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Protein consumption before or during exercise appears to improve muscle protein synthesis or the uptake of protein to the working muscles. This may improve recovery and adaptation to the specific exercise, however, consuming protein before or during exercise sessions may not improve exercise performance. Nor does having protein along with your carbohydrates enhance performance, more than the consumption of carbohydrates alone, in bouts of prolonged and or exhaustive exercise.
This is according to Professor Luc van Loon, Ph.D. of the Department of Human Biology and Movement Sciences at Maastricht University Medical Centre located in the Netherlands.
However, “Ingestion of protein prior to or during exercise may help to accelerate muscle protein synthesis rates during exercise and during the early stages of post-exercise recovery,” said van Loon. “Whether this would result in a greater benefit for the athlete remains to be established.”
However, he added, “protein ingestion during exercise does not seem to improve performance, but providing protein during or rather after exercise can help support recovery from exercise and support the adaptive response of muscle tissue to exercise training (which we refer to as reconditioning).”
Athletes, who train or perform for longer than one hour, benefit from taking carbohydrates during exercise, as the body (muscles and liver) have limitations in the amount of glycogen that is stored. Running out of glycogen is often referred to as bonking for endurance athletes. To avoid the dreaded bonk, adapting to longer exercise gradually over time, as well as supplementing with carbohydrates will provide optimum performance.
“Carbohydrate stores in muscle and liver (glycogen) are only enough to sustain moderate to high-intensity exercise for 45-60 min in highly trained athletes. Therefore, endurance athletes often consume carbohydrate-containing beverages (i.e. sports drinks) during prolonged exercise lasting more than 1 hour,” said van Loon.
“Protein will help recovery and support the adaptive response to exercise training; it does not seem to have a direct effect on performance when ingested during exercise.”
We all have that friend who believes you cannot eat too much protein. You know that guy who eats a 20-ounce steak directly after a workout, and while it is cooking on the stove or barbeque, he is drinking a protein shake and eating nuts and cheese. Well, as it turns out, athletes do not need high volumes of protein, but rather healthy sources and perhaps just as importantly, well-timed consumption.
“From several studies published so far it has become clear that ingestion of 20 grams of a high-quality protein will increase muscle protein synthesis rates during the first few hours of recovery from a single bout of resistance-type exercise,” said van Loon. “It is generally believed that this will support the reconditioning of skeletal muscle tissue to more prolonged training (i.e. support the adaptive response of skeletal muscle tissue to exercise training).”
Most people take their protein from a variety of sources when eating balanced meals. The scientific research that is done includes a single source of protein, such as egg protein, milk protein, and meat for example.
“We generally consume meals that contain various sources of protein. The research setup generally does not allow us to design a study in line with everyday life which is much less standardized than the laboratory setting we need to employ to test research hypotheses.”
When asked about how one should consume their protein, van Loon said, “I would generally advise consuming 20g protein following an exhaustive exercise session. This could be provided by a healthy, balanced meal. In some cases, logistics preclude the ingestion of a meal after an exercise session. In such cases, a healthy, protein-rich snack could be consumed (chicken salad, chicken sandwich, yogurt with fruit or something like that). Supplements such as protein powders, bars or drinks may be easy to use and convenient but can never substitute the many components of good (i.e. healthy) foods.”
Keeping in mind that van Loon referenced “exhaustive exercise”, getting 20g of protein, out of food requires just a small meal. For example, a single boiled egg contains approximately 13 grams of protein. One hundred grams of beef will provide anywhere from 16 to 40 grams of protein, depending on the cut. A 100-gram serving of fish provides 18-30 grams of protein, depending on the type of fish.
Peanuts contain approximately 25 grams of protein. Cheeses are high sources of protein, ranging at the low end with Feta at 16 grams, while Parmesan at the top end provides up to 40 grams, per 100 grams.
A medium-sized avocado provides two grams of protein. You may eat your day’s entire volume of food in getting enough protein out of the popular avocado.
Timing is everything, or more accurately, timing is beneficial. For example, van Loon discovered that you are literally what you just ate. Apparently, van Loon found in studies where he followed protein in its journey through the body that it enters the muscles within just two hours of ingesting it.
Alex Hutchison, author of the popular Outside Online Magazine article, “4 laws of Muscle” wrote, “Just over 50 percent of the protein made it into the subjects’ circulation within five hours, with the rest presumably taken up by tissues in the gut or not absorbed. During the same period, 11 percent of the ingested protein was incorporated into new muscle.”
So while protein consumption is important in post-exercise recovery, good timing and quality food sources are more important than volume.
See: Is There a Need for Protein Ingestion During Exercise?
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