range before the workout,” Collingwood advises.
If you’re able to eat two hours before the workout, a balanced meal that contains easy-to-digest carbs, protein and a little healthy fat will provide the fuel you need.
After a workout
Post-workout, it’s important to replenish the carbohydrates and glycogen you depleted while you were exercising. It’s also important to consume good-quality protein to rebuild and repair muscle tissue and stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is essential for muscle recovery and adaptation to exercise.
Not only should your post-workout food of choice have adequate carbs and protein, but it’s important to consume foods that are rich in antioxidants in order to protect your cells from damage, Collingwood adds.
“You don’t need to eat a lot after a workout, but it’s a mistake to avoid eating entirely,” Bonci says. “You want to think about refueling while you’re cooling down – that’s the reason for a post-exercise snack. If you’re not hungry after a workout, just a few bites of a bar or a few sips of a smoothie can start the recovery process.”
On the other hand, skipping a post-workout snack entirely can increase your level of fatigue and inhibit your body’s repair and recovery processes. It can also decrease your performance the next time you exercise, Bonci says.
In addition, you’ll want to rehydrate to replace the fluids you lost from sweating and breathing hard with water or electrolyte-rich drinks, if you exercised long and hard. This will help restore the balance of essential minerals in your body, maintain proper hydration and support your muscle function and recovery.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The recommended dietary allowance to meet your basic nutritional requirement of protein is 0.36 grams per pound. However, people who are physically active need more than that.
For optimal muscle growth, physically active people should consume between 0.4 and 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of their body mass four times per day, according to Schoenfeld’s research. For a 180-pound adult, regardless of sex, that works out to eating 33 to 45 grams of protein four times per day.
The general recommendation is to consume 10 to 20 grams of protein after a workout. Depending on the type of exercise you did, you’ll want to adjust the ratio of carbs to protein, Bonci says.
After a strength-training workout, it’s best to go with a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein, meaning 20 to 40 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein. If you did an endurance (aerobic) workout, the optimal ratio shifts to 3:1, with 30 to 60 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein, Bonci explains.
And while there’s no denying that adequate protein is important for rebuilding muscles after exercise, there’s no need to overdo it either, says Stacy Cleveland, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Your muscles can really only absorb about 15 to 30 grams of protein at a time.
“Studies show there is no benefit to consumption higher than 30 grams of protein in one sitting,” Cleveland says.
In fact, excess protein consumption that can’t be absorbed and used by the muscles right away will be used later as part of the body’s overall protein turnover process, then used as energy or stored as fat.
Protein Supplements: Types and Varieties
Research shows that consuming a protein supplement reduces muscle recovery time after a hardcore workout.
Protein powders are a quick, convenient option, especially if you’re not hungry enough for a full meal right after your workout. Just add a scoop or two of protein powder to a blender bottle, add your liquid of choice and shake.
“Some people find that their appetite is diminished for several hours post-exercise, so the idea of food can be unappealing,” Bonci says. “The beauty of a protein powder is that it is low-volume and (requires) no effort.”
While there are several protein supplements to choose from, be sure to reach for ones that provide complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. (Protein is made up of 20 total amino acids, 11 of which are produced by the body. The remaining nine amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – are derived from the foods we consume.)
Types of protein supplements include:
- Whey protein. Derived from cow’s milk, whey protein is a complete protein that is absorbed quickly by the body. It is one of the most popular forms of protein powders on the market. Whey protein isolate is higher in leucine, the amino acid most involved with muscle protein synthesis.
- Casein protein. Another popular protein supplement, casein protein is a dairy protein derived from cow’s milk. However, unlike whey protein, it is digested more slowly, making it a good choice for consuming before bed to support muscle recovery as you sleep.
- Soy protein. A plant-based option, soy protein is a complete protein that is suitable for vegetarians and people with lactose intolerance.
- Pea protein. Pea protein is a popular plant-based choice for those who choose to avoid or have allergies to dairy or soy. In addition to protein, it is a good source of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals.
- Hemp protein. Made from hemp seeds, this plant-based protein contains essential fatty acids, fiber, iron and a variety of other minerals.
- Mixed plant protein. You can often find mixed plant-based protein blends alongside other plant protein supplements. These typically contain a combination of protein from brown rice, pea and hemp.
- Collagen protein. Although collagen protein is popular for its potential to support healthy hair, nails, skin, bones and joints, these supplements are not considered a complete protein because they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids.
Other Post-Workout Protein Sources
If you prefer to consume protein from whole food sources or want to combine those with protein powders, here are high-protein foods you can add to your diet:
- Lean beef.
- Chicken breast.
- Cottage cheese.
- Greek yogurt.
Post-Workout Protein Ideas
For the sake of muscle recovery and replenishing glycogen stores, it’s best to create a meal that consists of ⅓ fruits and vegetables, ⅓ protein, ⅓ complex carbs and a little fat for good measure, Bonci says.
- A handful of dried fruit and nuts.
- A rice cake with almond butter.
- A good quality protein bar.
- A serving of chocolate milk.
If you’re genuinely hungry and have time to prepare something more substantial, some good options include:
- A smoothie made with a scoop of protein powder, Greek yogurt, spinach, frozen blueberries and a tablespoon of almond butter.
- A veggie omelet made with eggs, spinach, mushrooms, bell peppers and feta with a side of whole-wheat toast.
- A turkey sandwich with tomato and avocado slices on whole-wheat bread.
- A whole-grain bagel topped with peanut butter and sliced banana.
- A whole-wheat pita stuffed with vegetables and hummus.
Rather than focusing exclusively on your post-workout protein intake, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind and spread your consumption throughout the day.
Over the past decade, research has indicated that consuming multiple protein-rich meals throughout the day is likely more beneficial than cramming lots of protein into one sitting right after your workout.
Practically speaking, if you eat sufficient protein at every regular meal, you’re going to get in all of the protein you need around your workouts, Schoenfeld says.