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New Research: The Limit Does Not Exist On Post-Workout Protein

Post-workout protein certainly isn’t a new concept, but recent research suggests a revamp of our protein consumption strategy after a killer training session might be in order. (Hint: More is more!)

Here’s what you should know about why post-workout protein is essential, plus what this new study says about exactly how much protein to throw back.

Why Post-Workout Protein Is Essential

Before blowing your mind with the latest research on post-workout protein, let’s make sure we all understand why protein is so crucial after going hard. 

It all starts with the physiology of lifting. “When you strength train, tiny micro-tears are shorn into the fibers that make up your muscle tissues,” explains hormone health expert and registered dietitian Abby Grimm, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., with FWDfuel Sports Nutrition. These tears trigger the body to send amino acids (small building blocks that make protein) to the injury, where they go to work repairing the muscle. This whole process is called muscle-protein synthesis—and through it, these fibers become stronger and more resilient than they were before your workout, leaving you with muscles that are bigger and stronger overall, Grimm explains. 

Read More: 3 Common Habits That Undermine Muscle Building

The thing is, you need to have sufficient protein available in your system for this process to run effectively and deliver its promised results (read: stronger muscles), says Grimm. Without adequate available protein, your body can’t recover as effectively, diminishing the ROI of your hard work in the gym. (In cases of seriously lacking protein, your body may even break down other muscles to get the protein it needs to repair freshly-shorn fibers, which can lead to decreases in overall strength, she notes.) 

Clearly, if you want to adapt positively to your training (which you do!), fueling and refueling your body with plenty of protein is a must—especially if building strength or mass is among your goals.

You Need Protein Post-Cardio, Too

Though much of the conversation around post-workout protein hovers around the world of weightlifting, you need the macronutrient after a run, jaunt on the elliptical, or a cycling class, too. “While strength training is more effective for increasing muscle strength and size, cardiovascular exercise also stresses your muscles, and thus you need protein for muscle repair,” says dietitian and exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios

As a general rule, the longer the duration or higher the intensity of your cardio session, the higher your protein demands will be, he says. 

New Research Says More Post-Workout Protein Is Always Better

Fitness and nutrition professionals have long believed that post-workout protein intake adhered to the Goldilocks principle—meaning, they believed that you want enough but not too much. 

The thought process behind this is that amino acids have a short half-life, which means that they do not stick around in the body for too long. Data suggests that some amino acids have a half-life of just under three minutes, while others last about 20 hours. Based on this, experts believed that any protein (or amino acids) still in the body after this time would be oxidized or excreted. 

As a result, sports nutritionists have long recommended that individuals consume 20 to 40 grams of protein following exercise, as they believed any more than that would basically go to waste. 

However, research recently published in Cells Reports Medicine has flipped this old notion on its head, finding that the upper limit on post-exercise protein intake does not exist—and that, actually, more is always better. 

For the study, researchers compared the “anabolic response” of individuals who consumed 100 grams of protein immediately following exercise, to that of people who consumed just 25 grams. FYI: “Anabolic response” is science-speak for the net gain in protein balance, or the muscle protein synthesis (growth) minus the muscle breakdown. Basically, it’s a measure of overall muscle gain.

What the researchers found: The body eventually used whatever protein it was fed. That extra protein didn’t go to waste!

How’d they do it? The researchers looked at blood samples and muscle tissue of athletes throughout 12 hours following their protein ingestion. (Previous research hasn’t explored a time frame this long.) While the two groups showed similar levels of circulating amino acids for the first five hours following protein ingestion, the levels of those who ingested just 25 grams of protein dropped off from there. Meanwhile, those who consumed 100 grams of protein maintained high levels of circulating amino acids throughout the entire 12 hours studied.

The conclusion: Ingesting large(r) amounts of protein indeed results in prolonged protein digestion, amino acid absorption, and continued amino acid release into circulation, explains registered dietitian Jenna Stangland, M.S., R.D.N., C.C.S.D., cofounder of A4 Health and performance dietitian for the Minnesota Wild. All of these factors support continued muscle tissue repair and growth. 

So…How Much Protein Should You Consume After A Workout?  

The takeaway here isn’t that you must consume 100 grams of protein after training to build muscle. What it does show, however, is that going above and beyond that 20- to 40-gram mark is actually beneficial (and not at all a waste), White says. Turns out, more really is better in this case.

And that’s not all. “These findings also give you permission to meet your daily protein needs in whatever ways work best for you,” White says. Historically, because individuals did not think they could absorb more than 40 grams of protein per sitting, they thought they had to consume five-plus small meals throughout the day to get enough total protein in a way their body could use. This research, though, shows that such strategizing isn’t really necessary. 

Read More: 5 Health Benefits Of A High-Protein Diet

“As long as you consume your daily protein needs, it doesn’t matter whether or not you do so in two or three larger meals or five smaller meals,” White says. This also takes the pressure off squeezing a certain massive amount of protein into your post-training snack or meal. Get enough throughout the day and rest assured that those amino acids are sticking around and getting to work.

For reference, if you’re focused on making strength gains, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming between 0.5 and 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Meanwhile, the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that cardiovascular sports and endurance athletes consume 0.45 to 0.73 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That means a 200-pound lifter might consume 100 to 160 grams of protein per day, while a 200-pound endurance athlete might consume slightly less, at 90 to 146 grams of protein per day. 

Protein-Rich Post-Workout Snacks To Try

Though research has dispelled the idea that you must stick to a certain range of protein after working out for maximum benefits, you’ll definitely still want to prioritize getting this muscle-building macronutrient into your body after a training session.

If you’re on the go, a quality whey, soy, or pea protein powder is a beneficial investment, White says. Mix it into oatmeal or yogurt, add it to a smoothie, or simply shake it up with milk or water. Protein bars can also be a good option if you’re on the move. 

If, however, you have time to whip up a snack or meal, Stangland recommends some of the following: 

  • Plain Greek yogurt with nuts and blueberries 
  • A high-protein beef stick or two
  • Cottage cheese with cherry tomatoes, basil, and black pepper 
  • Cottage cheese with peaches and balsamic vinegar
  • Hard-boiled eggs on toast
  • Tuna with whole-grain crackers 

The Takeaway 

All in all, the research offers some interesting alternative findings about post-workout protein needs that both confirm the benefit of consuming more protein after exercise and loosen the reins on how you can distribute your protein intake throughout the day. 

However, whether this research alone is enough evidence for you to change your eating patterns is up to you. While this study was well-designed, it’s important to remember that healthy young males were the population used for the test group. “More research is needed to determine the post-workout protein needs of other population groups,” Stangland says. 

Still, what remains uncontested is the fact that protein is an essential ingredient for muscle repair and must be prioritized by athletes of all types. If you have specific questions on what you can do to best meet your unique protein needs, your best bet is to talk to a sports nutritionist.

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