It’s common for athletes to take in some carbohydrate after a workout. The desire for sugar is typically high at that time. This is beneficial in that it is known to increase the glycogen stores in the muscles which have been depleted by exercise. Decades of research has shown this to be effective for hastening recovery. And the sooner you recover the sooner you can do another quality workout thus shortening the time to achieve a high level of fitness.
There has been much less research done on protein after exercise, but there is a growing body of work which shows surprising levels of improvement by taking in some protein immediately afterwards. Here are some studies from the last few years all of which support this notion. There is a bit of latitude in how much protein you should take in along with your carb as you can see from study summaries below. The range in these studies was about 26 to 400 calories from protein after a workout. That’s a huge difference. But as you will see, these studies did not examine the same benefits, although there is overlap. More research is needed to narrow this down somewhat. In the mean time you are on your own to decide how much.
There’s little doubt that taking in protein along with carbohydrate immediately following a session, especially a hard workout, is beneficial. I suggest to the athletes I coach that they do this in the first 30 minutes after a hard workout. I leave how much carb and protein up to how they are feeling and what seems appropriate as it’s unlikely that what is needed will always be the same regardless of the many variables (workout duration and intensity, pre-workout and during-workout intakes, weather conditions, and more). The sensations of appetite and thirst should be the driving factors. (Click on the citation to read the abstract.)
Berardi, J. M., Price, T. B., Noreen, E. E., and Lemon, P. W. “Postexercise muscle glycogen recovery enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2006; 38(6):1106-13.
Six cyclists had a 29% greater glycogen resynthesis using a carb+protein recovery drink following exercise vs. a carb recovery drink only. The carb-protein ratio was 2:1 with 4.8 calories per kilogram of body weight. The carb was maltodextrin and the protein was whey.
Breen, L., Philip, A., Witard, O.C., et al. “The influence of carbohydrate-protein co-ingestion following endurance exercise on myofibillar and mitochondrial protein synthesis.” Journal of Physiology, 2011; 589(16):4011-25.
10 trained cyclists rode for 90 minutes at 77% of their VO2max on 2 occasions. Immediately after exercise and 30 minutes after they drank either carb (25g/100 cal) or carb+protein (25g + 10g/140 cal total). Muscle protein synthesis was 35% greater with carb+protein.
Cockburn, E., Stevenson, E., Hayes, P. R., et al. “Effect of a milk-based carbohydrate-protein supplement timing on the attenuation of exercise-induced muscle damage.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 2010; 35(3):270-77.
4 matched groups of 8 men each did a muscle-damaging workout. They drank a carb+protein drink (milk) before exercise, immediately after, or 24 hours after. Delayed onset of muscle soreness, power and strength measure 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise found that the best times to consume the carb+protein drink were immediately after and 24 hours after.
Etheridge, T., Philip, A., Watt, P. W., et al. “A single protein meal increases recovery of muscle function following an acute eccentric exercise bout.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 2008; 33(3):483-88.
9 active men ran down a -10 degree slope for 30 minutes at 75% of max heart rate on 2 occasions. Immediately afterwards they took in 100g (400 cal) of protein or a placebo drink. By 48 hours after exercise delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) was high and quad strength was decreased by 10% in the when using a placebo drink. There was no DOMS or reduction in quad strength with the protein drink as compared with a pre-run test.
Ferguson-Stegall, L., McCleave, E. L., Ding, Z., et al. “Postexercise carbohydrate-protein supplementation improves subsequent exercise performance and intracellular signaling for protein synthesis.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011; 25(5):1210-24.
10 cyclists each did 3 trials of 1.5 hours at 70% of VO2max followed immediately by 10 minutes of intervals. They then rested for 4 hours and did a 40km time trial. During the rest break they drank either chocolate milk (carb+protein), a carb drink (carb) or a placebo (pla) immediately after exercise stopped and 2 hours later. Time trials were faster with carb+protein (8% faster than carb and 9% faster than pla).
Millard-Stafford, M., Warren, G. L., Thomas, L. M., et al. “Recovery from run training: Efficacy of a carbohydrate-protein beverage?” International Journal of Sport Nutrition, Exercise and Metabolism, 2005; 15(6):610-24.
8 runners drank an 8% carb + 2% protein drink and a 10% carb drink on 2 separate occasions between runs to failure followed by a 5km time trial. There was no difference in performances, but there was less soreness after the carb+protein drink.
Supplementation with 6.6g per day of protein immediately following exercise for 1 month increased blood oxygen-carrying capacity and decreased levels of muscle damage.
Pennings, B., Koopman, R., Beelen, M., et al. “Exercising before protein intake allows for greater use of protein-derived amino acids for de novo muscle protein synthesis in both young and elderly me.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011; 93(2):322-31.
20g (80 cal) of protein ingested immediately after exercise improved muscle protein synthesis (muscle repair) better than taking it in when not preceded by exercise. This worked equally well in both young and elderly men.