How you can optimise the benefits of protein after training
Ever wondered how protein works and the benefits it provides our bodies after exercising? Nick Green, Sports Dietitian at Bupa provides some answers.
While protein is considered by most as a key nutrient to help with recovery after resistance training, I find that its role in recovery is largely misunderstood.
All you need to do is look at recovery drinks, or messages in the media talking about protein and exercise, and you’ll see the focus is on that period of time immediately after your workout.
While protein intake within the first 60 minutes after exercise is very important, protein’s role in optimising recovery and gains doesn’t stop there!
The recovery period after a hard gym session actually lasts 24+ hours post-workout. During this time, making the right nutrition choices, especially the timing and distribution of protein, is crucial.
Let’s start by looking at the science behind hitting the gym, and what happens within the body during the recovery period.
The body is in a constant flux of muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) and muscle protein breakdown – the balance between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown is referred to as net protein balance.
To promote muscle growth, we want to maximise muscle protein synthesis so that it exceeds levels of muscle protein breakdown to achieve a positive net protein balance.
Resistance training (weight training) is the first piece of the puzzle, providing a stimulus that causes a spike in muscle protein synthesis, however this is accompanied by an equally significant increase in muscle protein breakdown.
To shift to a positive net protein balance, the consumption of protein is needed to increase muscle protein synthesis – essentially adding fuel to the fire.
It’s been suggested that in the early stages of recovery after the resistance training, the net protein balance is focusing on muscle repair which is achieved by that initial hit of protein post workout, but as the recovery period continues, maintaining a positive net protein balance stimulates muscle growth further emphasising the importance of making appropriate dietary choices during this time.
During the recovery period the body is more sensitive to repeated consumptions of protein, which results in increases in muscle protein synthesis to promote muscle growth.
There has been a lot of research into optimal timing and dose, and the consensus is that the optimum response is seen with consumption of 20-30 g of protein every 3 hours, for the 24+ hour period following resistance training.
Let’s look at what this means in terms of food.
Post-workout you don’t necessarily need to reach for a protein shake, as your requirements can be met with a high protein snack or your next main meal if you’re eating within an hour after your session. Sure, protein shakes are convenient, but they don’t contain any special ingredients that you’re not able to get from real food.
From here, I find most people consume enough protein at lunch and dinner (even consume more than necessary in some cases), but may choose low protein snacks, and depending on what they’re choosing for breakfast, can consume insufficient amounts of protein at breakfast.
Protein content of some foods:
- 150g tub plain Greek yoghurt (low fat) = 15g protein
- Cup of low fat milk = 10g protein
- ½ cup cottage cheese (120g) = 12g protein
- 2 slices reduced fat cheese (40g) = 12g protein
- 1 large egg = 6 g protein
- 95g can tuna = 16g protein
- 150g lean beef (raw weight) = 30g
- 150g chicken/turkey breast, no skin (raw weight) = 32g
- 100g firm tofu = 12g protein
- 100g silken tofu = 8g protein
- 125g serve 4-bean mix = 6g protein
- 220g can Baked beans = 10g protein
- 30g nuts = 6g protein
Putting this all together: (this is a guide to demonstrate protein distribution across the day, and is not intended to be used as a meal plan)
- Scrambled eggs with cheese
- Smoothie made with milk, yoghurt, and frozen berries
- Salad with a can of tuna and a serve of 4-bean mix
- Wrap with grilled chicken and salad
- Beef stir fry, with good mix of vegetables a serve of brown rice
- Vegetarian tofu curry
- Rice cakes with cottage cheese and shredded turkey, topped with tomato and pepper
- Tub of plain low-fat Greek yoghurt with fruit and a serve of almonds
Even if you’re not a gym junkie, spreading your protein intake out across the day can still have benefits for you.
Eating that little bit more protein at breakfast may help you feel fuller for longer, which can have benefits for weight management.
Recent research suggests a protein-rich breakfast can decrease ghrelin levels (a likely hunger signal) more strongly over time than a carbohydrate-rich one.
This may allow better appetite control, which could help to reduce impulsive snacking.
Nick Green is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Sports Dietitian