Protein before or after a workout?–Why nutrient timing matters.


In sports nutrition, protein is worshipped like mother’s milk. Somehow it became the end-all-be-all macronutrient among bro-athletes. Sure, we need more based on our physical activity, starting from 0.8 g of protein/kg of bodyweight up to 1.7g of protein/kg of bodyweight. But, don’t forget that carbohydrates and fats are just as important for a balanced diet, energy replenishment, and muscle building. When it comes to athletic nutrition, there are 3 common questions asked:

  1. What do I eat?
  2. How much do I eat?
  3. When do I eat?

Today, let’s focus on #3 because there seem to be a lot of confusion around nutrient timing. Every athlete on Instagram or Facebook has their go-to “stack” which is basically a bunch of cans of powdered supplements they’re sponsored to promote (in exchange for free supplements). There’s a pre-workout, BCAA, post-workout protein, fat burner pills, and other crazy stuff. I’ve been a strong proponent of real food over supplements, especially when it comes to recreational athletes (aka you and me at the gym). Still, this post applies to both.

Whether you’re taking a supplement or eating real food, timing of your meal/snack is important. Most people chug a protein shake or eat a protein bar within 30-45 minutes after a workout because it’s been repeatedly touted as the best time to take it. However, because it takes 2-3 hours for protein to be digested and absorbed to be put into action, I generally like to recommend people have a little protein about 60-90 minutes before their workout. It doesn’t have to be a full protein shake, something small (5-10g) with a carbohydrate (for energy) will do. This allows enough time for protein to be metabolized in the body and begin muscle protein synthesis by the end of your workout.

After your workout, have a snack or meal (depending on your schedule and hunger cues). I always encourage people to sit down and have a balanced meal if they haven’t eaten much beforehand. Timing it with your regular dinner slot makes it easier too 🙂

Happy eating, friends!

Thomas Ngo, RD

PS: for anyone who is trying calculate how much protein they should have based on the recommendations above, don’t stress too much over each gram of protein. You’re splitting hairs for such nuanced differences that you and your body won’t even notice. Simply focus on balanced eating & resistance training and you’ll be fine!



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