The Truth About Post-Workout Shakes and Protein Timing

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You probably heard one of the fundamental tenants of getting larger and stronger: Eat protein in an hour following exercise to fuel muscle growth.  It is known as protein time, and the idea behind it is this: Resistance training increases amino acid delivery to muscles in addition to absorption.  Consequently, the earlier you eat protein post-exercise, the larger the stimulation in muscle protein synthesis.  In theory, appropriate protein timing contributes to larger long-term gains in strength and lean body mass.

But research does not really prove that it works–or does not work, for that matter.  “About half the long-term studies say protein timing has an effect and the other half doesn’t,” says Alan Aragon, M.S., Men’s Health nutrition advisor.  The studies that do show a consistent benefit are all short-term and several have limitations.

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Here are three truths you need to know about protein timing:

  1.  The “magic window” is longer than you think

Some experts say that you need to consume protein 20 minutes post-exercise, but others claim it’s an hour.  The reality: You’ve got longer.  Studies show muscles’ elevated sensitivity to protein lasts at least 24 hours, says Aragon.  In actuality, one 2012 review study by McMaster University showed that muscle protein synthesis may continue for 24 to 48 hours post-workout.  “The result is higher immediately after exercise and diminishes over time, but that certainly doesn’t imply a magical window closes after an hour,” says Aragon.  That means, theoretically you would want to eat protein right away–but because there is not a massive post-exercise drop off in muscle protein synthesis, you don’t need to rush to pound a protein shake.

  1.  Total protein intake matters more

For the normal active guy looking to be healthy and lose weight, protein timing won’t make a difference if you don’t meet other nutritional needs first, says the leading researcher and a huge advocate of post-exercise feeding, Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., of McMaster University in Ontario.  Not that timing isn’t helpful, just that it is not the main element in building muscle and weight reduction.  What is?  Together with consistent workouts, you will need to consume an ample quantity of protein during the day.

Spacing out protein intake may maximize its effects: One of Phillips’ 2012 studies published in Nutrition & Metabolism found that consuming 20 grams of protein (roughly the amount in a container of Greek yogurt) every 3 hours four times a day was better at helping men build lean body mass than eating protein more often (10 grams of protein eight times per day) or less frequently (40 grams of protein twice daily).  Moderate amounts may more effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis, researchers note.  “In addition to the muscle benefits, protein is remarkably satiating, so this will also assist with weight loss,” says Phillips.  The great news: Most of us eat three or four times a day anyway–just ensure that your meals are well-rounded and include protein.

  1.  Eating before workout works, too

Based on the size of a meal, amino acid, glucose, and insulin levels in your blood peak anywhere from a few hours after eating–your muscles’ “absorptive state” where they’re most receptive to protein.  After that, it takes 3 to 6 hours for those blood levels to fall back down to baseline.  That’s a large window.  So if it’s more convenient, you can eat a protein-rich meal within 1 or 2 hours pre-workout and reap the benefits, notes Aragon.  If your schedule doesn’t allow for eating pre-workout or you avoid it because it hurts your stomach, it is not a big deal–just be sure to eat something after.

Though research is mixed, 1 study in Endocrinology and Metabolism found that consuming 20 grams of whey protein before exercise was just as effective as taking it one hour after exercise.

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