It is common for athletes to supplement with protein following a workout, but are there benefits to protein consumption at other times?
An interesting study: “Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations” suggests that the idea of a post-exercise window for protein supplementation is a flawed concept by comparing the metrics of two groups before and after 10 weeks of resistance training and noted that there was no statistically significant difference in body measurements between a group that took protein before their workout and a group that took protein after their workout.
Because this study was done on ‘resistance-trained men’, it may not inform us endurance athletes except to suggest that there is more to protein supplementation than chugging down that shake after your ride/run.
Another study looked at cyclists completing sprint efforts and the effects of consuming protein prior to the workout. “Nutrient provision increases signalling and protein synthesis in human skeletal muscle after repeated sprints” showed that the group who consumed 24g whey, 4.8g leucine (the vital amino acid in protein synthesis), and 50g maltodextrin (a complex sugar) had increased myofibrillar protein synthesis after completion of the sprints compared to the control group given a “non-caloric placebo”.
Ok, now we’re on to something. It appears that supplementing with protein and some carbohydrates could elicit greater protein synthesis within muscle fibers following the workout.
As for endurance efforts lasting more than an hour? Well, we don’t really know. We do know that amino acids can provide up to 10% of the total energy for sustained exercise. We also know that during an endurance workout, especially in excess of one hour, athletes are in a net catabolic state. Endurance sports involve oxidizing large amounts of glycogen and other fuel sources. As a result, there is a significant breakdown in molecules, including muscle fibers. It seems intuitive that providing additional substrates for oxidation can help the body produce more total energy and potentially spare the catabolism of muscle. Hammer Nutrition is well known for touting the benefits of a carbohydrate/protein mixture for their endurance athletes and this paper by Koopman et al. was the first to provide evidence of this phenomenon.
With that being said, there are other studies that suggest that protein may not provide an ergogenic effect despite evidence that it could buffer some of the catabolic effects of endurance training.
While the research gives mixed results on the effects and benefits of consuming protein prior to endurance workouts, none of them say they saw a reduction in endurance capacity/recovery/protein synthesis. With no downsides, this might be a case of ‘why not?’.
The only ‘why not’ that exists is the opportunity for intestinal discomfort or distress associated with protein supplementation. For some, a dairy based supplement may cause excessive gas or bloating and other processed foods could have their own ill effects on portions of the population. Individual results may vary, but it appears that pre-workout protein supplementation may be a good habit to start getting into, especially if you are a crit monster getting ready to smash a high-intensity workout.
As for me: I like to take a protein shake before my rides. I feel like it gives me a little more energy and can make my legs feel a bit more fresh. I use a whey protein that is gentle on my stomach just before getting kitted up. Does it make a huge difference? Is this my secret? No. But if it gives me even a 1% boost, I’ll take it. I only need 5 other 1% boosts and I’m breaking through my power records.