By Phil Wagner, M.D.
Despite a variety of training and nutritional philosophies, most experts agree on one need; the provision of protein and carbohydrates around or after a workout. Among several benefits, this supplementation can allow the body to increase strength, muscle size, restore energy sources like sugar, and promote greater fat loss. Most of the brands available are in liquid form, allowing a quicker consumption when you may not feel the most need for solid food. However, what is more important than the brand you use is the actual timing of this supplementation.
The majority of research and recommendations have centered on taking a protein/carbohydrate supplement after a workout to replenish and recover. However, you can adjust your supplement timing several ways to maximize this opportunity, specifically taking advantage of the pre-workout window. A 2001 study out of the University of Texas Medical Branch compared subjects consuming protein/carbohydrate supplements in random order, either immediately before or after exercise. The results indicated that muscle protein synthesis was significantly greater in the PRE supplement group, primarily because of an increased delivery of amino acids, the building blocks for the protein found in muscles.
So by providing a supplement with protein (made up of amino acids), you can increase the levels of these building blocks in the blood, countering the normal muscle breakdown that occurs during exercise. The carbohydrate in the supplement will stimulate insulin release, which is another stimulant for muscle protein synthesis, further increasing muscle growth and recovery.
In a controlled environment like this study, it is best to consume a protein/carbohydrate supplement immediately before and after, but you can tailor this protocol to your situation, as it is rarely controlled. For example, you can consume the majority of the supplement before your workout if you have had limited time in the day for meals due to sport practices, classes or other activities. This quick liquid form doesn't require as much metabolic energy to digest and won't sit in your stomach to cause discomfort during your workout. However, some of our athletes train early in the morning and have just eaten a big breakfast before their workout. Therefore, the focus can be shifted to more of a postworkout supplement.
The best ratio is to consume 15 grams of whey protein isolate or hydrosylate for every 50 pounds of body weight, making sure to include carbohydrates anywhere from the same amount to 4x depending on the form of exercise and your weight gain/loss goals. Our balanced athletes usually consume twice as much carbohydrate as protein in their recovery shakes.
So go ahead; start tailoring your recovery shake timing before you start looking for the next new supplement.
Dr. Wagner is the director of SPARTA Performance Science in Menlo Park. For more info, visit SpartaScience.com