5 Facts About Protein & Recovery After a Workout

Article by Stephanie Howe, PhD, Clif Nutrition Advisory Council member, sports nutritionist, and Team CLIF® Athlete.

Nutrition plays an important role in optimizing performance before, during, and after exercise. What you eat (or don’t eat) can affect the body’s ability to train, adapt, and recover from activity. And, when it comes to fueling recovery after a tough workout, protein is key!

1. How does protein repair and rebuild muscle?

Protein is made up of amino acids, which act like building blocks for the body. When you eat protein after an activity, it gives your muscles the amino acids necessary to repair and rebuild.

And why is this important? Well, repetitive muscle contractions from jumping, running, and other forms of exercise can break down muscle cells and cause damage to the muscles in your arms, legs, and the rest of your body.

Taking in adequate protein after exercise helps reverse damage, build muscle, and get you ready for the next tough workout.

2. How much protein do you need for muscle recovery?

“Protein synthesis” is the scientific way of saying “repairing and growing muscle.” Post-exercise intake of about 0.2–0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) has been shown to increase this muscle protein synthesis.1 That’s somewhere around 10–30 g of protein depending on your body weight, and the intensity and duration of your workout. The longer and more intense the exercise, the more protein is needed to optimize recovery. Over the course of the day, active individuals should aim to eat about 10–20 percent of their total daily energy intake from protein (or about 50–100 g, based on a 2,000-calorie diet). Athletes may need even more protein and should aim for 1.2–2 g/kg each day.1

While protein gets most of the glory when it comes to post-exercise fuel, carbohydrates have a role to play, too.2,3,4 In fact, carbohydrates and protein in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio have been found to help maximize recovery by replenishing energy stores.5

With a blend of carbs and protein, some of my favorite recovery foods include a glass of chocolate milk, the classic PB&J, and bars like CLIF® BUILDERS®, which has 20 g of complete, plant-based protein.

Want to know how much protein you need? Check out the Active Nutrition Guide or meet with a sports dietitian to discuss a unique eating plan that’s right for you.

3. Why is it important to have protein right after a workout?

Intense or prolonged activity causes an increase in muscle protein breakdown. This is followed by an increase in muscle protein synthesis over the next 24 hours.6 For that reason, it’s important to consider both the amount of protein you eat and when you eat it.

Ideally, protein should be eaten within 30 minutes of finishing a workout. Combined with simple carbohydrates (i.e., sugar), your post-exercise snack can help both replenish energy stores and rebuild muscle. Miss the 30-minute window? While less effective, fueling any time after activity is still important and can be beneficial.7

4. What type of protein is best after a workout?

From whole foods to supplements and animal- to plant-based proteins, there are many ways to meet your protein needs, and it can be confusing to navigate. Also known as complete proteins, high-quality proteins (those which are highly digestible and provide an adequate amount of essential amino acids, which our bodies can’t make) are most effective for building, repairing, and maintaining muscle.8

High-quality food sources of protein include dairy, fish, meat, eggs, and soy. However, that’s not the only type of protein that’s useful. You’ve likely seen whey (from dairy) and plant-based protein powders, concentrates, and isolates on the market, too.

Like soy, pea protein is a plant-based protein that has been found to be effective for post-workout recovery and can be used by all athletes — even those who follow a vegan diet. Just keep in mind, pea protein is an incomplete protein, meaning it delivers fewer essential amino acids, so you may have to eat more to have the same recovery impact as whey or soy.

With that said, for most people, eating enough calories during the day and including a variety of plant-based foods in the diet can ensure adequate protein and amino acid intake.9 You don’t need to eat animal protein to support post-workout recovery; all types of protein can work.

5. What foods can help repair and rebuild muscle?

Whole foods are the foundation to a healthy diet, but a big, homecooked meal isn’t always convenient when on the move. Below are a few examples of nutritious, post-workout foods that can help promote recovery without slowing you down:

On-the-Go Options:

Quick At-Home Recipes:

  • Yogurt Parfait: 6 oz plant-based yogurt + half cup mixed berries + walnuts
  • Nut Butter Roll Up: 1 flour tortilla + 2 tablespoons nut butter + half sliced banana + drizzle of honey
  • Egg + Avocado Toast: 1 poached egg + 1 slice whole grain toast + half avocado
  • Open-Faced Turkey Sandwich: 2 slices of deli turkey (about 2 oz) + 1 slice whole grain bread + 1 slice of cheese (about 1 oz)
  • Recovery Smoothie: 2 tablespoons plant-based protein powder + half banana + 1 cup water or milk + ice (add 1 tablespoon nut butter for an extra protein punch!)

And, if you have a little extra time on your hands and want to whip up one of my post-workout recipes, check out the one below.

Stephanie’s Recovery Cookies:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup nut butter
  • 6 dates, pitted, soaked in hot water, and mashed into a paste
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Directions: Mix together, bake at 350 for 10 min. Allow to cool before enjoying!

References

  1. 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;116:501-528.
  2. Blom PC, Hostmark AT, Vaage O, Kardel KR, Maehlum S. Effect of different post-exercise sugar diets on the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1987;19:491-6.
  3. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:33. Published 2017 Aug 29. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
  4. Trommelen J, et al. Fructose coingestion does not accelerate postexercise muscle glycogen repletion. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(5):907-12.
  5. Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., Kalman, D., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Landis, J., Ivy, J. L., & Antonio, J. (2008). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 5:17.
  6. Burd, N.A., West, D.W., Moore, D.R. et al. Enhanced amino acid sensitivity of myofibrillar protein synthesis persists for up to 24 h after resistance exercise in young men. J Nutr. 2011; 141: 568–573.
  7. Areta, J.L., Burke, L.M., Ross, M.L. et al. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J Physiol. 2013; 591: 2319–2331.
  8. Tipton, K.D., Elliott, T.A., Cree, M.G., Aarsland, A.A., Sanford, A.P., and Wolfe, R.R. Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007; 292: E71–E76
  9. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diet. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025