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Protein After a Workout – What is the Science?

We know that we need protein in order to repair damage after a work out, we know that our muscles are MADE of protein, but is there any benefit to the masses of products which are available over the counter, as opposed to say buying simple tins of tuna and chicken breasts, and what about when to use the protein after a workout?

There is also the long standing mantra advising to eat the protein 20mins after a work out – Let’s take a look at the evidence too!

Protein after a workout

When reading around scientific literature for a subject, it’s important to known specifically what you are looking at, and the quality of the information you get from that search. When studies are conducted looking at protein in diet and the effect on muscles, they tend to be performed in controlled environments with weight machines. As such there are very, good quality, cycling/running specific studies. Those studies with robust, clear data tend use individuals doing controlled, resistance exercises, mainly focusing on leg based exercises, such as leg extensions.

Why leg extensions?

Leg extensions are used as it gives the researchers a nice big muscle, that develops rapidly over a period of weeks, but more importantly is very close to the surface, and has very few nerves and vessels where biopsies are routinely taken from. You can then run a gamut of chemical and DNA test to monitor the muscle grown and it’s response to test protein/placebo supplements.

Protein after a workout

Yes those are my scars, in the red box, from muscle biopsies involved in a muscle growth study, never let it be said that I don’t do my bit of science! Or more likely that students will do anything for free protein shakes, and 6 weeks free access to an Olympic Team personal trainer at the university gym!

Protein after a workout

So whilst the papers are usually based on resistance exercises, the information that I’ve pulled out should be applicable to any sport where you are looking to strengthen and develop your muscles.

Protein, Amino Acids…Basically your biological Lego kit!

So in 2008, American Society for Nutrition did a publication suggesting that it is amino acid availability, rather than protein ingestion which affects muscle growth and albumin synthesis after resistance exercise. Before we go any further, lets go right back to the underlying biology: Amino acids are the individual building blocks, which link together to form proteins, which are then used as the building blocks for myofibrils, which in turn bunch together to form muscle fibres.

Protein after a workout

Think of it like the bricks that make up the pre-fabricated walls, that are then used in construction of the whole building.

Protein after a workout

Frankly on the initial read of the American Society of Nutrition, it made my eyes cross. Jargon dense it is!… The short version is that sources of free amino acids, are appear to be more effective than straight forward protein supplements. Which make some sense going back to the amino acids being the building blocks OF proteins. So your body has less digesting to do, to actually get to the building blocks

SO what did they actually in this study?

  • The anabolic effect (the ability to build molecules, which can be used in muscle construction) is increased in resistance exercise (essentially weight lifting).
  • Muscle protein synthesis – muscle growth, in response to strength exercises responds in a dose-dependent manner, following the provision of essential amino acids. i.e. the break down products of protein.

The key information for me from the study was not about muscle growth though, but that you can ingest too much protein, leading to it’s oxidation, and thus it lack of use.

The paper showed that as you increase dietary protein, so too does muscle synthesis, but the growth, or possibly more accurately muscle protein synthesis cannot increase any further after you have consumed just 20g of protein orally. Oh you can take it in, but it’s not going to do anything.

But where does the essential amino acids (EAA) come into this? Well the protein has to be digested, broken down in to the amino acids to be reconfigured into your own muscles, so the study looked at the effect if you just provide the EAA. Maximal muscle synethesis was reached if you consume just 8.6g of EAA! Beyond that, the effect is wasted. Frankly I was amazed at both numbers, but if you look at the amount of protein contained in most supplements, they have about this 20g, although some manufacturers aggressively market other products as having greater amounts of protein.

Protein after a workout

But that appears to just be a marketing hype, and a waste of protein after a workout.

What about regular consumption?

Now the study didn’t comment on the oft talked about 20min window for protein ingestion, but did look at the bodies “signal proteins” which MAY have been saying “build more muscle’… and they didn’t seem to be saying anything following the work out. However, the paper did show that that the delivery of amino acids after the exercise seemed to up regulate the muscle growth signals

The study highlighted the fact that resistance exercises enhance the muscle synthesis for surprising 24hrs after exercise. So the question becomes, how many times in a day could an athlete consume the maximally effective 20g of protein, or 8.6g of EAA, in order to stimulate the muscle growth signals and maximise that training window?

