Whether you have a devoted workout routine or keep busy by chasing after your children all day, you might be wondering if it’s best to consume protein before or after a workout?
It’s a common question and one that leads to other questions — namely, does the timing of your protein intake even matter in the first place? This is especially important if you don’t have time to consume protein right after you finish a workout because your children inevitably need something from you the moment you finish that last rep (or before you’re even done, let’s be honest).
Aside from properly timing your protein intake, we’d like to share some ideas on the best protein sources to fuel your training sessions whether you consume them pre-workout or post-exercise. Let’s start with the basics.
Understanding Protein and Why It’s Important
Before we get into the great debate of whether you should have protein before or after a workout (we know it’s riveting), let’s revisit what protein is and why it matters so much when it comes to building muscle.
Protein is one of three macronutrients (the others are fat and carbohydrates) that’s present throughout your entire body. It’s made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Of the 20-plus amino acids, nine of them are known as “essential.”
Those nine essential amino acids can only be acquired through your food. This makes getting enough protein essential not just for fueling your workouts, but also for living and functioning in general. Protein intake is important for maintaining muscle mass, building muscle tissue, and your body composition at large.
Even if you’re not pumping iron, bodybuilding, or focusing on any particular fitness goals, protein consumption literally makes up the building blocks of you as a human! (No big deal, right?)
That said, if you do have any specific fitness goals, and you have a routine that includes anything from resistance training, weight training, and strength training to cardio, judo chopping, or whatever fitness routine floats your boat (water aerobics, perhaps?), protein consumption is key.
Ultimately, the amount of protein you need depends on a variety of factors, including your body composition, activity level, age, and fitness goals. As such, it’s a good idea to consult with a nutritionist or a registered dietitian to help you figure out your unique protein needs.
As a general rule of thumb, you need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, for a person who weighs 120 pounds, that works out to about 54.4 kilograms. Multiply that by 0.8 grams and you get 43.5 grams of total protein. Your total protein needs would likely increase depending on your health goals, whether they be fat loss or muscle gain (or both), as well as your level of activity.
Types of Protein: Animal-Based vs. Plant-Based
We’ve already established that the amino acids in protein are what make up your muscle fibers, and thus are responsible for muscle growth, muscle mass, and muscle recovery. But what kind of protein will provide the best results? The answer is high-quality protein.
While there are plenty of animal-based proteins (including whey protein and casein protein), we’re partial to plant-based proteins like hemp seeds, quinoa, brown rice, watermelon seeds (seriously, it’s a thing), and even soy. Chickpeas and other beans and legumes are also excellent protein sources, and you can get protein from vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, and peas.
Fun fact: Did you know that green peas have about 8.6 grams of protein per cup? It’s one of the reasons we use them as the main protein source in Nowadays nuggets. Incidentally, Nowadays nuggets are an excellent source of protein, with 13 grams of protein per 85g serving. You can cook them up quickly so they’re ready to go anytime after you’re done working out or even later on for lunch or dinner. (And you can spice them up with one of these amazing dipping sauces! NBD.)
Aside from Nowadays nuggets, folks who work out regularly often opt for protein shakes and protein powder — and there’s no shortage of either on the market. Typically, most animal-based protein powders are made from whey protein or collagen, whereas plant-based protein powders usually consist of some combination of pea protein, hemp seeds, quinoa, brown rice, soy protein, and the like.
Depending on how much protein you want to consume (which depends entirely on your unique body and fitness goals), adding healthy fats (such as avocado) or an extra protein source like peanut butter or almond butter to your protein shake is a good option, along with non-dairy milk or water.
Potential Benefits of Having Protein Before a Workout
Now that you have a better handle on protein, let’s talk about the timing of your protein intake. Is it best to consume protein before or after a workout?
Research shows this inconvenient truth: the answer isn’t clear. In fact, it may not actually matter when you consume protein, but rather that you simply get enough protein on a daily basis.
That said, here are some reasons you might consider having your protein before you work out.
Maximizes Glycogen Stores
Glycogen is what the body uses for energy. You need energy to do everything from brushing your teeth to walking and, of course, working out. Your body gets energy to replenish your glycogen stores primarily from one of the main macronutrients: carbohydrates.
Glycogen is stored in two places in your body: muscles and liver. The glycogen in your muscles is used by your muscles in order to function.
Recent research has shown consuming protein alongside some carbohydrates can increase the rate of glycogen storage. This means that if you consume protein before a workout, you can ensure your muscles have enough energy — aka glycogen stores — to get through the workout.
Better Muscle Growth and Muscle Protein Synthesis
If you’re maximizing glycogen stores, this means you’ll have more than enough energy to get through a workout. What’s more is that you’ll increase your chances of being able to push harder, thus building more muscle in the process.
