Protein shakes are an easy way to hit your protein goals, but is it better to drink them before or after your workout?
Answer: Like most things, the answer depends on your unique health and fitness needs.
Here is your guide to protein timing so you can get the most out of your protein shake.
What is Nutrient Timing and Why Does it Matter?
Nutrient timing is the practice of consuming essential nutrients around the time your body needs them most or will utilize them most efficiently. It is one of the core pillars of proper performance nutrition, following suit behind calorie control and macronutrient balance.
Calories determine how much you should be eating overall to lose, gain, or maintain a certain weight or performance level. Macronutrient balance breaks this down into how much of each nutrient your body needs - carbs, protein, and fat. And finally, nutrient timing tells you when to consume each nutrient for optimal performance and nutrient utilization.
Even small changes in nutrient timing can provide benefits to an athlete’s performance by directly influencing energy levels, strength, and recovery. Even if you aren't an athlete, timing your nutrition intake can result in increased metabolic efficiency, better blood sugar control, and improved body composition.
Of course, nutrient timing is most effective when the first two pillars of nutrition, calorie control, and macro balance, are mastered first. In other words, how many calories you consume and the amount of protein you eat each day is going to have a bigger impact on your fitness goals than when you consume protein.
Learn how many grams of protein you need each day using this free protein calculator.
The Pre and Post Workout Nutrient Timing Windows
One cannot begin to fully answer the question of whether a protein shake is best before or after a workout, without understanding how long before or after a workout counts as pre and post workout nutrient timing.
The pre-workout nutrition window can be anywhere from 30 minutes before training to three hours before training. Whereas the post-workout recovery window is estimated to be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour after you leave the gym.
The pre-workout window is used to supply energy or calories that will be used in your training. This is your opportunity to fill up the gas tank and have more energy and increase endurance in the gym.
If you are consuming a full meal within three hours of your workout, your body has time to properly break it down and utilize it for energy. Unless you are in need of higher calories for performance or are worried about losing muscle mass, this meal is likely more than enough to supply your needs.
If you haven’t eaten before training, consuming some fuel within 30 minutes to an hour before you hit the gym can support your needs. Although the type of fuel you choose becomes more important as you get closer to your workout window.
The post-workout nutrition window is used for recovery and refueling. Training causes wear and tear on your muscles and depletes energy stores. Eating after a workout can help replenish lost fuel and provide recovery nutrients to your hungry muscles.
Additionally, there is an increased amount of blood flow to your hungry muscles after a hard workout, priming them for efficient nutrient delivery and absorption. This is commonly referred to as the anabolic window.
For most people, consuming a regular meal within a couple hours of the gym is more than enough to support your recovery needs. This is especially true if calorie control is important to your fitness goals. However, some may find utilizing the anabolic window helps them with better recovery and future performance.
The Benefits of Pre-Workout Protein
Because of the unique role protein plays in building and maintaining just about every cell in your body, your body tends to reserve protein for important bodily functions instead of using it for energy. Thus, protein is not the best source of fuel for workouts when compared to carbohydrates and fat.
If you are relying on protein to fuel your workouts, you might want to consider adding more carbohydrates or fat to your shake and reserving the protein for your muscles. Especially if you are consuming your protein shake within an hour before training.
However, protein may have a couple of pre-workout benefits that are worth considering. Some research shows that consuming protein prior to a workout may help protect lean muscle mass and optimize fueling for strength training when paired with carbohydrates (2,3).
Additionally, when looking for a high-protein diet to build muscle, including more protein at any time helps you reach your macronutrient goals.
Pre Workout Protein is Best For…
- Anyone looking to build muscle mass
- Anyone having a hard time hitting their daily protein goals
- Anyone participating in intense strength training workouts
- Anyone training multiple times a day
When to Skip the Pre-Workout Protein Shake
If you are focused primarily on losing weight, including a protein shake before a workout might end up being a source of unnecessary calories. Especially if you are not engaging in strength training workouts or including a carbohydrate or fat along with the shake.
Consider swapping your shake to post-workout or saving even more calories by utilizing it as a hunger-busting breakfast or snack option instead.
The Benefits of Post-Workout Protein
Protein is a key source of essential amino acids used in muscle protein synthesis, making it a requirement for muscle gain and muscle recovery. Muscle protein synthesis is merely the process of repairing and building new proteins, leading to bigger and stronger muscles.
Contrary to what some might think, muscle gain does not occur while you are lifting weights and working out your muscles, it happens after your training while your muscles are resting and recovering. Exercise causes wear and tear on your muscles, and protein is required post-workout to help repair and rebuild.
Thus, protein is incredibly beneficial for anyone looking to build muscle mass or participating in strenuous strength training exercises (4,5,6,7,8,9,10).
Post Workout Protein is Best For…
- Anyone looking to increase lean muscle mass
- Anyone looking to build muscle mass size or gain weight
- Anyone looking to increase their strength performance
- Anyone participating in strenuous strength training workouts
- Anyone training multiple times a day
When to Skip the Post Workout Protein Shake
If you are mostly worried about calorie control, you may find that eating a balanced meal within a couple hours of your workouts is more than enough to support your muscle recovery and fitness goals. In this case, skipping the post workout shake may help you stay more on track.
So, Should You Drink a Protein Shake Before or After a Workout?
For those looking to maintain lean muscle mass and support strength training, post-workout protein shakes tend to make the most sense. For those looking to gain weight and increase muscle size, having a protein shake before and after a workout might be beneficial.
The answer depends on your unique health and fitness goals, along with your overall nutrient timing needs.
If you are looking to lose weight and following a calorie-controlled diet, protein shakes should be utilized strategically to help you stay within your calorie goals and still hit your macros. For some, this may mean skipping the protein shake altogether.
For others on a weight loss plan, utilizing protein shakes as a healthy breakfast or snack option could work as a way to include them as pre-workout fuel. Just remember to pair your protein source with a healthy carb source like milk, yogurt, or fruit. Otherwise, you may find that keeping your protein shake after a workout to support recovery makes the most sense.
Which Types of Protein Are Best For Your Daily Protein Shakes?
You can also play around with different types of protein supplements in your nutrient fueling. The different types of protein powders to consider include: whey protein, casein protein, and plant-based protein powders. All options are useful, and some may find a combination of options works best.
Whey protein is quick acting and likely serves best as a post-workout option to deliver protein to your muscle tissue quickly. Its quick-acting tendencies also make it useful pre-workout.
Casein protein acts more slowly and also works as a great post-workout option to deliver protein to your muscles over a longer period of time. This is also why many people choose to have casein before bedtime to support muscle growth while they rest.
Plant-based protein options can be used in either pre or post-workout. Look for complete proteins that provide a balanced essential amino ratio.
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