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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
Updated On: March 06, 2023
There was a time when drinking protein shakes was simple. Mix your protein powder with water or milk, throw in some creatine, and enjoy. But thanks to science, our favorite post-workout protein shake has gotten complicated. Part of the complexity is figuring out the best time to drink a protein shake. Pre-workout? Post-workout? Before bed? What about frequency?
You have questions and fortunately, we have answers. This article will explain everything you need to know about when you should drink your protein shakes. And the good news? It really isn't all that complicated.
In this article, we'll cover:
A complete protein is one of three macronutrients that is essential to consume in large quantities for an optimized healthy diet. Even though it plays a role in various physiological processes, proteins' primary function is muscle repair and recovery. It is essential for building muscle, making it crucial for every population, especially athletes.
Structurally, protein is composed of long chains of nitrogen-containing compounds known as amino acids. Depending on what source your protein comes from, the quantity of each amino acid is going to vary. There are two classes of amino acids:
These amino acids play slightly different roles in our various physiological systems, but the branched-chain amino acids are not only essential but the most critical for proper muscle-building growth. BCAAs include:
In addition to these three branched-chain amino acids, all essential amino acids are critical for healthy muscle repair and function.
There tends to be confusion regarding protein powder. It is not an artificial substance or some form of laboratory food. It is a protein that has been isolated from its source and dried out into a powder.
For example, whey protein, in both isolate and concentrate forms, comes straight from cows, and pea protein comes from peas. The point is that protein powder is "real food."
So if protein powder is simply dried-out food, why should you take it instead of just consuming protein from real food? There are many good reasons for drinking protein shakes.
Drinking a fast-acting protein shake packed with essential amino acids after an ultimate leg workout is a staple in gym culture. This is due to protein powder's role in repairing damaged muscles with the nutrients required for ultimate repair and muscle growth.
There is no question that consuming sufficient protein will build muscle mass.
A protein shake is going to help with that. Further, because protein powder is already broken down, its amino acids are faster absorbed, which will allow illicit a faster increase in muscle protein synthesis. More protein ensures your muscles get the nutrients they need for a faster recovery.
Do you know how much protein you need daily? A lot (we'll discuss this below). This can make it hard to eat enough protein consistently sometimes.
While you can do it by eating whole foods, it can be challenging. This is especially true for bigger guys eating high protein doses.
The easiest way to ensure you hit your protein intake is to regularly include protein shakes in your diet. Your average shake has 20 to 30 grams of protein, so including one or two of these daily makes hitting your protein intake much easier. Aim to evenly distribute protein intake throughout the day to keep your muscles happy.
When looking at how much protein powder costs compared to protein from real food, you'll notice that it is quite cheap, generally less than $1.00 per serving.
So while you should be eating whole foods, a quality protein supplement to meet your elevated protein intake can save you some money.
There was a time when consuming protein shakes was not an enjoyable experience. They were chunky, chalky, and no good. Fortunately, those were the old protein days. Now, a good majority of protein powders are legitimately tasty.
And that's not just compared to the old protein shakes. Some brands make flavors that rival quality milkshakes. Looking for protein shake inspiration? Check out the best protein powders to get started. Better yet, take one of those tasty proteins and combine it with your morning cup of Joe to make protein coffee.
As we'll discuss below, the timing of your protein consumption can vary depending on your goal, purpose, and fed state. Another factor that can also determine the best time to eat is the type of protein. The most popular options are whey and casein.
Whey protein and casein protein come from the same source: milk. However, whey protein is considered a fast-digesting protein, while casein protein is a slow-digesting protein. This refers to how fast the digestive system can break the protein down into amino acids to be delivered to the muscles.
Due to casein's structure, it's broken down at a slower pace, producing a steady stream of amino acids for a longer time. This creates a unique effect on muscle protein synthesis. While it doesn't generate muscle protein synthesis as high as whey protein, it remains elevated much longer.
Think of it like sipping on a beer instead of a shot. You still get the same amount of protein but over a longer period. As a result, you won't get as drunk, but you'll have more of a buzz for longer.
In your case, you won't be getting drunk, but you will increase the possibility of muscle growth. If you're interested in the benefits of supplementing with casein protein, here is a buyer's guide on what products you'll get the best bang for your buck.
A common question is what type of protein is best between an animal protein, like whey, and vegan protein, such as soy. We won't talk much about this as neither one will dictate when you drink a protein shake. However, we will give a brief explanation.
The main difference between these protein sources is the availability of essential amino acids. As mentioned above, the protein quality is dictated by its amino acid profile.
All animal sources have a full spectrum of all essential amino acids. Therefore, while there is some variance between them, all animal protein sources are quality.
On the other hand, many vegan protein sources lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Further, even when a vegan source does have all of them, at least one amino acid is usually low, which decreases its effectiveness. The body cannot fully utilize these proteins due to issues with breaking them down.
However, when it comes to protein powders, many vegan protein supplements combine two sources of protein, such as pea and rice, to get a full spectrum of amino acids.
Further, because the protein is isolated, a vegan protein powder can offer high amounts of protein. In other words, leucine from milk is the same as leucine from soy. If you're interested in diving deeper into the differences between plant and whey proteins, this article does a great job of explaining and comparing both.
If you're taking protein powder, it won't matter too much if it was derived from animal or plant sources, other than the taste and price. Still, check the amino acid profile first to ensure its high quality.
