Top 3 Myths about Post-Workout Protein and Recovery

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Grinding an athlete into the ground is the easiest thing a coach can do, and something athletes are great at doing to themselves. In the entire scope of the training process, piling on workload is the easy part. The trickier parts are knowing how much workload to apply, at what time, addressing what system, and followed by how much recovery. Myths abound in all areas of training and nutrition, and there are a lot of misconceptions about the role of protein and the amount of protein endurance athletes need for recovery. Here are a few of the myths we need to dispel:

Myth: Large amounts of protein are necessary for recovery

No. Some protein is helpful for recovery, but it is unlikely that you need protein supplementation. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams/kilogram of protein per day. This increases to about 1.2-1.7 g/kg for athletes in a medium- to high-workload training plan (in terms of volume and/or intensity). But consuming more than 2 g/kg of protein doesn’t do you any more good in terms of recovery, muscle synthesis, immune function, or energy metabolism. Whether you are a carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan, you should be able to consume 1.2-1.7 g/kg of protein daily through your normal meals and snacks.

Myth: The best time to consume protein is immediately after exercise

In terms of timing, you should be careful not to focus too many of your post-workout nutrition choices on protein. Immediately post-workout you want to focus on replenishing carbohydrate, and adding some protein to your food/drink choices may help accelerate the uptake of carbohydrate. So, when should you consume the most protein? Actually, never. It’s better to spread your intake throughout the day. You need fuel for building and maintaining muscle tissue, your immune system, and all the other functions of protein throughout the day. And you don’t store protein, so unlike fat or carbohydrate you can only use protein from food when you have it on board. In addition, protein is satiating and slows digestion, which helps keep energy levels from spiking and crashing and helps keep you from feeling so hungry. That last point can be very important for athletes who are simultaneously trying to gain fitness and lose weight.

Myth: You need a recovery drink after every workout

Recovery drinks, like our partner Fluid’s Recovery drink mix, are great. They conveniently deliver carbohydrate, electrolytes, fluid, and protein and they are typically consumed immediately after exercise when your body is ready for rapid replenishment. This 60-90 minute post-exercise period is often referred to as the “glycogen window” because it is when your body is able to replenish glycogen stores most rapidly. But that still doesn’t mean you need a recovery drink after every workout.

Replenishment of fluid, electrolytes, carbohydrate, and protein doesn’t cease after the first 60-90 minutes post-exercise. It just gradually slows down. If you only trained for 60-90 minutes, glycogen replenishment shouldn’t be a big challenge because most likely you didn’t empty the tank in the first place. And even if you did, your glycogen stores will be completely replenished in 24 hours just from your normal food intake.

When should you use a recovery drink? If you are training or competing more than once in a single day, a recovery drink after your first session is a good idea. If you are riding back-to-back days of long miles (like during a bike tour, cycling camp, or stage race), then it’s a good idea as well. Following individual bouts of exercise a breakpoint I use with some athletes is that a recovery drink may be warranted following rides that accumulate about or more than 1500-2000 kilojoules of work (this can vary a bit based on the athlete). This could be very hard 90-minute interval session or a 3-4-hour moderate pace ride, but the rationale is to base the need for a recovery drink on the whether there was sufficient energy expenditure to substantially deplete carbohydrate stores and cause significant training stress.

What a recovery drink should look like

Even when a recovery drink makes sense, the most important ingredients are fluid and carbohydrates, followed by electrolytes and protein. You want to look for a recovery drink with more carbohydrate than protein, like a 2:1 ratio or greater like Fluid’s Recovery drink mix. In contrast, consuming a high-protein recovery drink that contains little to no carbohydrate is not a good idea for recovery. It may supply a nutrient you need for repair and synthesis, it doesn’t supply the nutrient you need for energy replenishment, the urgency of replenishment is not as big, and you can get the protein you need for repair and synthesis through meals.

