If the question is just eating enough protein to meet your daily recommended amounts, then you can eat at any time of the day. Protein is protein, no matter when you have it – as a snack, for breakfast or for dinner. But this story changes when we are talking about the best time to consume protein in order to optimize muscle building.
Protein in Pre-workout Nutrition
First, let’s talk about pre-workout nutrition. Many people prefer to work out on an empty stomach, fasted cardio and all that stuff. This may be effective as far as weight loss is concerned, but if your aim is to build strong muscles, then you need to fuel your workout with easily digestible carbs and protein. Weight loss can mean anything – the few pounds you lost maybe from just water, fat or even your muscles. Even cutting off an arm leads to ‘weight loss’. But that’s not the aim, right! We all want to lose excess body fat while building more muscle.
For training your muscles in a fasted state (in the absence of carbs/glucose), the body first turns to its most easily accessible energy reserves – your glycogen stores. This gets quickly used up. So now, in the absence of both carbs and glycogen, the body then starts sacrificing muscle tissue for fuel. As a bodybuilder, this is the last thing you want happening.
How much, what and when to eat is dependent on the timing and intensity of your workout. Just because you took a short jog on an empty stomach does not mean your muscles are breaking down. Let’s take a look at the pre-workout nutrition for a serious bodybuilder who is planning on an hour or two long intense training sessions. About 2 to 3 hours before his workout, he should have a moderately heavy meal which has a balance of carbs, fats, and proteins. Such a meal will take time to digest and provides him with the nutrients he needs.
Half an hour or even just 10 minutes before his workout, he can have some easily digestible carbs and protein. A banana, an apple or an orange are great carb choices. A protein shake with some blended fruit makes this an easy task. But there is no need to rely on protein powders alone. There are plenty of natural sources of protein you can choose from, such as yogurt. If your workout session is long, you may need to fuel yourself in between as well. Rather than buying processed drinks or foods with additives, try making your own sports drinks and protein bars at home. There are many such snack options you can choose from.
If weight loss is your aim, it fine to stay on a low-carb diet, but you need to fuel yourself with protein before the workout. When protein alone is taken before a workout, it has been found to increase fat oxidation (burning stored body fat), especially during high-intensity exercises involving interval training or metabolic resistance training.
Protein in Post-workout Nutrition
There is a lot of hype regarding the ’anabolic window’ or the ‘window of opportunity’ after a workout, which has a lot of bodybuilders running to their lockers to gulp down their protein shakes after their workout.
The window of opportunity is a short time period after your workout, a phase in which your muscles are best primed to take in and utilize the nutrients needed to stimulate muscle repair, growth, and strength.
Let me make one thing clear first, post-workout nutrition is extremely important for muscle recovery and for building new muscle. But thankfully, this ‘window’ to take this protein is not as short as previously believed, especially if you have had some decent pre-workout nutrition. Even if your post-workout meal is delayed for an hour or two, your body will continue to use the amino acids from your pre-workout meal to stimulate maximum muscle recovery and growth. Some studies even say this ‘window’ is open for 48 hours. But if you haven’t eaten for many hours before the workout and are training in a fasted state, its best to get in that protein shake immediately after training.
Even if there is contradictory research regarding the ‘anabolic window of opportunity for protein intake’ it’s better to have some protein (than none) within a couple of hours of your workout. After all, there is no added benefit in waiting to have the protein.
Protein for Breakfast
Prioritizing protein early in the day has many benefits for all individuals, even more so for bodybuilders. Having a high protein breakfast, along with some carbs and fats, is highly recommended for losing body fat and for building muscle. During the night, while you were asleep, your body was still busy with many functions including your muscle recovery and growth. So having a healthy breakfast replenishes your system with the much-needed variety of nutrients, especially the essential amino acids, to ensure that these functions are not hindered due to lack of such resources.
The protein and fat content of the meal adds to the feeling of satiety, keeps you feeling fuller for longer, and prevents food cravings as well as unhealthy snacking. Such meals rev up your metabolism which had slowed down during your night’s sleep. Having 3 eggs and some yogurt with fruit for your breakfast ensures that you consume about 30-40 grams of protein. Other great breakfast choices include cooked oats with greek yogurt and/or with roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, grilled chicken and cheese sandwiches or simply a chocolate smoothie made with cocoa, milk, bananas and plenty of almonds. The choices are delicious and unlimited. The protein-rich meals are one part of bodybuilding that you can truly enjoy.