You need protein for muscle growth, so it seems logical to get some protein into your system before a workout. But muscle building happens after your workout, during the recovery stage, so the best time to take in some protein is 30 to 60 minutes after exercising. That doesn't mean pre-workout protein is off limits, but the timing of when to take it before exercise depends on the form of protein you eat.
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At Least 30 Minutes
The more digestible the protein is, the less amount of time you'll need before you can hit the gym. Because protein in liquid form digests fairly quickly, personal trainer Matt Siaperas recommends clients drink protein shakes 30 to 60 minutes before exercising. Doctors agree. In an article for the American Council on Exercise, Natalie Digate Muth, MD, recommends a light snack containing both protein and carbohydrates 30 to 60 minutes before a workout.
Longer for Full Meals
If you prefer your protein comes from a chicken breast, a steak or a fish fillet as part of a healthy, full meal, you should eat it two to three hours before your workout. That's because your digestive system needs blood flow for proper digestion, and exercising pulls blood away from your stomach. If you eat a large or protein-heavy meal before working out, give your body the two to three hours necessary to empty your stomach and thoroughly digest the nutrients, so they're available for your system to use.
How Much Is "Enough"?
If you find it difficult to draw the line between enough protein to get you through your workout and too much, err on the side of not quite enough. Your body really needs carbohydrates more than protein before working out. An excerpt on Human Kinetics from the 2013 book "Power Eating" by Susan Kleiner and Maggie Greenwood-Robinson advises that your pre-workout protein shouldn't exceed 14 grams -- that's a mere 56 calories. That may be only half of a protein bar, depending on the protein content, or just a bit more than one half of a tablespoon of peanut butter.
Best Pre-Workout Protein
Whey is one of the best types of protein to take if you want to get your protein before a workout. Mixed as a shake, it's quickly digested, so it's immediately available for your body to use during and after your workout, according to fitness expert Mackie Shilstone's 2007 book "Lean and Hard." Additionally, whey is a source of just about all of the essential and nonessential amino acids, necessary during your workout and for recovery afterward. Shilstone's recommendation is to drink a whey shake 30 to 60 minutes before your workout.