What if I told you that you could get stronger, fitter, and leaner just by downing a delicious 12-ounce, protein drink a few times a day—without changing anything else in your fitness routine? You’d probably think I’d been reading too much Alice in Wonderland (“DRINK ME”) or that I was shilling for the $30 billion per year supplement industry. But I’m not.
Both scientific and anecdotal evidence shows that protein supplementation will significantly improve the results of your fitness program. “If you regularly take in a spike of 15 grams of protein,” says Steve Magness, exercise scientist, coach and author of The Science of Running, “you’ll get a spike in muscle protein synthesis. If you do that every couple hours, what [studies] have found is that it keeps you in an anabolic state.” And how does being in an anabolic state (i.e., a state in which your body “builds up” organs and tissues) benefit your program? Let’s count eight ways:
1. Increases muscle size
2. Increases muscle strength
3. Reduces muscle soreness post-training
4. Accelerates gains in aerobic strength
5. Accelerates gains in anaerobic strength
6. Results in greater fat loss when dieting
7. Results in fat loss even when not dieting
8. Reduces hunger
If that sounds too good to be true, well, it isn’t. Protein supplementation dates to the Olympians of Ancient Greece, with National Geographic citing a “cheese- and fruit-based diet” for the original Olympians (a later, meat-only craze was launched when an Olympian won multiple events on a meat-only diet). In modern times, bodybuilders embraced protein supplementation more than a century ago, with protein powders becoming popular in the 1950s. More recently, science has added its seal of approval. A 2015 review of 32 studies found that “as the duration, frequency, and volume of resistance training increase, protein supplementation may promote muscle hypertrophy [i.e., bigger muscles] and enhance gains in muscle strength … Evidence also suggests that protein supplementation may accelerate gains in both aerobic and anaerobic power.” A 2014 review of 27 studies concluded that “beneficial effects [for endurance and resistance training] such as reduced muscle soreness and markers of muscle damage become more evident when supplemental protein is consumed after daily training sessions.”
For those interested in dieting, a 2007 study had 158 participants reduce their caloric intake by 500 calories per day, with one group consuming a twice-daily isocaloric (moderate carbohydrate, moderate fat) supplement and another group consuming a whey protein supplement. The second group lost almost twice as much fat as the first group, while simultaneously losing far less lean muscle mass.
And if you’re interested in reducing fat without dieting, a 2011 study followed two non-dieting groups, one who consumed whey protein supplements and one who consumed a supplement with carbohydrates. After 23 weeks, the protein group had reduced average body fat by five pounds compared to the carbohydrate group. Consuming protein also resulted in a “significantly smaller waist circumference” than consuming carbs.
Additionally, numerous studies have shown that protein supplementation reduces hunger by increasing satiety (i.e., the feeling of fullness you get after eating).
For endurance athletes, Magness explains that the timing of protein supplementation is crucial. “For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, try to get 15 grams of protein in each,” he says. “And if you’re running [or performing some other exercise] once or twice a day, after each one try to get in some protein … If you take a big spike of protein before bed—around 30 grams—you’ll get a huge spike in protein synthesis overnight, which is when a bunch of muscle repair and recovery goes on. It’s one of those cool things that, just through the timing, you get this effect.”
Once you’ve decided to include protein spikes in your fitness program, you’ll next have to decide on the type of protein. Magness recommends “natural sources of protein.” These can include eggs, milk, fish, nuts, chicken and other meats. You can also travel the protein drink path—the aforementioned “delicious” alternative to preparing a high-protein meal (protein powder comes in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry flavors, among others, and is mixed with water or milk). Whey protein is the most popular powder. It’s absorbed quickly and is high in branched-chain amino acids, which promote protein synthesis, improved recovery, and body fat reduction. You might also consider simultaneous carbohydrate supplementation, as carbs will trigger the release of the hormone insulin, which helps your muscle cells to absorb amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
Manipulating the source of caloric intake to reap fitness benefits is nothing new. Marathoners in the 1960s discovered that carbo-loading could increase their muscle glycogen (fast-acting energy) stores by 100 percent. And Ironman triathletes and ultrarunning participants regularly improve performance by switching to fat-based diets ahead of races, which trains their bodies to burn more fat (an almost inexhaustible source of energy) during long, grueling competitions. Similarly, fitness enthusiasts looking to shed fat and improve strength, recovery, and endurance should embrace multiple protein spikes throughout the day. It’s a simple and effective tool for maximizing the benefits of your regular training program and diet.
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