There’s a good chance you aren’t eating enough protein, the macronutrient responsible for repairing and building muscle. While getting the right amount of protein throughout the day is important, properly timing your protein consumption is also key to maintaining and building muscle mass—especially if you’re lifting weights regularly.
Protein before training
Exercising, especially weight lifting, breaks down muscle fibers. Muscle growth occurs when the body repairs and rebuilds muscles with available amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in the bloodstream. For this to occur, you need to have eaten a protein source before working out. How long before? This depends on your protein source. A serving of steak or chicken will take longer for the digestive system to break down than a fast-absorbing source like whey protein. If you are eating regular meals throughout the day with a mix of fat, protein and carbohydrates, you are likely to have eaten some protein 1-3 hours before exercising, and you probably don’t need any extra before training.
If, however, you’re a dawn patrol athlete and exercise first thing in the morning, a fast-absorbing source like a whey protein shake would be beneficial before you hit the weights.
Protein during training
The short answer here is most people don’t need to consume protein, or much of anything, during a training session. Endurance athletes may use a source of simple carbohydrates during a session (probably lasting more than an hour). But unless you are a Games athlete training multiple hours per day or a bodybuilding competitor, eating protein during a workout session is probably not worth the hassle.
Protein after training
You’ve probably heard of the magic window during which it’s ideal to down a protein bar or shake—and there are studies that support this. Right after training, your body is in a state that can transport amino acids quickly, making the first half hour or so after heavy resistance training important for consuming fast-absorbing protein. Possibly due to enhanced blood flow, muscle protein synthesis is more active after exercising. So, as soon as your done with training, drink up!
Drinking vs Eating protein
Whey protein is touted as the king of post-exercise protein due to its fast-absorbing nature, relatively low cost and wide availability. It can work great as a post or pre-workout shake, can be consumed in bar form and flavored endlessly. So why don’t we just make things easy and use it all the time? Because you’d be missing key nutrients from animal protein sources such as lean beef, fish and poultry. These contain essential fatty acids and vitamins that whey protein alone can’t provide.
Eating before bed is generally discouraged by the nutrition world, but a simple serving of slow-digesting protein before sleep can promote muscle recovery and growth. This is where whey’s cousin casein comes in. Casein, like whey, is a milk-based protein that digests over a period of 5-7 hours. It can keep you full as it clumps in your stomach. It’s also available as a powder in a wide variety of flavors, just like whey. You can also eat a small serving of meat before bed and have similar success.