Nutrition

Protein Shakes: Before or After a Workout?

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ICYMI: Essential Protein is officially Informed Sport Certified.

Does timing really matter when it comes to protein intake?

From bodybuilders and competitive athletes to high-intensity yogis getting back in the swing of things, the question of whether protein shakes are ideally consumed before or after a workout has long been the subject of debate—hotly contested by proponents on both sides. Some claim that pre-workout protein consumption is best for muscle protein synthesis, while others swear by post-workout replenishment.*

As skeptics, we’re no stranger to speculation, so we did what we do best: turned to the science. The verdict? Keep reading to find out.

How much protein? It depends on a few factors

Protein is an important macronutrient and everyone, regardless of activity level, needs to consume it to survive. That said, protein intake isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach—especially if your goals involve building muscle. (FWIW: Even if that’s not what you’re after, if fitness is a regular part of the routine, you might consider evaluating the amount of protein consumed for muscle support.)*

“Protein goals should be individualized based on activity level, body size, food preferences, and personal goals,” explains Addy Grier-Welch, MS, MPH, a registered dietitian and research scientist at Ritual. For adults, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight—or about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. (1)

DailyProteinIntake.jpg

The caveat? The RDA only indicates the minimum daily intake value for a nutrient, not necessarily the ideal amount, especially for athletes. “In the case of protein, the RDA is not enough to maximize metabolic adaptation to training, meaning active people may have higher protein recommendations,” Addy notes.* (1,2,4)

When it comes to active individuals, the most recent scientific evidence suggests a higher daily protein intake: 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (which translates to about 11 to 18 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight).* (3,4)

Essential reading: How to Start Working Out When You Don’t Know Where to Begin

What’s up with the “anabolic window”?

Ever heard of the concept of consuming protein within 30 minutes of a sweat session in order to help support building muscle? Turns out, there’s more to the story. “While the existence of a true ‘anabolic window’ is far from definitive, a few things are clear,” says Addy.* (5)

  • There’s no need to race home from the gym. The early recovery phase is defined as 0-2 hours after exercise—so the idea of a narrow protein-intake window “closing” after 30 minutes post-exercise is more of a myth. However, according to Addy, it remains important to refuel after exercising. As a more general rule of thumb, try to refuel with a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fluids within about an hour after a workout. (4)
  • Food approaches are often in a state of flux. “Nutrition needs are not static and are dependent on activity level as well as a host of other factors,” says Addy. The key? Stay flexible, make sure to eat enough to properly nourish the body, and adapt your nutrition goals to whatever your current workout routine (or schedule!) requires. Perfection isn’t the goal here—it’s mindfulness and responding to your body’s cues (if you feel hungry, eat).
  • Quantity does matter, but not in the way you think. Proper overall nutrition is extremely important—eating a balanced, whole foods-rich diet (and eating enough) is crucial for providing the body with adequate energy.
  • Tailor your consumption to your training sessions. The timing of nutrient intake absolutely has an impact, but as Addy points out, ideal timing can vary depending on the person, the type of exercise (resistance training, distance running, walking, etc.), and so forth. She prefers individualized nutrition plans, preferably developed by a sports dietitian, that account for individual needs and nutrition goals.

So, what’s the verdict?

Protein before or after a workout: What the science says

When it comes to protein consumption, the literature is clear. Twenty to thirty grams of high-quality protein after exercise—with an overall protein intake of 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg per day—is key for supporting muscle growth in response to strength training, as the body continues synthesizing protein for at least 24 hours after even a single (!) resistance exercise session. (4)

Even more intriguing? Research shows increased sensitivity to dietary protein intake during this timeframe, too. “This would suggest that drinking a protein shake (or eating a protein-containing meal) after workouts would be good timing for athletes—along with multiple protein-containing meals throughout the day to meet overall needs,” says Addy.* (4)

AnabolicWindowTips.jpg

How to build a balanced smoothie, according to a nutritionist

Wherever you lie on the dietary spectrum—whether you’re an omnivore, vegan, flexitarian, or anywhere in between—the trick to ensuring your smoothie is truly nutritious is to make sure it contains key macronutrients in appropriate serving sizes.