Similarly, a drink that contains a lot of protein and a lot of carbohydrate is also not ideal, mostly because it is likely to be very high in calories. Athletes who consume these high-calories drinks typically overcompensate with total post-workout calories because they follow up the drink with a regular size or over-sized meal.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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  25. The one point I’d like to add is that your recovery protein does not need to come from a bottle or a formula. It does not need to be engineered to provide the benefits. In fact, proteins from “real food” are better than powders and supplements because they come packed with other nutrients and minerals that work in sync with the body and other food to maximize absorption and deliver quality nutrients to the body. Time and time again I see athletes spending a lot of money on fancy recovery drinks when they are not needed. Sure, they are convinient for when you don’t have access to real food for a while after your workout or event.

  26. This is great info. I am sipping on my coffee and taking my recovery drink for breakfast.

    Chocolate Vegan protein by Arbonne mixed Hammer Vegan Recoverite in 9.6 ounces of water.

    A total of 30 grams of protein and 44 carbs in the bottle and total 330 calories.

    My midday snack of almond butter and a banana. Along with Huel (horribly tasting) and Coconut Milk. 32 Grams of protein and 52 Grams of Carbs.

    I am on a 560-660 TSS week training plan. Race or ride hard on Saturday and Sunday.

    I find if I get my carbs and protein during the first half of the day I recover a tad better. Also, go heavier on carbs for dinner to fuel the morning workout.

    Not sure if it is just mental but it seems to work for me. I know when I dont get the proper ratio I struggle based on my training logs.

    FWIW, I also lift 4 days a week for my lunch break.

  27. Now is this based on male athletes? Dr. Stacey Sims writes about how females need more protein than carbs for recovery because we are NOT small men and have different physiologies. Her book Roar touches on this.

    1. I’m pretty sure he did. ” Whether you are a carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan, you should be able to consume 1.2-1.7 g/kg of protein daily through your normal meals and snacks.”

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  31. Thanks for this important information. Regarding fats, recent info states that total and saturated fats are not the primary concern for leading to atherosclerosis and subsequent cardio- or cerebrovascular disease, but that trans fat is the culprit. Your comment on that? And what amount of total mono or polyunsaturated fat do you recommend? Can you get too much healthy fat, limits? Thanks!

    1. I’m pretty sure no one here has a doctorate in Biomedical Science and Nutrition?
      In fact I recently read a article quoting a heart surgeon who was dead wrong in his views on fats and their relationship to atherosclerosis!
      Just saying it’s better to do your own math than to ask someone you don’t know to do it for you!

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  33. That’s good to know that protein keeps your energy from spiking. That must be really important for athletes who are trying to gain fitness and lose weight. I’ll have to increase my protein intake since I’m trying to get ready for a marathon.

  34. I like these articles on dispelling the myths. Getting it down to the science helps make it real again. One of the commenters did a good job of demonstrating that not all protein is the same nor should it be considered such. Yet not all carbohydrates and fats are good or bad either. Everything has a range of quality. I know diabetics can differentiate carbohydrate quality (whole grain vs. highly refined) when they test their blood post consumption. Then two commenter s argued chocolate milk vs. plain milk. My thinking is the most important post workout recovery drink is water and rehydration. Milk is convenient and so is a banana. One thing that I’d like more information on are fats. I’m hearing more about their importance to the endurance athlete. More and more respected trainers are saying that you require less carbohydrate and that your body craves fats. Go Butter!

  35. Would be interested to know if and how water consumption factors in post workout/ride recovery to flush out lactic acid, rehydrate, etc.?