Start looking at a pea and rice vegan protein powder, as this mixture is generally thought to be your top choice for a vegan protein powder.
Your most important goal with protein is going to be your daily total protein intake. While protein timing does play a factor, the total amount of protein you eat throughout the day is your number one goal, particularly when it comes to building muscle and achieving body recomposition. That begs the question: How much should you eat?
If you were to look at the RDA, you would see an amount of 0.8 grams per kilogram daily for the average person. However, it's important to realize the RDA is an amount given to the general population to support basic life functions.
When looking at the needs of athletes and weight lifters, their protein requirements increase as they need to supplement their active lifestyles and muscular frames. Therefore, we recommend a significant amount more.
You should be eating somewhere in the range of 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, particularly if you want to gain muscle. This is more than double the RDA. Numerous studies have shown this amount of protein to produce optimal results1.
Doing the math quickly shows that 1.6 to 2.6 grams per kilogram is a lot of protein. You don't need to eat it all at once, nor should you. Once you have your total protein intake on lock, you must decide when to eat it.
Your goal is to spread your protein intake throughout the day to keep your muscle protein synthesis elevated consistently. For example, if you were to eat just two large servings of protein a day, one in the morning and one in the evening, you would have two big spikes towards the beginning and end of the day with a huge lull in the middle.
As you don't want this, you will want to eat protein throughout the day to keep the levels at a consistently high level.
To do this, top sports researchers advise athletes to distribute protein intake across 4 to 5 servings, with each protein serving weighing at least 20 grams. Target including protein with each meal and opting for protein-rich snacks. Other than that, you don't need to stress too much about it.
There is some awesome science concerning the best time to drink a protein shake, but the application is really simple.
Above we went over general protein timing of when to eat protein throughout the day. But when should you drink a protein shake? There is no "best" time as different circumstances call for different practices. Here are various circumstances when taking a protein shake would be a good idea.
The most common time people will consume protein is post-workout, like after destroying your muscles in an ultimate chest and shoulders workout. Protein post workout makes sense as you just finished working your muscles, and they need to repair and rebuild. Further, while the anabolic window has been greatly exaggerated over the years, your body is still primed for growth shortly after resistance training.
Due to its fast absorption, having a protein shake immediately following a tough workout will maximize muscle growth. Aim for drinking a protein shake 30 to 60 minutes after your workout and use whey protein. Eating a larger than normal dose might provide extra benefit, so try to hit 30 to 40 grams, if possible.
Above, we talked about casein protein powder being absorbed slowly. This property led to research being performed concerning consuming protein before bed. To be clear, this doesn't mean "night-time" feeding. Instead, this means purposely having a protein shake before bed to help with muscle gain and recovery.
Researchers discovered that due to the slower absorption, consuming casein protein 30 minutes before bed resulted in an extended increase in muscle protein synthesis2. Consumed protein before bed led to improved recovery, decreased perceived fatigue, and mitigation of muscle soreness the morning after.
Like post-workout, try to eat 30 to 40 grams if possible. Further, while it depends on you and your calorie intake, most people will just do this with water. Your protein will be effectively digested and used to repair muscle fibers, all while you sleep.
A big protein shake makes a perfect snack whenever you feel hungry. They tend to be low in calories (120 to 140), provide nutritional benefits, taste great, and deliver a big dose of protein.
One of the attributes of protein is that it is the most satiating macronutrient. This simply means it fills you up and keeps you satisfied. If your stomach is calling for a snack, you're probably hungry. Choosing a protein shake in this scenario is a pretty dope choice.
Therefore, next time you're hungry, drink a protein shake! Delicious and filling - what more could you want?
Remember: Protein is the most satiating nutrient there is. This is one of the reasons that high protein diets are an awesome choice when you want to lose weight and are eating fewer calories. Curious as to why? It's because not being hungry is crucial in helping you avoid weight gain and shed pounds.
Protein also has the highest TEF (Thermal Food Effect), which refers to the number of calories your body must use to effectively digest and process food. This means your body burns more calories just to digest protein than it does with fat or carbs.
But that's not all. Protein shakes can also benefit your diet by mitigating muscle loss. When you consume fewer calories, your body will want to grab some extra energy from other sources. One of these is muscle. Therefore, a high protein diet will greatly reduce this and preserve your lean body mass. Make sure if you're planning to eat fewer calories, you bump up your protein intake.
There are certain situations when consuming protein, more specifically essential amino acids, during a workout is a great idea. The main reason for consuming protein during a workout is when you're training for extended periods.
This could result in your body turning to your muscle tissue for amino acids to convert to fuel. We don't want that, so drinking your essential amino acids can again mitigate any breakdown of muscle tissue.
Sports nutrition is a fascinating part of fitness and performance, and we're lucky enough to live during a time when so much research is available. It wasn't that long ago when we knew very little about when to eat or what to eat. Don't let this knowledge go unused.
As mentioned above, having a protein supplement is a bit of an oxymoron. On the one hand, studying all the physiological processes that must take place is extremely complex. On the other hand, researchers studying sports nutrition have already done all the hard stuff. That means we don't need to make it any more complicated than it needs to be.
To get your protein consumption perfected, just follow these simple guidelines:
And that's about as complicated as it needs to get. Don’t stress about when the perfect timing for drinking a protein shake is. Just follow the guidelines above, and you’ll definitely be doing it right.
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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