Law or Lore?
Studies have shown that ingesting 20–40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise. Many studies from the 70’s through the 90’s examined the idea of the “anabolic window” (the time following exercise) and this idea has become law – or is it lore? Here is a great article that I suggest you read if this a burning question for you.
More recent studies with I believe better analysis have determined that it doesn’t really matter if it is before or after exercise. In 2013, the question was posed Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? And in 2017 they answered the question Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations.
Is Timing Everything?
When it comes to the question of the anabolic window, I think for most of us the question should also include When do you work out?
Fasted morning workouts:
If first thing in the morning, you can use BCAA (branch chain amino acids) or EAA (Essentail Amino Acid) blends as a way to preserve muscle during long fasted workouts. Is this necessary? No, probably not, but if you have trouble building muscle or holding on to muscle a one month trial run may be warranted.
Whey protein isolate mixed in water is very low in calories and can help you by providing the full spectrum of amino acids – technically you would no longer be fasted and may burn the recent consumed whey protein instead of burning through your glycogen stores to then access fat. This depends on one’s metabolism.
If you do not want to do any of this before your exercise in the morning I would make protein post-workout a priority. This doesn’t need to be within a 30 – 45 min window but should be somewhat soon after the workout. Allow your heart rate and core temperature to return to normal and then consume 30 grams of protein or 2.5 grams of Leucine (that Leucine amino acid threshold) to help with muscle growth.
The protein you consumed for breakfast lessens the need for the immediate feed after the workout. But what was your breakfast? If it was whey plus simple carbs you got a lot of protein synthesis stimulated. If it was whole foods, the need for an immediate protein feed goes down as your body accesses that protein over time. Honestly, there are tons of studies around this topic and the conclusion seems to still be up in the air depending on how the study was created and how they were measuring.
I would say that if you want to access fat as energy you can benefit from keeping your breakfast very low to no carb. Your performance may suffer until you become a fat-adapted athlete – meaning you already are either fairly lean or you tried ketosis as a tool to become fat adapted.
At the end of the day:
Eat a carb and protein meal about an hour before exercise if you feel you need the boost to get you through the workout – you have likely burned some energy throughout your day. Otherwise, follow up with a balanced meal fairly soon after your activity and get a good night’s rest.
What Is Best for You?
As you can see, there is no perfect timing formula. A lot of it has to do with your own preferred schedule as well as your body’s natural metabolism and functions. The great news is that by simply considering your timing, you are already on track to make healthy and useful decisions for your body. Follow some of these suggestions, conduct a little experimentation, and see what works best for you within your lifestyle and body functions.
As always, if you have questions about what I shared or about creating your own best schedule, please feel free to reach out.
-Dr. Jerome Craig