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  37. I realize that this is outside the scope of this article, but something that was not covered at all, and that I would like to understand better, is that not all proteins are utilized by the body equally. This may in fact be different for different individuals. It is fairly common knowledge that some protein sources are healthier than others. For example, 6-ounce broiled porterhouse steak is a great source of protein—about 40 grams worth. But it also delivers about 12 grams of saturated fat, more than 60 percent of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat. A 6-ounce ham steak has only about 2.5 grams of saturated fat, but 2,000 milligrams worth of sodium, or about 500 milligrams more than the reccomended daily sodium maximum. 6-ounces of wild salmon has about 34 grams of protein and is naturally low in sodium, and contains only 1.7 grams of saturated fat. A cup of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein and it has virtually no saturated fat or sodium. But, which of these is easiest for the body to utilize? If you would find some research on this and present it here, I am certain that many of your readers would benefit.

    1. Protein quality and the value your body derives from the protein is dependent upon the source of the protein. The best way to compare protein quality is to compare different proteins Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Scores (DIAAS). However DIAAS is a relatively new measure of protein quality so depending on the source you may not find a DIAAs score. To date Dairy proteins have the highest DIAAS scores followed by fish, eggs, chicken, beef, pork, and plant proteins as the lowest (half of what dairy has to offer) The reason plant proteins score so poorly is that they commonly have digestion inhibitors that result in much of the protein not being absorbed and passing through your digestive system.

  38. I truly appreciate the articles you and your team produce for the cycling community. They helped me tremendously in my cycling adventures. Would you please help us a tiny bit more? Most of us “yanks” really don’t use metric units and measures all that much. I understand to reach a certain level of fitness takes work. I just don’t want to expend the same amount of energy to understand what you’re trying to tell me.

  39. Why do you omit the primary fuel for endurance sports, fat? The unlimited fuel source….. You don’t want us to believe that carbs are going to make you a stronger rider are you? You need limited carbs to increase fat oxidation, not the other way around. IMHO.

    1. If you’re talking about body fat, then it’s a poor energy source. Simple sugar is the most efficient fuel for extreme endurance sports. Gu, fruit in heavy syrup, and even pop is what gives you the best energy. I can attest to using these at two WTM’s and never feeling “off”.

  40. I still hold that the best post ride recovery beverage is 8 oz of 1% chocolate milk. Buying a $2.50 per drink beverage is mostly a waste of money. If you want to spend that kind of dollars, get an Espresso or Macchiato.

    1. It doesn’t need to be chocolate milk. Regular old milk is all you need. Chocolate milk can have more sugar than a can of Coke.
      Everyone always holds up chocolate milk as the best recovery drink. But I wonder if decades ago when this trend first started if it was to get younger athletes to drink milk.

  41. The one thing that you didn’t mention about overdoing the protein is that excess protein gets stored in the muscle cells as fat and thus a source of weight gain and possible insulin resistance. See Dr. Garth Davis’ book “Proteinaholics”.

  42. You try and shoot down myths but then you present your views like they are gospel truths. You’d be better off admitting that actually we have no idea and these are all just theories. Yes it sounds like common sense what you write, but that’s very convenient isn’t it.

    1. Its probably based on experience with working with hundreds if not thousands of athletes over several decades plus a study of the latest nutritional science. Personally, I don’t find eating large amounts of anything after a workout to be of any noticeable benefit and in some cases in the past, a detriment.

  43. Interesting! I’d like to hear your comments on whether there is more
    need by older riders (50++), especially after hard and power-type workouts.

    1. I had pretty much the same question – If the TSS from a workout is not high, say 110 but it’s 2×20 FTP intervals with another interval session planned the next day for an older athlete, is there value in a recovery drink and/or adding more protein than a younger athlete?

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  46. Thank you for this article and the great feedback that supports it. I am finally going to be sane where protein is concerned.

  47. Spot on. On my podcast (Science Of Ultra), I’ve interviewed the world’s leading sports nutrition scientists and practitioners. Every bit of this article is grounded solidly in the science. Well done.

  48. Thank you for your sane approach to this issue. The emphasis on nutrition periodization seems to reach the obsessive at times.

    Scott Richardson
    USAT L1 coach
    Beyond Normal Fitness
    Normal, IL.

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