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Post-Exercise Nutrition 101

Not consuming the appropriate nutrition post-exercise can leave training gains on the table and impair exercise recovery. Is your post-exercise nutrition strategy bringing you closer to success or failure?

The Why

Long-term athletic development is a complex endeavor; genetics [51, 52], psychological skills [53, 54], sport-specific expertise [55-59], nutrition [60, 61], and physiological adaptations to exercise [62-65] all contribute in some way. During intense training, your body uses important muscle components like protein, glycogen (carbohydrate stored inside muscle), and water. In most exercise situations, muscle protein, glycogen, and water are critical for the muscles to work effectively. If these muscle components are utilized during exercise and aren’t replaced, your next performance will suffer [68-72]. The main goal of post-exercise nutrition is to give your body what it needs to quickly begin the muscle re-building process. However, post-exercise recovery from one training session isn’t enough; long-term training adaptations and athletic improvements do not result from the recovery from a single exercise or training session alone, but rather by the cumulative recoveries from multiple training bouts [66-68]. In other words, you need to consistently give your body the nutrition it needs to see long-term training gains.

The What and When

Previous research suggests that ingesting a combination of carbohydrates and protein post-exercise facilitates exercise recovery and enhances athletic performance [28-34, 40, 47, 87]. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) all agree on this notion [34]. Although a recent review suggested that muscle gains (i.e. hypertrophy) may be more strongly associated with total daily protein intake than the timing of post-exercise nutrition [36], the totality of evidence suggests that a combination of protein and carbohydrate should be consumed soon after exercise to optimize training adaptations. Even if nutrient timing isn’t as important as once thought, you put yourself in a favorable position by initiating the muscle recovery process sooner, rather than later. Your specific post-exercise requirements will depend on the type, duration, and intensity of your exercise. This is particularly true for carbohydrate; more longer, more intense exercise requires more carbohydrate to recover fully [84, 85]. If interested, you can check out your personalized post-exercise recovery needs using our Nutrition Calculator.

Protein Type Matters

The type of protein consumed post-exercise matters; your ability to recover from exercise and see positive long-term training adaptations can be affected by the type of protein consumed [37-42, 48-50]. In young, healthy males who regularly trained using resistance exercise, a group of researchers found that consumption of whey protein elicits a more favorable response in muscle, both at rest and post-exercise, compared with casein and soy protein [48]. In fact, at rest, whey was 93% and 18% more effective than casein and soy, respectively. After resistance exercise, whey was a whopping 122% and 31% more effective than casein and soy, respectively [48]. Another group of researchers observed greater gains in lean body mass and muscle hypertrophy with post-exercise ingestion of fat-free milk compared with soy post-exercise during 12 weeks of resistance training [49]. In a comprehensive review, a research group led by Stuart Phillips determined that ingestion of whey, soy, and milk proteins resulted in greater muscle gains (i.e. hypertrophy) than carbohydrate alone in young adults [50]. Also, they found that whey proteins were most effective; they support muscle gains more than soy and milk proteins [50]. Overall, research has shown that products containing animal and dairy-based proteins contain the highest percentage of essential amino acids (EAAs; amino acids that must be obtained from the diet) and result in more favorable training responses when compared to vegetarian options [86].

Consistent Post-exercise Milk vs. Soy Protein Affects Long-Term Training Adaptations

Bonus: How to Split Up Daily Protein

In addition to post-exercise protein type, the timing of protein consumption appears to be an important factor for exercise recovery [43-46]. Overnight post-exercise recovery was enhanced when active men consumed 40 grams of casein protein immediately before bed [44]. Other researchers have found pre-sleep protein to be beneficial for increasing muscle protein synthesis (MPS), muscle recovery, body composition, and metabolism [88-91].

What about during the day? Researchers investigated how consuming 80 grams of whey protein in different doses throughout the day affected recovery in healthy, resistance-trained males [45]. The researchers found that consuming 4 servings x 20 grams of protein every 3 hours was more effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis than consuming 8 servings × 10 grams every 1.5 hours or 2 servings × 40 grams every 6 hours [45]. It should be noted that the differences between dosing strategies were not drastic and the research is limited in this area.

Daily Protein Intake Distribution Affects Anabolic Response

Consuming multiple, moderate-protein meals, consisting of 20-40 grams of protein each, throughout the day is recommended. Also, consuming 20-40g protein before bed is likely beneficial to support muscle recovery and favorable body composition changes.

Bonus: The Deal with High-Protein Diets

At one point, high-protein diets were thought to elicit negative health outcomes, including kidney issues. Current research suggests that there are no negative health implications in healthy individuals consuming extremely high-protein diets [1, 11, 22-25, 42, 86]. However, if you have an existing kidney issue, it may not be advisable to consume high daily quantities of protein [25-27]. Of particular importance to athletes, high-protein diets help maintain lean body mass during weight loss [2-12] and promote increases in muscle strength, muscle fiber size, and lean body mass when combined with resistance training [11-15]. Individuals routinely participating in intense exercise may require 1.5-2.0 g/kg/day, or 2-3x the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, in order to maintain protein balance [16-21]. A brief review discussing the importance of high-protein diets during weight loss can be viewed here. In light of the aforementioned research, there is little room for argument against healthy athletes consuming a high-protein diet or, at the very least, consuming protein in quantities greater than 2 times the RDA (1.5-2.0 g/kg/day) to facilitate positive training adaptations and recovery.

ShakeBot Bottom Line

  • You need to recover to perform. Muscle protein and glycogen (i.e. stored carbohydrate) are used during exercise and if they aren’t replaced, your next performance will suffer.
  • What you consume post-exercise matters. Consume a combination of carbohydrates and protein post-exercise to optimize your athletic recovery.
  • Everyone is different. Your post-exercise nutritional needs will depend on your personal characteristics and the exercise you choose to do in any given exercise session.
  • The type of protein matters. When it comes to gaining muscle and enhancing performance, whey protein may work better than other protein types.
  • The timing of daily protein matters. Post-exercise protein is important, but you should also consider when you consume the rest of your protein throughout the day: multiple moderate-protein meals containing 20-40 grams of protein is a great strategy to start.
  • Consuming a high-protein diet will probably help you. Unless you have an existing kidney issue, high-protein diets are probably safe and effective for athletes aiming to increase muscle strength, size, and overall body composition.
  • Always consult with a qualified healthcare professional prior to making any significant changes to your diet.


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