Should You Eat Protein Before or After Your Workout? Here's the Surprising Truth

Listening to your body is always the key.
Man recovering after a workout

When you're charging toward a fitness goal, you want to make sure that all your efforts at the gym are worth it. So, you dutifully down a protein shake after your sweat session, only to think: Am I doing this right? If you've been wondering whether to eat protein before or after a workout, we have the answer.

In general, protein is vital for muscle repair and growth, says Amy Kubal, RDN, a registered dietitian in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. You can make the most of that process when it comes to muscle gains by eating protein sometime before and after a workout. That means eating a small snack that incorporates all three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) before a workout. And after, you should refuel with both carbohydrates and protein.

But, like with most things in health and fitness, the full answer to whether you should eat protein before or after a workout depends on your body and when you're exercising.

What are some good pre-workout snacks?

The first rule to go by: "real food first," says Kubal. Before a workout, try a small snack that contains all three macronutrients: protein, carbs, and a little fat.

For example, many people will grab a banana with the belief that a snack high in carbs will put easy-to-access energy in their tank. However, a 'naner alone isn't the best idea, as it may cause a blood sugar rise and crash during your workout, which will affect energy levels, she says. That's where a little bit of healthy fat and protein comes in.

In general, stop eating an hour before exercise. But if you know you have an iron-clad stomach, you can bend the rules a bit and eat closer to your gym or run time. Here are a few good options:

  • Banana (carb) with nut butter (protein and healthy fat)
  • Cottage cheese or Greek/Skyr yogurt (protein) topped with berries (carb) and sliced almonds (healthy fat)
  • Slice of whole-grain toast (carb) spread with peanut butter (protein and healthy fat)
  • Veggies (carb) dunked in hummus (protein and healthy fat)
  • Cheese (protein and healthy fat) paired with a piece of fruit (carb)

What should you eat after a workout?

A good post-workout snack incorporates protein for muscle repair and carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores. The benefit of eating carbs after exercise is that "your body wants them and will most readily use them for replenishment rather than storage," says Kubal. That's particularly beneficial if weight loss is your goal.

Smart carbohydrates include whole grains or starchy veggies, along with a lean protein source. As for protein, if you eat animal products, animal protein is more bioavailable to your body. That means it has a complete amino acid profile, which is readily absorbed, allowing you to build and retain more muscle, says Kubal.

Adjust the portions to make it a snack, mini-meal, or meal, depending on what time of day it is and your hunger levels. Here are a few post-workout snack ideas:

  • Sweet potato (carbs) topped with cottage cheese (protein)
  • Turkey (protein) sandwich on whole-grain bread (carbs)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (protein) and fruit (carbs)
  • Quinoa bowl with greens (carbs) topped with rotisserie chicken (protein)
  • Protein shake made with whey protein or pea protein

RELATED: The easy way to make healthier comfort foods.

How soon should you eat protein after a workout?

In certain circles, there's a thought that you only have a 30-minute window post-exercise where your body can most effectively take up and absorb the protein you consume. Miss this window, and you're missing out on gains.

The truth? "There isn't this small window where if you don't pump a protein shake, you'll lose everything you gained, though people will tell you that. Ultimately, your body is more fluid than that," says Kubal. Meaning: If you ate breakfast or lunch earlier in the day, you have enough gas in the tank—so to speak—without the need to scramble for food as soon as you finish your last set of squats.

Research sheds some light on this, too. In a 2017 study in the journal PeerJ, researchers Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld conducted a small study on 21 young men who consumed a supplement containing 25 grams of protein before or after resistance training and analyzed measures of muscle thickness, strength, and changes to body composition. The result: exact protein timing didn't matter.

"These findings refute the contention of a narrow post-exercise anabolic window to maximize the muscular response, and instead lends support to the theory that the interval for protein intake may be as wide as several hours or perhaps more after a training bout depending on when the pre-workout meal was consumed," the researchers wrote.

That should reassure you that you can hit your goals without conforming to rigid rules that might not work for you. The bottom line is that you should eat some protein and carbs after a workout to put back what your body needs to function at its best, but you don't need to worry if your schedule or appetite won't allow you to eat right away.

"If you're not hungry right after a workout, wait until you are, and then eat," Kubal says. "Listen to your body. I tell people what I think will work, but it all comes down to you and how you feel."

To sum up: It's a good idea to have some protein before and after a workout, but don't stress too much over the exact timing. Listen to what your body needs, and you'll reap all the muscle-building benefits of a great workout.

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Jessica Migala
Jessica Migala is a health and fitness writer. Read more
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