Some of the best marketing comes from supplement companies directly; promises of significant gains as their product is used more or at specific times. One of the largest myths expounded over the years has been the “anabolic window,” the idea that you have a critical time period to maximize protein synthesis after exercise. The concept preys on the fear that if you miss this window, you just miss out on the gains from the preceding training.
The reality is that protein timing is not the most important thing, but rather the volume of your daily intake. Like training, we often obsess about whether 72% or 70% is the optimal prescription for power development, as opposed to looking at the longitudinal development of strength or speed. Nutrition is no different, there is no need to obsess about immediate protein intake, especially when it can distract from the day/week as a whole.
The Science behind Protein
Some of the best conclusions come from reviews, or meta-analyses, where authors gather and assess the data from multiple contexts that attempt to answer the same question. A December 2013 review from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined the effects of this protein timing on both muscle strength and hypertrophy.
The authors actually found no significant differences between the subjects receiving protein within an hour after exercise, and the controls receiving no protein. However, total protein intake over a 24 hours period was the strongest predictor of hypertrophy, meaning the global amount over a day was the key factor for muscle growth, and likely repair.
The study has limitations in that, the majority of the subjects were untrained, and we know that athletes are a separate species or population to themselves. The authors suggested the adjustment for this separate population is to double the total recommended daily intake to about .75 grams per pound of body weight.
Supplements are for Totals and Seduction
This review is not a call to eliminate protein supplements at all. Like most of our recommendations, it is a message to prioritize efforts. We still give our athletes whey protein directly after a workout for two reasons. The first rationale is it gets them closer to our recommended 1 gram per pound of body weight. Due to the larger structural disturbances, such as muscle breakdown, these situations require the blocks to rebuild.
But if an athlete weighs 240 pounds, it is difficult to get that all from whole foods. Rather than hammering the need for immediate protein in the brief 5 minutes with an athlete after a workout, a better use of a coach’s time is to educate the athlete about the importance of total protein intake.
The second reason we provide a supplement at Sparta is to seduce them into a discussion. While they sit and sip their whey, it is a social time to connect on any lifestyle changes that could be enhanced. As an athlete finishes their drink, our coaches discuss the protein intake for the rest of the day, their daily sleep hygiene, or the consistency of myofascial release during their off days to ensure global regeneration.
There is no sense for an “anabolic window” or even 3 hour feeding frequency, only a reflection of the overall day and a subsequent plan for the next 24 hours.
Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec 3;10(1):53.