We’ve got you covered with a customizable smoothie blueprint (courtesy of our resident dietitian and VP of Scientific Affairs, Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD), along with three of our favorite recipes. Short on time? Here’s the (quick) scoop.

  • 1 serving of Essential Protein (or another vanilla-flavored protein powder). Regardless of the brand, you’ll want to ask a few key questions to ensure the smoothie includes a high-quality protein supplement. (FWIW, this is true for any type of protein source, whether it’s pea protein, casein protein, whey protein, or anything else.)
  • 1 cup fiber-rich carbs, like frozen berries or bananas. In addition to being an important source of energy to fuel your workout and replenish post-workout, fiber-filled carbohydrates offer a multitude of benefits, from digestive support and regularity to satiety.*
  • 1 cup cold liquid. Water, juice, plant-based milk, cow’s milk… Sure, it’s great for staying hydrated, but it’s also functional: You need some fluids to put the smooth in your smoothie. That’s not to mention it’s a chance to consume additional nutrients—like potassium, if you opt for coconut water.
  • 2 tbsp healthy fats. Nut butter, frozen avocado, and chia seeds are our go-tos, but as a general rule, adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet is a great way to support brain, heart, and eye health. It’s also why we include vegan omega-3 DHA (sourced from microalgae!) in our multivitamins.*
  • A few cubes of ice if you like a creamier texture. Totally optional.

→ Essential reading: Plant-Based Protein Powder: What to Look for (and Avoid)

Bottom line?

Protein is important for post-workout muscle support, and many people turn to protein shakes to help meet their total protein intake for the day. For good reason, too: They’re an easy, convenient way to up your nutrient game—particularly if you prioritize finding a good-tasting protein powder.*

Ultimately, research suggests that protein intake timing varies based on activity performed and individual fitness goals. But for most people on the journey to support muscle-building, consuming protein after a sweat session—which includes drinking post-workout protein shakes—is a good idea.*

An equally important factor, though? Consuming enough protein in the first place.

Speaking of protein needs… Here’s 7 complete protein food combos and 8 high-protein breakfast ideas to try out.

References:

  1. National Academies of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). 2005.
  2. Phillips SM. Current Concepts and Unresolved Questions in Dietary Protein Requirements and Supplements in Adults. Front Nutr. 2017 May 8;4:13.
  3. Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance. Fact sheet for health professionals. 2019.
  4. Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501-528.
  5. Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 5.
  6. Gollnick, P. D., & Matoba, H. (1984). Role of carbohydrate in exercise. Clinics in sports medicine, 3(3), 583–593.

Meet Our Experts

This article features advice from members of our Science Team.

Ritual - Science Team

Addy Grier-Welch, MS, MPH, RDN, Research Scientist

Addy Grier-Welch is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MS in Public Health Nutrition and MPH from the University of Tennessee where she researched community-based food policies and environmental interventions. As a registered dietitian, Addy has spearheaded nutrition support for organizations participating in federal food programs geared toward providing healthy meals to children and adults.

Ritual - Science Team

Addy Grier-Welch, MS, MPH, RDN, Research Scientist

Addy Grier-Welch is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MS in Public Health Nutrition and MPH from the University of Tennessee where she researched community-based food policies and environmental interventions. As a registered dietitian, Addy has spearheaded nutrition support for organizations participating in federal food programs geared toward providing healthy meals to children and adults.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Senior Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Senior Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Senior Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Senior Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Meet the Author

Courtney Cho

Courtney Cho, Content Marketing Manager, Writer, Journalist

Courtney Cho is a health and wellness writer who has covered a wide variety of industry topics, from the science of nutrition and gut health to clinical testing and greenwashing. After earning her B.A. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specialized in journalism and reporting, her career has focused on the intersection between clean products, ingredient transparency, and science-backed wellness—and how everyday habits can contribute profoundly to our quality of life.

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Courtney Cho

Courtney Cho, Content Marketing Manager, Writer, Journalist

Courtney Cho is a health and wellness writer who has covered a wide variety of industry topics, from the science of nutrition and gut health to clinical testing and greenwashing. After earning her B.A. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specialized in journalism and reporting, her career has focused on the intersection between clean products, ingredient transparency, and science-backed wellness—and how everyday habits can contribute profoundly to our quality of life.

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