Do You Drink Your Protein Shake Before Or After Exercise? (Find Out Which Is Right)

The Nutritional Priorities Ladder

If you think of your nutritional priorities as a ladder, the bottom rung would be calories. Yep, calories count. Simply put, eating more or less calories than you burn is the only way to gain or lose weight. But, that’s just one rung on the ladder. To get more serious, you can take it to the next rung and start looking at your macronutrient numbers; that means working to maintain a certain protein, fat and carbohydrate intake – regardless of the exact diet you’re following. One step further up the ladder will lead you to nutrient timing. So, not only is it important to consider the best caloric intake for your goals, and the type of macronutrients you’re consuming, but it’s also important to consider timing!

Nutrient timing is the when of eating. Most nutrition experts agree that the secret to success is smaller amounts of food dispersed throughout the day, and that carbohydrates should be ingested around exercise in order to support that energy expenditure and enhance recovery. They also agree that protein should be ingested throughout the day in order to prevent losing muscle mass as you diet. And that brings us to the magic tool that gives nutrition and fitness buffs everywhere the protein (and often carbs) they need to build and sustain muscle – the protein shake!

Invariably, people interested in nutrition and fitness will discover the magic of protein shakes. Averaging about 25 grams of protein per serving, a shake is one of the best ways to make sure you’re hitting your macronutrient requirements. There’s a convenience factor, too – protein powder is portable, shelf stable, lightweight, mixes easily with a variety of fluids (including water if you don’t want to get fancy or add calories), and in the last few years it has improved greatly in taste. There are plenty of protein powders on the market, but hang around gym rats and nutrition nuts long enough and you’ll see that almost all of them have added a protein shake as a workout supplement.

Related: A Guide To Vitamins & Health Supplements You Should Be Using (Or Avoiding)

Regardless of your workout shake, the question of timing remains – should you chug that protein shake before or after exercise?

When To Drink Your Protein Shake

When to drink your protein shake is an oft-disputed topic, but there’s no need to rely on gym rat mythology. The science of nutrition has settled the matter, and here’s the answer:

Drink a fast-digesting protein, like whey, both during and after your workout. And the final ingredient for the perfect workout recovery shake? Drink it with a high glycemic index carb source.

Remember, we aren’t stuck in the 1990s nutrition mold anymore. Now, we can rely on science and the science say to stop being terrified of carbohydrates!  Plenty of protein powders include a carb source to help with recovery, so don’t be afraid to try those. If you’re using a protein powder that doesn’t include carbs, add something sugary, like Gatorade or Kool-Aid, or even fruit juice if you’re eating Paleo or “clean.” The evidence on protein supplements, like shakes, shows two important things:

  1. You need lots of protein to build and maintain lean mass. This is particularly important if you’re eating at a caloric deficit. The question of whether to eat a protein shake before or after exercise is important, but it’s more important to make sure you’re eating enough protein, period.
  2. A fast-digesting protein, like whey, helps to maximize the effect of carbs right after you finish exercising. The idea is to maximize the “window” to refuel – a window that’s open right after you finish your workout. Hit it with a protein/carb combo shake and you’re doing yourself a huge favor.

Pro Tips For Getting Started With Protein Shakes

Dilute your shakes with lots of water. Rehydrating during and after a workout is of utmost importance, and even if your chocolate or peanut butter cup flavored shake isn’t quite as delicious spread over a few different shaker bottles, the dilution is worth the benefits. Try splitting your servings of protein (and carbs) into one big bottle to drink during your workout, and one big bottle to finish in the car afterwards.

Find flavors that make you excited to drink your shake. Vanilla and chocolate are by far the most popular options, and they pair really well with added carbs – bodybuilders often mix together a simple carb source like powdered Gatorade with vanilla whey protein – it tastes surprisingly good! If you want to try that peppermint-cupcake-frosting-bubblegum flavor you’ve been eyeing, get it in a smaller size. Protein is often sold on the flavor name alone, and there’s no reason to be saddled with a ten-pound barrel of it if you’re disgusted by it.

Make sure your workout shake is fast-digesting. Protein sources like casein are popular meal replacements, but casein shouldn’t be pounded right after a tough weightlifting session or run. It’s slow to digest and won’t refuel you fast enough for optimal benefits.

Remember that you still need to eat soon after you workout. Your shake is a great addition to your nutrition plan, but shakes are supplements, not meals. Now that you’ve settled the question of when to drink a protein shake, go crazy on some carbs and protein after your gym session – most bodybuilders make their post-workout meal the biggest meal of the day. The shake isn’t a substitute for eating to support your fitness routine!

Protein Shake Before Or After Workout? Do Both!

The question of whether to drink a protein shake before or after exercise is a classic conundrum for fitness buffs everywhere, and science supports a definitive answer – drink a shake before and after your workout to support recovery. Make it a fast-digesting protein, and pair it with carbohydrates. Congrats – you’ve just moved up a rung on that ladder. What’s next?

Still have questions? Ask our Registered Dietician Nutritionist, Victoria Tate by calling 804-364-1200 x1224 or email today!