Should You Have a Protein Shake Before or After Your Workout? A Dietitian Breaks Down Protein Timing

drinking protein shake

What to Eat Before a Workout | Creatine Timing | Protein Timing | Best Pre-workout Supplements | Best Post-Workout Supplements | Best Creatine Supplements | Best Protein Powder Supplements | Best Peanut Butter | Best Greek Yogurt

Many people think it's important to chug a protein shake immediately after a workout. But, what are the actual benefits of consuming protein post-workout? And, what forms of protein should you be drinking?

We answer all of these questions and more. So, if you’re wondering whether you should have a protein shake before or after your workout, keep reading for an in-depth look at the science behind protein timing.

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Does the "Anabolic Window" Matter?

There is this idea of an ‘anabolic window of opportunity’ which has been mentioned in research for years. The term, “anabolic” refers to the building or growth of muscle.

The theory goes a little something like this: There's a very short period immediately after exercise where the muscles become more sensitive to accept dietary protein. It’s thought that during this time, muscles work best to utilize the proteins for repair and growth.

Although there may appear to be some truth behind it, the anabolic window might be dependent on other factors. For example, if the person is working out in a fasted state, that post-workout anabolic window is extremely important because those muscles are essentially starved, and are requiring immediate nutrition in order to keep from breaking down.

However, if the individual is well-fed, that window is less significant than originally thought. We do know that there is an anabolic window after working out, but that period is now thought to last much longer, possibly even beyond 24 hours after exercise.

Drinking Your Protein Shake Before a Workout

Stirring together a quick protein shake before a workout is often easy and convenient. Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of drinking that protein before exercise.

What We Like

  • Can check your protein supplement off your list: Research tells us that when you consume protein prior to a workout, the effect of the protein actually lasts several hours beyond the workout itself. This satisfies the need to take protein after the workout.
  • Can be combined with carbs: Taking carbohydrates along with protein before a workout can help to ensure those glycogen stores are maxed out. This can improve overall performance and increase your time to exhaustion.
  • May help boost fat loss: One recent study showed that fat loss was positively impacted by the addition of a protein shake, specifically casein, prior to the workout.
  • Improved energy: Protein supplements often have additional ingredients such as caffeine that can help increase energy throughout your workout.

What We Don't Like

  • GI side effects can affect performance: Some high-quality protein drinks contain artificial sugars that can cause negative gastrointestinal effects such as nausea, bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
  • Induces a feeling of fullness: When taking too much liquid (or solid food for that matter) too close to exercise, you risk feeling full or bloated which can impede your performance and just make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Breaks your fast: If you’re intermittent fasting and wish to exercise in a fasted state, drinking a protein shake before your workout isn't an option.

Drinking Your Protein Shake After a Workout

Drinking protein after a workout may be a bit less convenient because you'll need to remember to either pack and bring it along with you or have it prepped and ready to drink at home. However, for some, a post-workout shake might be preferred. Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of having your protein shake after your exercise is complete.

What We Like

  • Can avoid gastrointestinal symptoms: When you wait to take protein until after the workout, you can avoid experiencing uncomfortable GI symptoms that may affect your performance.
  • Slight muscle protein synthesis advantage: Although evidence is 50/50 on the benefits to muscle growth after drinking a post-workout protein shake, if there is any slim advantage in muscle repair and growth when taken after a workout, you’ll reap even the slightest of benefits.
  • You've covered your bases: Some research suggests that by taking a protein shake after your workout, the shake covers any nutritional gaps that may not have been taken care of prior to your workout.

What We Don't Like

  • Calorie balance: If you’re trying to lose weight, including too many supplements or meals throughout your day can put you over your recommended calorie limit. Be sure to stay within your daily allotment of calories if you do choose to add a protein supplement after your workout.

You may have noticed that the list of cons here is pretty short. Feeding your muscles after a workout is rarely a negative thing and actually encouraged to help your body refuel.

When is the Best Time to Consume Protein?

Well, based on current research, anytime is the best time to eat protein. Protein should also be included in meals consistently throughout the day.

So, back to our original question: should you have that protein shake before or after workout? The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends leaving the choice of whether to have protein before or after a workout up to the individual based on their own tolerance. Whether you consume it before or after a workout is irrelevant as long as you’re getting your protein.

empty gym with protein shake

How Much Protein Do You Need Daily?

Protein provides our body with the building blocks to create new muscle. It’s vital that we consume enough protein for the repair and rebuild process that occurs in our muscles after each workout.

