Research suggests total intake is more important than timing in the muscle-building process.
When it comes to eating (or drinking) protein to boost muscle growth, conventional wisdom suggests that timing is everything. The most important periods of the day are generally considered to be first thing in the morning after waking and directly after a workout.
However, recent research has brought into question the importance of adhering to these specific timeframes, particularly that all-important hour after exercise.
Validity of protein timing
In this regard, the question isn’t whether we need protein to aid muscle repair and growth – we know we do. What’s being questioned is the importance of protein timing, which refers to the most beneficial times to consume protein to promote muscle growth in response to training.
Gym-goers tend to down a whey protein shake, which is easy to drink and is quickly digested and assimilated, directly after a workout to halt the breakdown of muscle tissue and kickstart the muscle tissue rebuilding process as soon as possible.
This established approach has been followed for years as it’s believed that muscles are more receptive to nutrients in the period directly following a workout because the body is more insulin sensitive at this time. This happens because the body aims to replenish intra-muscular glycogen stores and acts to repair damaged tissue.
As such, by supplying protein during this ‘window of opportunity’ in combination with a high glycaemic index source of carbohydrates, you’ll be able to boost the repair and recovery process.
However, a recent study brings this entrenched belief into question. The study was published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism. In it, researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences examined whether the amount and timing of protein consumption made a difference in the body’s net protein gains.
They found that the more protein subjects ate, no matter the timing, the better their bodies were at building muscle. Subjects who consumed double their RDA of protein increased their rate of muscle protein synthesis and improved their net protein balance (the difference between muscle protein synthesis and protein breakdown).
Further supporting this view is research conducted by the Department of Kinesiology at the McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which has shown that protein synthesis is elevated 24 hours after heavy resistance training and only then decreases.
Another study published in 2013, in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, also raised questions around the validity of the protein timing practices that bodybuilders and athletes have followed for decades.
Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS, CPT, and his study co-authors completed a thorough review of research published on post-workout meals and their perceived benefits, and concluded that protein timing is irrelevant.
According to the team, protein consumed in the anabolic ‘window of opportunity’ does not seem to make a difference in comparison to consuming protein a couple of hours later. It seems the heightened anabolic state that results from training and exercise lasts for around four to six hours, which means the so-called window of opportunity is larger than initially thought. Accordingly, Schoenfeld suggests that protein timing may not be as crucial as previously thought.
Views on protein timing remain mixed, as some demonstrate a significant benefit, while others like those referenced in this article suggesting that timing is less significant than previously thought. What we do know is that biological processes that promote muscle growth and repair are heightened for up to 24 hours or more after exercise. It seems that as long as you meet your total daily protein intake requirements during this time with good quality sources, recovery and muscle repair shouldn’t be negatively impacted.