Finish your lift, immediately crush a protein shake.
That seems to be the preferred modus operandi of athletes and fitness-minded people everywhere.
The common mode of thinking says, "The quicker you get the protein in, the more effective it will be!"
I partially blame EAS Myoplex and their "don't waste your workout" commercials. Those ads specifically emphasized a post-workout "30-minute window" during which their product had to be consumed to be effective. They show Brady Quinn finishing his workout and literally sprinting to the product, driving home the importance of immediate post-workout protein consumption.
For many years, the concept of an "anabolic window of opportunity" was widely accepted. It was believed this window existed for about 45 minutes following the end of your final rep, and during this period, your body was supposedly in prime condition to quickly absorb and efficiently use nutrients such as protein. Essentially, your body turned protein into muscle more efficiently during this period. To the average lifter, it made sense. Your muscles are pumped up right after you lift, and you want to get protein into them before they deflate.
But research on the anabolic window has been inconclusive at best. Although some short-term studies found a significant benefit in consuming post-workout protein in a timely manner, long-term research on the anabolic window of opportunity often painted a different picture. One study "refuted the commonly held belief that the timing of protein intake in and around a training session is critical to muscular adaptations, indicating that consuming adequate protein in combination with resistance exercise is the key factor for maximizing muscle protein accretion." That means the researchers found that eating enough protein was far more important than when you eat it.
A different study found that "collectively, the available data lack any consistent indication of an ideal post-exercise timing scheme for maximizing [muscle protein synthesis]."
As you can see in the first graph in this study from McMaster University, protein synthesis levels do gradually drop over time after a session. But it seems to be a much slower process than people used to think. "I think it's safe to say that if you're resistance training with any consistency—basically anything around three times per week or more—then every meal you eat is both a pre- and post-workout meal, as the effects of a single workout seem to last for as long as 48 hours, if not longer," Brad Pilon, intermittent fasting expert, told STACK.
There is a drop-off in muscle protein synthesis levels as post-workout protein consumption is delayed, but it seems to be very slim for the first 3-5 hours. That small drop-off certainly doesn't equate to "wasting your workout." While other nutrient timing strategies, such as those applied to caffeine and carbs, have been supported by science, it seems that the anabolic window of opportunity is not the holy grail for protein consumption it was once thought to be.
Translation: if you can get in protein right after your workout, great. But if you have to wait a little while, it's not a big deal. The total amount of protein consumed seems to be more important than the timing, anyways.
Photo Credit: MRBIG_PHOTOGRAPHY/iStock