Timing it Right: Protein & Muscle

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If you’re looking to build and maintain muscle, getting the most out of your workouts means not only working out smart, but also timing your nutrition to get the results you want.

Even though the focus is often on foods consumed shortly after your workout, your body is sensitive to protein intake for building and repairing muscle for 24 hours after your workout. In other words, recovery foods are important, but they’re not everything.

What Promotes Muscle Building?

Protein has to be pulled into muscle, not pushed in. There has to be a stimulus. For athletes and active people this is often strength training.

Protein foods are made from amino acids, which are the building blocks of all proteins in the body. This includes the muscles used to exercise.

But let’s not forget that the body’s need for protein is not just for muscle building and repair. We also need protein foods to ensure our immune system and cardiovascular system function adequately.

There are 20 amino acids found in protein. 11 are considered to be non-essential and 9 are considered to be essential. The term non-essential is a bit misleading, because your body still needs all of them to build and repair proteins. What non-essential really means here is that your body can make them so you don’t have to eat them. The essential amino acids on the other hand, you do need to take in from food.

So How Do You Get All of your Essential Amino Acids?

By eating a variety of protein sources throughout the day. Animal foods such as meat, eggs and dairy, as well as isolated soy protein, are rich sources of essential amino acids. In fact, the amino acid leucine, which is found abundantly in dairy protein, has been identified as having a key role in stimulating synthesis of muscle protein.

Plant-based proteins from foods such as legumes or rice, are not as rich in essential amino acids. This is reason why it is so important for vegetarians and especially vegans to get a variety of plant-based protein sources in their diet.

Protein Quality and Digestion

In addition to the amino acid profile of protein foods, how quickly a protein food can be broken down into amino acids is important as well. Whey protein (from dairy) and soy are quicker to digest, whereas casein (also from dairy, but a different protein) is slower to digest. Why does this matter? If you’re using a protein powder right after workouts with the goal of building muscle mass, whey is probably the better choice. A casein-based protein powder may be a better option if you are incorporating it into an evening snack such as a smoothie to top-up your daily protein intake.

Timing Your Protein Intake Right

Fortunately, research has helped to guide how much and when to time protein intake relative to exercise to optimize timing for muscle building. This was the specific intention of a recent study that examined this. Here’s what they did:

In this study 3 groups of athletes consumed 80 g of protein over the course of the day after strength exercise. Participants followed 3 different patterns of eating the same amount of protein:

  • 80 g divided up as two 40 g meals - this most closely matches a 3 meals per day eating pattern. For example a 6 oz chicken breast at dinner gives you 40 g protein.

  • 80 g divided up as four 20 g meals - this is more like smaller more frequent meals. A three egg omelette with cheese or ¾ cup Greek yogurt gives you about 20 g of protein.

  • 80 g divided up as eight 10 g meals - this is more like the popular ‘grazing’ eating pattern. Two Tbsp of peanut butter on a piece of toast will give you about 10 g of protein.

What Did the Results Show?

The eating pattern that provided four 20 g portions of protein led to the most muscle building when compared to the other two patterns (2 x 40 g or 8 x 10 g).

Why weren’t larger portions of protein at one time better? They cause the protein building blocks (amino acids) to be oxidized (used for energy instead of for muscle).

Why weren’t smaller portions of protein more often better? It doesn’t provide enough amino acids to kickstart protein synthesis.

A Couple of Caveats:

While this study does provide an answer to the questions of when and how much when it comes to protein, a challenge in interpreting any of the research that looks at protein intake on muscle protein synthesis is that most of the studies have used protein powders without other foods. While researchers do this to avoid factors that could influence the results, it does make it a bit more difficult to translate this into real-world settings, where most people get protein from a combination of foods as meals.

In addition, similar research about protein amount and timing has not been done on endurance athletes but it is reasonable to assume that a similar pattern of protein intake would support the highest rates of muscle synthesis.

So What are the Takeaways?

Think beyond just your post-workout meal and to your overall eating pattern to help your body maximize muscle building.

Aim for a moderate protein intake of 20-25 g several times over the course of the day rather than eating all of your protein in one or two larger meals.

North American diets are typically lower in protein earlier in the day and heavier in protein in the evenings. This eating pattern may not support optimal muscle building, especially for morning exercisers.

If you have questions about your individual protein needs and if you’re timing your eating to reach your goals, ask me for more information.

References:

1) Areta J.L, Burke, L.M., Ross, M.L., Camera , D.M., West, D.W., Broad, E.M., Jeacocke, N.A., Moore, D.R.,, Stellingwerff, T., Phillips, S.M., Hawley, J.A., Coffey, V.G. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. Journal of Physiology, 591(1), 2319-2331. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897

2) Moore, D., Phillips, S, & Slater, G. (2015). Protein. In Burke, L. & Deakin, V. (5th Eds), Clinical sports nutrition (pp 94 - 113). Sydney, NSW: McGraw-Hill