Sport + Protein (Part III): It's All About Timing

Photo by   Mpho Mojapelo

Photo by Mpho Mojapelo


The last 'w'...when?

Now that Parts I and II of this series have covered how much protein athletes need to eat (Reminder 1.2-2.0g/kg body weight; or ~90-150g protein for a 75kg athlete) and what kind is best for you, it's time we dive into how best to time your protein intake throughout the day to maximize muscle synthesis and adaptation to training. 

Spoiler alert - SPREAD. IT. OUT. 

The American College of Sports Medicine, along with Dietitians of Canada and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends meeting your daily protein goals by consuming ~0.3g/kg body weight after key exercise sessions and every 3 to 5 hours over multiple meals/snacks. For a 75kg athlete, that would be ~23g of protein 4-6 times daily, to reach a daily target of 90-150g.

These smaller, more frequent doses of protein are more effective than eating larger amounts of protein less often. 


Why should I spread out my protein intake? 

In order to increase muscle mass and enhance recovery & adaptation to training, distributing your protein intake throughout the day may be just as important as meeting your total daily protein goal.

Muscle growth is only stimulated when there is an adequate supply of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). So spreading out protein intake throughout the day results in more availability of amino acids to your muscles. 

Also, there is no storage form of protein in the body (like there is for carbohydrate and fat), so if you consume more than you need at any given time for muscle repair and growth, it will simply be oxidized for energy or converted to fat.

Research shows that the optimal amount of protein to eat at one time is only ~20-25g (and this estimate may be even lower for lighter athletes). This coincides quite well with the recommendation above to aim for ~0.3g protein/kg body weight per eating event. 


How should I spread out my protein intake? 

Let's take a look at two sample meal plans for Jane (a 75kg athlete). They both have the same amount of total daily protein, but have drastically different distributions/spacing:

                                       Nutrition Analysis:  Canadian Nutrient File

                                       Nutrition Analysis: Canadian Nutrient File

                                        Nutrition Analysis:  Canadian Nutrient File

                                        Nutrition Analysis: Canadian Nutrient File

The meal plan on the left demonstrates Jane eating 15-26g of protein at five separate times throughout the day. By doing so, she is providing her muscles with frequent doses of protein that they can use for muscle building and repair. Little of it is wasted as energy to burn or to store as fat. 

In contrast, the meal plan on the right demonstrates Jane meeting her overall protein goal for the day (110g), but by eating two larger doses of protein (44-49g) and 3 smaller doses (5-7g). After those smaller doses of protein at breakfast and snacks, Jane is not able to maximize her muscle protein synthesis because she doesn't have enough building blocks to do so. To make matters worse, the protein she eats at lunch and supper is partially wasted after her muscles take the 20-25g that they need at that time. 

By making a few small portion size changes and moving a few foods around throughout the day, Jane can optimize her body's ability to use the protein she eats. Take a few minutes to compare the two meal plans above. I've highlighted the main differences in yellow.  

Photo by   Scott Webb

Photo by Scott Webb

Training effects:

First and foremost training is key for muscle protein synthesis. Eating protein simply provides the building remember that you've got to do the work too! 

Note that for 24-48 hours after strength/resistance training there is an increase in the body's capacity to build muscle protein. And chronic endurance training enables the body to oxidize less amino acids (protein) for energy so that more is available to the muscles for building and repair. 


Recovery specifics:

To most efficiently refuel after exercise, and to maximize muscle synthesis, aim to consume 0.3g/kg protein (~23g for a 75kg athlete) within 30-60 minutes.

This window of timing is most important for athletes who have a shorter time to recover before their next bout of training, and who want to optimize muscle gains. If you have 24 hours to recover, the timing is less important. Your body will eventually's pretty smart. 


So what is 20-25g of protein?

3 eggs; 1 cup greek yogourt; 3 cups of milk; 1 cup cottage cheese; ~3 oz of meat/fish; 1.25-2 cups cooked beans/lentils; 1 cup edamame beans or tofu; 3/4 cup nuts/seeds; 2.5-3 cups quinoa; ~1 scoop of protein powder (based on scoop size).


Carbs + protein = ultimate recovery

Now, one point I want to stress is that you can't just eat protein to recover. YOU NEED CARBOHYDRATES TOO.

  • Carbohydrates reduce muscle protein breakdown
  • Amino acids (from protein foods) increase muscle protein synthesis

In other words, co-ingestion of protein AND carbohydrate during the recovery period results in more muscle building than eating protein on it's own. In fact the recommended ratio of carbohydrate to protein is 3:1 to 4:1 in the recovery period. 

An example of a 3:1 recovery snack is 1 cup of vanilla greek yogourt, 1 cup mixed berries and half a banana.


Type + timing of protein for recovery

Finally, as discussed previously in Part I of this series, the type/quality of protein we eat affects muscle protein synthesis. So, if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, aim to eat the higher quality protein with more leucine content (ex: dairy, eggs, soy) after exercise, and save the lower quality protein for the rest of the day. 


Remember than recovery nutrition is more than just eating enough protein to build/repair muscle.

Some other goals of recovery nutrition are to: 

  1. replenish our muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores, 
  2. rehydrate the body,
  3. support immune function, and
  4. enhance metabolic adaptation to training. 

...but more on that later! 

If you missed them, check out Parts I and II of this Protein Saga!

Sport + Protein (Part I): How Much & What Kind?

Sport + Protein (Part II): Food vs. Protein Powders?