The Myth of Protein Timing
The idea behind protein timing is that strength training increases amino acid delivery to muscles as well as absorption. Therefore, the popular mentality is that if you eat protein immediately after exercise, it will lead to bigger long-term gains in strength and lean body mass.
But research doesn’t actually prove whether this does or doesn't work. In fact the science is actually split, about half of it saying it works, the other half saying it doesn't.
What IS consistent in terms of science, is that total overall protein intake across the day matters much more then how much and even how quickly you get it post workout.
There are three things to consider when thinking about protein timing:
1. The “magic window” is a myth. Some experts say that you should consume protein 20 minutes pwo, while others claim it’s an hour. The reality is that it's neither. Studies show that your muscles have an elevated sensitivity to protein that lasts at least 24 hours. In fact, one 2012 review study by McMaster University showed that muscle protein synthesis may continue for 24 to 48 hours pwo.
It's true that the effect is higher immediately after exercise and does diminish over time, but that certainly doesn’t mean there is some magical window that shuts after an hour. So theoretically you would want to eat protein fairly quickly, but because there’s not a huge post-exercise drop off in muscle protein synthesis, you don’t have to rush to pound a protein shake. It probably won't make or break you. That's because, as I mentioned, total protein intake is the crucial component. Which leads me to my next point.....
2. Total protein intake matters more. For the average active individual who is just trying to be healthy and manage weight, protein timing won’t make a huge difference if you aren't getting enough total protein intake across the day. It's not that timing isn't helpful, it's just that it’s not the most important factor in building muscle and/or losing weight. What's more important is that you get sufficient protein throughout the day, consumed in relatively even amounts. In addition to the benefits protein has on lean muscle, it is also the most satiating of all macronutrients so this helps with weight loss.
3. Eating before you train is just as effective. Depending on the size of a meal, amino acid, glucose, and insulin levels in your blood peak anywhere from 1-3 hours after eating- your muscles’ “absorptive state” where they’re most receptive to protein. After that, it takes 3 to 6 hours for those blood levels to fall back down to baseline. That’s a big window. So if it’s more convenient for you, you can eat a protein-rich meal within 1 or 2 hours pre-workout and still reap the benefits of protein timing. Though research is mixed, one study in Endocrinology and Metabolism found that consuming 20g of whey protein before exercise was just as effective as taking it one hour after.
So, in general- for the average active person, I suggest trying to get between .75-1g protein per lb of bodyweight. The one exception would be athletes cutting calories, or bodybuilders in prep, who may need to consume more than 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Eating more protein helps to preserve lean body mass (particularly important if you’re restricting calories), elevates the metabolism, and increases satiety (reduces hunger).
Once you ensure you consume enough protein during the day, THEN you could turn to protein timing to help give you an edge.
As a general guideline, try to eat 15-30g of protein within 1-2 hours both pre and post workout. Basically time your workout between protein-rich meals and you’ll be fine.
You don't NEED a post workout shake within 20 minutes as long as you are eating enough total protein across the day, and are getting protein rich meals before and after you train.
This could be lean fish, nonfat Greek yogurt, lowfat cottage cheese, chicken breast, egg whites- basically any leaner low fat protein source.