The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein in the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, this doesn’t take into account protein intake for muscle restoration, repair, and growth.

Instead, the ISSN recommends a daily range of 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram. This takes into account optimal muscle protein synthesis, or the building of muscle tissue.

Let's look at an example of a 150-pound person.

Start with the weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2 to convert it to kilograms.

  • 150 lbs. / 2.2 = 68 kg

Now, take the weight in kilograms and multiply it by the protein recommendation. In this case, it's 1.4-2.0 grams. To find the minimum protein needed for this weight, multiply the weight in kilograms by 1.4g protein.

  • 68 kg body weight x 1.4g protein = 95g protein per day

This person should consume a minimum of 95 grams of protein each day to build and maintain muscle mass. Using the same method, we can determine that the maximum amount of protein recommended for this individual per day is 136 grams (68kg x 2.0g protein).

Based on the recommendations of the ISSN, we could say that this person's protein range is around 95-136 grams of protein per day.

So, Should You Drink Your Protein Shake Before or After Your Workout?

The research is pretty clear. As long as you’re meeting your daily protein needs, there isn’t a major difference whether you drink your protein shake before or after a workout.

If you’re exercising in a fasted state, it’s a good idea to eat immediately after exercise in order to avoid muscle breakdown. However, if you’ve eaten regularly throughout the day or have had a pre-workout meal, you don’t need to consume protein before or immediately after.

Taking protein before or after your workout can vary based on your schedule, individual preferences and performance goals. If you’re still unsure of what works best for you, we gave some tips on how to figure out the best time for consuming your protein shake:

You may want to consume protein prior to exercise if you:

  • Haven’t eaten in over 3-4 hours or are in a fasted state.
  • Want to combine protein with carbs for more energy during exercise.
  • Can tolerate protein shakes prior to exercise with no negative GI effects.
  • Find it more convenient to have your protein prior to your workout.

On the contrary, you may want to consume after your workout if you:

  • Worked out in a fasted state or haven't eaten for more than 3-4 hours prior to the workout.
  • Want to ensure that you’re not leaving any protein gaps in your diet.
  • Experience uncomfortable GI side effects if you drink a shake pre-workout.
  • Find it more convenient to have your protein after your workout.

What About Taking Protein During a Workout?

It was thought at one time that taking protein during your workout might help prolong time to exhaustion.

However, studies show protein did not add any additional benefit to performance or prolong the time to exhaustion.

For this reason, it's probably a good idea to instead focus on staying hydrated during the workout. If you do wish to consume food during exercise, carbohydrates are probably your best option to keep that energy flowing.

The Bedtime Protein Boost

While it may sound like a wild idea, it’s become trendy to drink a protein shake before bedtime. However, science does seem to back this one up.

Research shows that consuming approximately 40 grams of protein about 30 minutes before sleep can improve muscle protein synthesis. It can also help reduce inflammation and overall muscle soreness.

Taking protein before bed over an extended period of time may actually help improve overall muscle strength and growth. If you struggle to meet your protein intake during the day, it might be more convenient to drink a protein shake before bed.

Does the Type of Protein Matter?

In some cases, the type of protein does matter. Historically, protein from dairy has been more bioavailable than plant sources of protein. There are two main types of dairy-based protein: whey and casein. Whey protein is digested quickly while casein is digested more slowly over a longer period of time.

These can usually be used interchangeably. However, if you want quicker absorption, say before or right after a workout, whey protein or a blend of the two, might be the way to go. But, if you’re considering taking protein before bed, casein might be optimal because of its more gradual digestion and utilization during sleep.

Preliminary research has compared pea protein to whey protein and found little difference in their effect on muscle adaptation and composition. Although more research is needed in this category, this is a promising area of future growth in the plant protein space.

Final Takeaway

So, do you drink protein before or after workout? The easy answer is yes, to both!

As you’ve learned, protein taken before or after a workout comes with an equal number of benefits. Whether you choose to have protein before or after workout should depend on your lifestyle, intended outcomes, and tolerance.

Rather than getting bogged down with the details, we recommend doing what feels right to you and works best with your lifestyle. Remember, it’s more important to meet your overall protein needs over the course of the entire day. Beyond that, the timing of your pre- or post-workout shake is up to you!

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

What to Eat Before a Workout | Creatine Timing | Protein Timing | Best Pre-workout Supplements | Best Post-Workout Supplements | Best Creatine Supplements | Best Protein Powder Supplements | Best Peanut Butter | Best Greek Yogurt

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