The title of this article presents a question that plays on many fitness and health enthusiasts’ minds, whether we like to admit it or not, many of us periodically down a protein shake over the course of the day with little thought paid to timing and efficacy. Total protein requirements should be met, protein deficiency is one of the main causes of injury in exercising athletes, so it makes absolute sense that people consuming them take them at the most effective times…but too many people don’t!
'Windows of opportunity'
If you follow the rule that states you should be consuming a liquid form of protein within the ‘anabolic window’, i.e. within 30mins after exercise, then good on you. The fact that you get protein in you as soon after exercise is great, but new evidence from the likes of Professor Luc van Loon, a leading protein metabolism specialist suggests that although the 30min anabolic window is a useful prompt for people, it isn’t necessarily crucial. In fact, muscles that have been broken down via exercise can still repair and grow as well as ever up to 24 hours after the training bout! Don’t get me wrong, the sooner you get protein in you after exercise the faster the growth hormone shifts, the insulin rises and the muscle repair can begin to take place, but it’s worth noting that the firmly believed 30min anabolic window may not be as critical as everyone likes to make out.
Multiple opportunities to grow and repair
Although the abovementioned ‘anabolic window’ appears to be far wider than the original 30mins, the emphasis that many people place on this ‘post-workout’ shake is often negated by the failure to take adequate protein during other opportune times of the day. You’ll note that I mentioned the anabolic window being more like 24 hours (but ideally within 1 hour). This 24hour window is also evidence of how active a muscle is after exercise! Even when resting (sitting on the couch or in bed) after a tough gym session, your muscles are still highly active in the metabolic sense, they are constantly burning calories due to the repair and replenishment process that follows exercise. So with this ‘constant repair process’ in mind, why is it that many people fail to consume protein at the following opportune times:
First thing in the morning
If you’re training hard, then you’ll no doubt know that you need more sleep than a regular sedentary person so that you have time to repair, recover and grow both hormonally and anatomically. If we say the average person gets around 6-7 hours a sleep a night, then that’s 6-7 hours of no nutrition other than the stores you have in your body. By the time you wake in the morning you are running on empty, pure and simple, all glycogen and amino acid stores are low and the body is in starvation mode. Give the body what it needs as soon as you wake up, the injection of nutrition you get from a protein shake will kick start your organs and metabolic (energy) pathways into action leaving you feeling satisfied and awake! The stream of amino acids you get from a good quality whey protein are immediately put to work on repairing muscle via a process known as protein synthesis.
If you consume a protein shake first thing in the morning and after an evening training session, then you are missing a key window of nutrition during mid-afternoon. Your breakfast time feed has a life expectancy of a couple of hours at best, so it is important that you deliver another supply of protein, starchy carbs, fat and fibre around 10.30-11am, a few boiled eggs and/or a handful of nuts and natural yoghurt are good options. Although food is the priority, for most people the everyday work commitments get in between you and a good solid source of protein around mid-afternoon when it’s all hands to the deck to get things done…but with a protein shake, all you’ve got to do is take your shaker (pre-filled with approx. 30g protein powder) to the drinks fountain, fill it up and down it. Job done.
An average protein shake provides around 20-25g protein. Some other proteins will offer 60+g protein per serving requiring you to consume mammoth portions of thick, poor quality protein in one go. Take it from me, you only need around 25-30g protein per serving, if you need more protein over the course of the day then increase the frequency that you consume protein (not the volume per serving). After a day of methodically taking your protein (be it whey, pea, beef, rice or soy protein to name a few) you will come to the evening, after your main meal, where you feel like a nibble of some sort. The perfect option here is a slow releasing form of protein called Casein protein, the complex chemical structure of casein protein means it forms a gel like substance in the stomach which enters the blood stream more slowly over a period of 6-8 hours. Remember that period of fasting you go through overnight, worry no more, casein protein drip feeds your muscles with amino acids so that you don’t wake up on complete empty!
Depending on your goals, there are at least 4 key opportunities for you to consume a protein supplement over the course of a day, first thing in the morning, mid-afternoon, after your gym/exercise bout, and before bed. This may not be for everyone as it takes some commitment, but to those of you taking things seriously and wanting to get the most out of your training…do it, and do it right.