Enhanced Muscle Repair
Arguably, protein improves muscle recovery whether consumed pre-workout or after exercise, so this one counts for both sides of the argument. The reason is that the amino acids in protein help to rebuild and repair the muscle tissue that was stressed during a workout.
Better Anabolic Response
However, some studies suggest that this may not actually be the case. Dietary protein is indeed important for muscle repair, muscle growth, muscle recovery, muscle mass, muscle protein synthesis, replenishing glycogen stores, and the like (wow, that was a lot). But studies don’t support a beneficial difference in protein intake before or after a workout.
Potential Downsides of Consuming Protein Before a Workout
It turns out there aren’t that many cons to protein intake before a workout. The only real downside appears to be digesting the actual protein. If you’re using a protein supplement, that wouldn’t be an issue. But if you’re consuming a protein shake or protein-filled meal, that’s where you might run into some discomfort.
Cramping and Poor Digestion
Anyone who has ever gone swimming as a kid can probably hear the echoes of their mother’s voice saying, “You have to wait at least an hour to go swimming after you eat.” Or was it 20 minutes? Whatever it was, we can all remember fearing those dreaded cramps if we attempted to swim too soon after we ate.
Well, it turns out that our well-intentioned caretakers were right to warn us because poorly digested food can indeed lead to cramping. And that is the primary downside of consuming a pre-workout protein meal, particularly if it comes in the form of a protein shake or a full meal rather than just a small snack or supplement.
Benefits and Downsides of Consuming Protein After a Workout
Until recently, consuming protein post-workout seemed to be the gold standard among fitness experts, dieticians, and nutritionists alike. Or maybe that’s just what was getting the most air time.
With the exception of cramping and digestive issues, the list of pros for consuming protein post-workout is essentially identical to the list of pros for pre-workout protein intake.
The real difference is that if you were to consume a large protein-packed meal before your workout, you would increase your chances of digestive distress and cramping. On the other hand, you wouldn’t have to worry about that with post-workout protein intake.
So, What’s the Answer to This Great Protein Debate?
Timing does matter when it comes to protein intake in workout nutrition. It just doesn’t matter in the way that we thought it did.
There’s no doubt that fueling your working with protein is key, but the two factors that matter most are:
- The timing (in relation to your last meal), quantity, and quality of total protein in the meal you ate before your workout
- Your total protein intake for the entire day
Undoubtedly, you want to have enough energy to be able to not only get through a workout but also to crush it. You won’t build muscle if you don’t have the energy to push yourself beyond that last rep.
If you aren’t eating enough protein for your unique health, fitness goals, body composition, and activity level, it wouldn’t matter if you eat protein before or after a workout. (Because you wouldn’t have enough fuel in your tank to power your workout and build muscle mass.) On the flip side, if you were to consume too much, the excess protein would be stored as fat and you may gain weight over time.
So the first step in fueling your workouts is to know your unique protein needs. Timing is important when it comes to protein intake, but it matters in a different way.
Say you ate a really heavy meal at 9 p.m. and then woke up at 7 a.m. the following morning to work out. If your meal was heavy in macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), you likely wouldn’t need to fuel your morning workout because your body would have been slowly assimilating the macronutrients all night long (especially if you made this nugget pot pie — yum!).
However, if your evening meal was light on macronutrients, you may need a quick bite of protein before your morning workout. Check out these 6 pre-workout snack ideas for some inspo, or consider popping a few Nowadays nuggets into the toaster to enjoy before you go crush that workout (or chase after your children — seriously, how do they run so fast?).
But say you were to work out at noon on your lunch break, but you hadn’t eaten since 8 a.m. And say your breakfast was light or the protein was absorbed quickly into your body (for instance, in the form of a protein shake). In this case, you might need a little bit of protein to fuel your lunchtime workout.
Plant-based strength and conditioning coach, Tilita Lutterloh, agrees, “It’s all about context,” she says, “If you’re eating mindfully put-together meals (appropriate portions and frequency for one’s health needs and goals) throughout the day, one wouldn’t need to overload on protein during any one feeding in the first place.”
She goes on to explain that what matters most is the purpose of your pre- or post-workout nutrition. Specifically, what is it that you want it to help your body do?
“Pre-workout nutrition should help the body sustain energy, amp up performance, hydrate, preserve muscle mass, and optimize recovery,” Luttlerloh explains. “Post-workout nutrition is all about replenishing. It should help the body rehydrate, recover, refuel, build and preserve muscle and improve future performance.”
Protein Before or After a Workout? The Choice Is Yours
As you can see, determining the best timing of your protein intake has more to do with your unique protein needs, along with how quickly your protein is assimilated by your body. Protein shakes are arguably the most popular way to fuel a workout, whether it be before or after. But don’t forget all the other wonderful protein-packed meals you can choose from, including Nowadays nuggets. No matter how you choose to fuel your body, enjoy and be well. May all of your protein needs be met!