The paper suggests, and that’s a very important word when the study you are looking at only has 6 student subjects, that it may be possible to push ingestion of protein to 5-6 times a DAY in order to maximise muscle growth after training. But this would need to be adequately spaced, and that again, any excess of 20g in a sitting would results in wasted protein or EAA, and may lead to the body’s digestion adapted and actually leading to a reduced muscle protein synthesis

– Let’s just rephrase that: because of how the body deals with protein, excess daily consumption might actually make the body LESS effective at processing the protein and converting it into muscle.
– LESS appears to be clearly more!

Timing of Protein Consumption

Nutrition and metabolism 2010 took the study of how protein supplements in general relate to muscle construction a bit further, and found that even regardless of age, gender, ANY of the following three points independently increase muscle development:

  • Training,
  • Dietary protein
  • EAA

Yes there is the suggestion (there is that word again) that just EATING sufficient protein will also cause muscle growth, although they are also clear that taking protein after a workout will have an additive effect, although how much isnt clear!

So back to that 20 minute window. There are studies which say there is a benefit to taking protein supplement immediately after exercise, which does dovetail with one theories as to why: That immediately after exercised there is increased skeletal muscle blood flow, thus enabling a greater transport of protein building blocks directly into then muscles – that paper is here: Nutrient Timing

However other studies have shown that in untrained athletes, protein supplementation still results in a benefit as long as the protein/EAA is consumed within 5 hours of the exercise, as it is thought that muscle construction after exercise starts approximately 1-3 hours after the exertion is over

Finally, there are a studies producing data that shows protein can have in turn, some, greater, or no effect at on muscle growth depending on when the supplement/food is taken. Again protein supplementation over night seems to have less effect, than the proximity of the consumption to the exercise

Overall that looks like things are relatively indecisive about the time window. But that is the case for many things in life. Is diesel better than petrol? Or is rowing better than cycling for your knees? Part of it comes down to a balancing the available evidence, and making a call on how you way the data provided

So what is my take on this?

1) Use protein supplements, but don’t consume more than 20g in one go
2) Supplements allow you to have a much greater control of your protein intake, but the form doesn’t really matter. 20g of protein is all you need, whether that’s chicken breast, or a protein shake. Certainly supplements, especially EAA where you’ll need much less to get the same effect, 20g vs 8.6g, can allow you to have even greater control over your diet, but then again there isnt any significant benefit over real food.
3) The 20minute window doesn’t seem to have any direct evidence, but that taking protein immediately after exercise makes sense from a blood flow perspective if nothing else.
4) Consumption of protein within 5 hours of exercise is likely to aid recovery, if not necessarily having a maximal effect on muscle growth. So if that corresponds with going to sleep, great, but if not I’ll just be having a milk shake just for taste!
5) Some people might show a benefit consuming protein supplements BEFORE exercise. Personally however tend to get stomach cramp very easily if I eat before exertion, so I’ll be giving that one a pass.

This is only a brief look over protein consumption and muscle building, but what I have taken away from it. There is no need to pay extra to get more than 20g of protein from a product.

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  3. Good work, thanks for the info.

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  4. great job James. I read a few articles so I do have protein after workouts (longer ones normally) but I haven’t done that in a while. I need to get my training gear back on.

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  5. Hi James, good timing as I’ve just finished my typical “quick but considered” research into protein requirements, food and supplements to see if I can maximise the benefit from a cycling 10wk strength building program I’ve started.

    I made the following conclusions.
    1. I too concluded anything over 20g was pointless and noted the products I had most “respect” for were this amount in a serving.
    2. Only nutritional advantage powders had over food is the ability to target either whey based or casein based (fast ie post workout or slow perhaps for overnight) and also control of other ingredients such as fat and carbs.
    3. In other respects food seems to be just as good if perhaps not better (solid food invokes other aspects of digestion/absorption?)
    4. Powders / bars have a huge plus in the convenience stakes.
    5. Additionally post workout I have zero interest in chomping through a chicken breast or tin of tuna, but can swig down 500ml of shake in 10s flat and feel refreshed from its cold liquid nature.

    And that last point is really the crux of it. I do my workouts at the end of the day so a quick shake immediately after takes the initial urge of hunger away, is refreshing with around 500ml of water intake, takes zero time and then I can go get showered quickly.

    Whilst this also fulfils the criteria of the fabled “20 minute window” that’s just convenient timing. As you say, with a “little and often” food intake my body is always receiving a drip feed of nutrients, I doubt that an hour workout magically clears all protein/food from the body’s intestines and thus requires an immediate refresh. So I’m always being nourished I think.

    What about beta-alanine? From what I read it’s quickly becoming regarded as a good instigator for muscle growth and not as readily available in food.

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