Do You Need To Drink Pre-Workout And Protein Shakes?
“Bro, did you forget your protein shake? Don’t you know? There’s only an hour window to get your carbs and protein after a workout, or you’re going to lose all your gains!”
Common “bro-science” knowledge is that you must consume a protein shake within an hour of your workout, or your body will starting eating muscle… or something. This is purely a myth. Supplement companies undoubtedly perpetuate the myth in order to increase sales of muscle-building shakes and powders.
If the “post-workout window” is a myth, what should you eat and drink pre/post-workout?
The answer, as with most fitness questions, will depend on your goals, what kind of workout you’re doing, and your personal preferences. But first, the science.
Exercise and Insulin Sensitivity
All exercise, whether cardio or lifting weights, increases insulin sensitivity.
Basically, you want to have high insulin sensitivity because that means you body requires low amounts of insulin to create a response (shuttling nutrients into your cells). Low insulin sensitivity means your body requires large amounts of insulin to generate a response.
Having high insulin sensitivity is good because it makes it easier for your body to build muscle or burn fat. Exercise enhances insulin sensitivity. So long story short, exercise is good for building muscle and burning fat. This much is obvious, since we all know people who have exercised their way to bigger muscles or leaner bodies.
That fact is some of what the protein shake myth is based on. After exercise, your insulin sensitivity is elevated, and your body is “primed” to absorb nutrients. This is true, but it doesn’t mean you need to guzzle a protein shake, pronto, to take advantage of elevated insulin sensitivity.
The common bro science, or even the science touted by supplement companies, tells us that there’s a one hour feeding window after workouts where our body is primed to take in nutrients. This is said to be especially true for consuming carbohydrates. We “should” allegedly consume carbohydrates in a 2 to 1 ratio to protein after a workout. Many post workout recovery drinks have this 2:1 formula. But is it ideal, and does it “count” if you miss the one-hour window?
More recent research has shown that the one-hour feeding window is a complete myth. Exercise actually elevates your metabolism for 24 hours post workout. That means you don’t have to rush to down a protein shake at the risk of losing your gains, bro.
And as far as the 2 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein, that is a myth too. It’s actually really easy to replenish muscle glycogen without worrying about “carb loading” after your workout. (Caveat: If you plan on two-a-day training sessions, you may benefit from purposefully carb loading to prepare for the second session.)
So if you’re using a work out as an excuse to smash sushi or chipotle, sorry to burst your bubble! You’d be just as well off with a balanced, healthy meal, like steak and veggies.
One cool piece of information from the scientific literature is that consuming a protein shake after a post workout meal does have some benefits. Your body may absorb 30% more of the protein in the shake than it would have if you drank it immediately after your workout (Tipton et al., 2001; Borsheim et al, 2002).
So look at this as a good excuse to have a protein shake for dessert!
What does that mean for your post workout meals?
Again, this depends on a number of factors. If you workout in the morning before work, and don’t have time to prepare or consume a full meal, you’re probably best off drinking a protein shake, ideally blended with a carbohydrate source like fruit (versus simply mixed with water). But, if you train in the evenings after work, a solid meal of meat and veggies is your best bet.
Does the average exerciser need to worry about this?
Probably not. If you exercise for enjoyment, for health benefits, or for weight loss, I wouldn’t waste time worrying about feeding windows, nutrient timing, or protein synthesis. Rest easy knowing that exercise elevates your insulin sensitivity, and that that is a good thing for weight loss, fat loss, and overall health and well-being.
Just eat a “normal” healthy meal as you would any other time of day. Including a small serving of carbs/starches can help replenish glycogen, but unless you’re on a strict low-carb diet, you will probably consume enough carbohydrates prior to your next training session to not have to worry about replenishing your muscle glycogen.
On the other hand, if you’re training for strength gain, sports performance, or a specific aesthetic goal like body building, all of this becomes more important.
From the current research, the best protocol would be to consume a protein shake prior to training, eat a healthy meal after your workout, and then (optionally) have an additional shake after your post-workout meal.
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