Guiding Your Career in Nutrition

protein powder next to weights and measuring tape
protein powder next to weights and measuring tape

Optimal Timing for Protein Supplements

7 minute read

Nutritional supplements are often the first and only thing that personal training clients and athletes wish to discuss when it comes to strategies that can enhance health, performance, and body composition. This is mainly because nutritional supplements are simply convenient. It is much less effort to consume a multivitamin tablet every morning than it is to purchase, prepare, cook, and remember to eat 5 pieces of fruit and vegetables each day. Unfortunately, nutritional supplements are not as effective at improving health, performance and body composition goals than eating a varied and balanced diet. Focusing on nutritional supplements before eating a healthy and balanced diet is like trying to decorate a cake before the cake has even been baked. Put simply, we need strong nutritional foundations to build upon!

Marginal gains, protein, and timing

Once an individual has achieved a healthy balanced diet then nutritional supplements can help to further improve goal achievement by exploiting marginal gains (<1% improvements). Marginal gains are particularly important to athletes striving for optimal performance (qualifying times, podium finishes, medals etc), but also amateur clients wanting to take their exercise and fitness goals to the next level.

Protein supplementation is becoming increasingly more popular, primarily due to an increased health consciousness amongst the general public (due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21). In-fact, around 80% of gym users have reported using protein supplements in the past year [1].

Drinking protein

Protein supplements are a convenient source of dietary protein that can increase muscle mass, promote recovery, and even improve body composition outcomes when used appropriately. However, people often select the wrong type of protein supplement for their goals and/or consume them in inappropriate dosages. Timing is another important consideration that is often overlooked by individuals using protein supplements. An inappropriate timed protein supplement can increase the risk of adverse side effects and reduce the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.

Throughout this post I want to discuss the optimal timing for protein supplements. This will be done by discussing three main scenarios which are:
1. Training and the anabolic window of opportunity?
2. Body composition management
3. Improved recovery from intense exercise

Training and the anabolic window of opportunity?

Used at appropriate times, protein supplementation can enhance all of the training adaptations from resistance training (e.g. gaining muscle size and strength). For example, combining resistance training with strategic protein timing, maximises the muscle’s ability to build new proteins [2]. Ideally one high-quality protein feeding session will take place before training, and one will take place after training. However, this may depend on the type, quality and dosage of the protein supplement being consumed.

For further information on the appropriate type, quality, and dosage of supplements, please enrol in our Supplement Science Course today!

There is a conventionally accepted idea that a ‘short anabolic window’ exists after a resistance training session (1-2 hours post training). This often makes people sprint to their locker post-session to quickly ingest some protein and prevent their muscles falling off! Whilst the muscle certainly is primed to receive protein following resistance training, this ‘anabolic window’ lasts for several hours post training [2], meaning that there is no requirement to immediately feed with protein. So long as protein is ingested within a few hours of finishing training the muscles protein building response will still be maximised.

Important note: If an individual has not eaten for 2-3 hours before training, then they should consider consuming a good quality source of protein immediately following training (within 45-60 minutes after finishing training) [2].

Consuming protein during training is also not advisable. The muscle cell does not want to synthesise proteins during training because its primary focus is to fuel muscular contraction. During resistance training, blood flow is re-directed to the muscle and away from the gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, any protein ingested during training will simply remain in the gut, potentially causing irritation and a feeling of uncomfortableness during exercise.

Body composition management

Timing protein supplementation throughout the day can also aid with managing body composition goals.

Protein supplements can increase muscle building for 3-6 hours [3], depending on the type, form, and dosage of protein used. In order to maximise muscle building proteins throughout a 24-hour period, between 3-4 protein feeding sessions would be needed within a typical 16-hour waking period (assuming the other 8 hours are spent asleep). In-fact, multiple studies have shown that splitting the daily protein target across 3-4 equal protein feeding sessions is the optimal strategy to ensure muscle building proteins are active throughout the day [3].

Strategic timing of protein supplementation may also aid with caloric control in those wishing to lose weight and reduce body fat. Consuming a protein supplement prior to scheduled meals can trigger the feeling of fullness sooner, and stop an individual consuming too much food [4]. This could be the difference between going back up for an extra serving at a buffet, or reduce the odds of ordering desert at the end of a meal.

Weight loss

Protein also has a greater thermic effect (requires more calories break down compared to carbohydrate and fat), which further promotes fat loss if there is an overall caloric deficit.
Optimal timing of protein supplements can therefore help an individual to maximise the muscle building response, whilst managing overall energy balance. This may contribute towards achieving an overall more muscular and lean physique.

Improved recovery from intense exercise

The timing of protein supplementation becomes more important when individuals are performing intense bouts of training in close proximity to one another. For example, if an individual performs two intense training sessions in one day, one in the morning and one in the evening, then a protein supplement can accelerate recovery. After the first intense training session, an individual is likely to experience muscle soreness, fatigue, and a temporary reduction in function (e.g. reduced muscle strength). Such fatigue could reduce training performance in the second session (e.g. less weight lifted). As such, there is an opportunity between the sessions to provide high quality protein, which can help recover muscle function, reduce fatigue, and manage muscle soreness [5].

This protein feeding strategy may also be relevant for individuals who are required to train late at night, and then again early the next morning. In this scenario, protein supplementation could help to recover muscle function for the following morning [6]. It is worth noting that certain types, qualities and dosages may be more beneficial for manging acute training fatigue.

Therefore, optimising the timing of protein supplementation can help to maintain training quality in the face of a high training volume, intensity, and frequency.


Conclusions and recommendations

Protein supplementation is becoming increasingly popular due to its beneficial effects on many training goals. However, an overlooked consideration for many people is timing. Optimal protein supplement timing can enhance the adaptations of resistance training, improve body composition outcomes, and manage training fatigue. However, it should be noted that such benefits also depend on the type, quality, and dosage of the protein supplement being consumed.

For further information on the appropriate type, quality, and dosage of supplements, please enrol in our nutrition supplements to support
sport and exercise performance course. You may also benefit from our personal training CPD courses.

1. Ruano, J. and Teixeira, V.H., 2020. Prevalence of Dietary Supplement Use by Gym Members in Portugal and Associated Factors. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 17(1), p.11.
2. Aragon, A.A. and Schoenfeld, B.J., 2013. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 10(1), pp.1-11.
3. Schoenfeld, B.J. and Aragon, A.A., 2018. Is there a postworkout anabolic window of opportunity for nutrient consumption? Clearing up controversies. journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy, 48(12), pp.911-914.
4. Akhavan, T., Luhovyy, B.L. and Anderson, G.H., 2011. Effect of drinking compared with eating sugars or whey protein on short-term appetite and food intake. International journal of obesity, 35(4), pp.562-569.
5. Cintineo, H.P., Arent, M.A., Antonio, J. and Arent, S.M., 2018. Effects of protein supplementation on performance and recovery in resistance and endurance training. Frontiers in nutrition, 5, p.83.
6. Trommelen, J. and Van Loon, L.J., 2016. Pre-sleep protein ingestion to improve the skeletal muscle adaptive response to exercise training. Nutrients, 8(12), p.763.

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