Both recovery drinks and protein shakes are designed to maximize the efforts of your workout, but they work in different ways.
For most people who're moderately active, drinking plain water during and after exercise is sufficient. If your workouts are more intense, however, you may benefit from either a recovery drink or a protein shake when you're finished, depending on what you do to stay fit.
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What These Drinks Do?
When you exercise, your body loses energy and strength. Aerobic exercise (think: running) tends to deplete glycogen stores and dehydrate you, while anaerobic exercise (think: weight lifting) taxes muscle fibers, breaking or tearing them and making you feel sore.
If your exercise session is intense or long, drinking a healthy post-workout beverage can help shorten your recovery time, alleviate muscle soreness and even improve strength, power, body composition and exercise performance, according to a June 2013 study in Nutrition Journal.
Recovery Drinks 101
A recovery drink is designed to rehydrate your body and replenish the minerals, called electrolytes, that you may have lost while sweating. Most recovery drinks have more carbohydrates than protein, aiming for a ratio that's between 3 to 1 and 4 to 1 to replenish glycogen stores.
According to performance nutrition consultant Brendan Brazier, high-carb recovery drinks are most effective in a 20-minute window following exercise, as the opportunity to effectively replenish glycogen stores declines with time. The small amount of protein in recovery drinks accelerates muscle protein synthesis, your body's process of building new muscle mass.
Protein Shakes 101
Protein shakes have a different nutritional makeup than recovery drinks. Although they may contain some carbs, most protein drinks have fewer carbs than grams of protein and are designed to preserve lean body mass or encourage new muscle mass gain.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, protein shakes can benefit people who participate in resistance training by rapidly stimulating muscle protein synthesis, minimizing muscle damage and reducing soreness.
Protein shakes may be most effective if you drink them within the 60-minute window following your workout, according to Brazier.
Which Is Best for You?
Recovery drinks and protein shakes are useful for specific types of workouts, but most people don't need them. If your training takes 60 minutes or less and stays at a moderate or light intensity, drinking water is fine.
If your workout is longer than 60 minutes or involves high-intensity activity such as interval training, a recovery drink may help you bounce back faster.
And if your workout focus is resistance training and you're lifting close to your max or doing a particularly long, grueling session, a protein shake can quickly set your muscles on the road to healthy recovery.