Should I Have a Protein Drink After Cardio?

Regular cardiovascular exercise boosts your long-term health— it lowers blood pressure, promotes weight loss and improves cholesterol levels. These effects, in turn, reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes and heart attacks. The food you eat after cardio exercise is just as important as the exercise itself, and reaching for a protein drink can complement your workout.

Is a Protein Drink Good After Cardio?
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Recovery and Performance

Refueling your body after an intense cardio workout helps improve performance and recovery. For best results, choose a drink that offers ample amounts of both proteins and carbohydrates. A 2011 study, published in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research," found that cyclists who drank chocolate milk after intense intervals of cycling showed more improvements in exercise performance and muscle building than cyclists who drank a sports drink containing only carbohydrates. These improvements were attributed to the mix of protein and carbs in the chocolate milk. Protein drinks, made from protein supplements, also increase strength, power and performance, according to a study published in "Sports Medicine" in 2014.

Carbohydrate and Protein Ratio

During aerobic exercise, your body uses energy stored in your muscles as glycogen to fuel your workout. It's important to restore your muscle's glycogen stores shortly after a cardio session using a combination of carbohydrates and protein. Aim for a protein shake with a carb-to-protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 for muscle recovery. An 8-ounce glass of low-fat chocolate milk fits into this ratio. Alternatively, add one scoop of protein powder mixed with 1 cup of low-fat milk or a nondairy alternative.

Choosing Your Protein

Perhaps whey, the most abundant type of protein powder, offers a useful alternative to chocolate milk. Most of the lactose is removed from whey protein drinks during processing, making it potentially safe if you have lactose intolerance, though trace amounts remain and might cause issues in some people. Whey is a fast-acting protein since it is broken down soon after ingestion, giving your muscles a quick dose of amino acids. If you want to avoid dairy, try out soy, brown rice or hemp protein.

Protein Nutrient Timing

Once you have the right blend of protein, you'll need to plan your nutrient timing — how soon after your workout you refuel. Aim to have your protein drink 20 minutes after a workout for optimal recovery. Muscle recovery decreases by up to 50 percent if you refuel two hours after your workout, compared to refueling 20 minutes after. While your recovery meal can include "real" food, a protein shake helps you recover if you're not feeling particularly hungry or you don't feel up to a full meal.

Tips for Choosing a Protein Drink

When choosing a protein drink, consider your personal health goals so you can tailor your routine for weight loss, muscle growth or overall wellness. Whey protein and whey isolates are the best option for muscle growth because they are readily absorbed and utilized by the body. For weight loss and general health, choose proteins with no added sugars and no sweeteners made from starch (dextrins/maltodextrins). Keep in mind, you can meet your daily protein requirements through either protein powders or whole foods, and powders don't necessarily offer the same nutrients as whole foods such as berries, Greek yogurt and dark, leafy greens. Check labels carefully before choosing a powder over whole foods that you can blend into a smoothie or enjoy as a post-workout meal.

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