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The Science Behind Muscle Recovery After Workouts: How Protein Helps

by Mara Welty November 13, 2023 7 min read

 Muscle Recovery After Workouts

During an intense workout, like heavy weightlifting and high-intensity interval (HIIT) workouts, our muscles can tear. Physically, these microtears can manifest as sore muscles the next-day that may make it difficult to lift heavy items or sit down.

But it’s not all bad news. These microtears are actually essential to muscle growth and improving your strength. Through a process called muscle protein synthesis, the body works to repair the muscle damage, grow muscle tissue and continue to work toward progressive overload to stimulate further gains.

All that said, protein is essential to muscle recovery. Let’s explore why.

Why Are Muscle Recovery Practices Critical?

Both competition and training can trigger contractions in the fibers and connective tissues of your muscles. Accordingly, after an intense workout, you may experience:

  • Muscle damage
  • Tissue inflammation
  • Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
  • Muscle fatigue

Subsequently, your muscles can feel weaker after a tough workout. Just think about finishing a 5K — after crossing the finish line, you may feel less in control of your legs and find it difficult to continue standing. Muscle fatigue and microtears can also make you more susceptible to injury.

As such, it’s generally recommended to incorporate recovery days into your workout routine to allow your muscles to repair properly. For example, you may alternate leg day and arm day to avoid overworking the same muscle group in two consecutive days.

More specifically, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends spreading workouts over a course of three days, rather than doing them all on the same day.

Recovery time allows several critical processes to take place, ultimately contributing to enhanced performance and reduced risk of injury. These processes include:

  • Inflammation reduction
  • Muscle repair and growth
  • Energy restoration
  • Mental refreshment

Adequate recovery refers to a return to homeostasis, in terms of your metabolism, inflammatory responses and muscle function. Inadequate exercise recovery can, unfortunately, lead to poor immune function, hormonal fluctuations, mood changes and neurological disruptions.

How to Recovery Adequately

Think of recovery as a rest period. The duration of this rest period, however, depends on your activity and fitness goals. For example, there are generally three types of post-exercise recovery techniques:

  • Immediate recovery – These quick recovery periods take place between repetitive workouts, such as free weight repetitions, allowing your muscles to momentarily prepare for the next set.
  • Short-term recovery – This refers to the breaks you take between individual workouts during your daily session. For example, you may stretch for five minutes following a 30-minute run on the treadmill or take breaks between HIIT sprints.
  • Training recovery – Training recovery is the type of recovery we typically think of—long-term periods between workouts or competitions that allow the muscles to fully repair and regain strength.

Within these categories, there are also two types of recovery:

  • Active recovery – For people who still want to move their bodies on days they’re not training, active recovery methods involve low-intensity activities that simultaneously increase blood flow and support muscle repair. Such activities include stretching, yoga, light jogging and swimming.
  • Passive recovery – Passive recovery involves complete rest, in which you do not exert yourself physically. With this type of recovery method, you allow your muscles and central nervous system to recover completely and regain energy through increased sleep and rest.

Additional recovery techniques include:

  • Compression, such as massage
  • Water immersion, such as ice baths
  • Electrostimulation
  • Refueling, through protein intake

How Protein Helps Muscle Recovery After Workout

Given that protein serves as the fundamental component of muscle tissue, its contribution to muscle development is hardly surprising. This is particularly valuable in the context of post-workout muscle growth.

As previously mentioned, intense physical exertion, like rigorous exercise, can induce microscopic tears within muscle fibers. These minuscule tears necessitate a supply of amino acids to facilitate the healing process and promote the regeneration of muscle tissue — precisely what protein offers abundantly. By replenishing your body with dietary protein post-workout, you provide the essential building blocks that allow muscles to recuperate and rebuild, ultimately emerging stronger and more substantial after exercise.

Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that the consumption of protein following a workout can assist in warding off post-exercise fatigue. In a 2015 study, athletes who took whey protein after a basketball workout increased their workout capacity and experienced very little post-workout fatigue.

Combining protein with carbohydrates can also aid the recovery process by replenishing your glycogen stores, your body’s main source of energy. Unlike carbohydrates, protein also requires more energy for digestion and can keep you satiated for longer, making it beneficial for those seeking weight loss as well.

A 2022 research review also found that a high-protein diet can improve wound healing and help sustain lean muscle mass, which can improve:

  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Power
  • Exercise tolerance
  • Injury prevention

How Much Protein Do You Need Post-Workout?

The amount of protein you need to support protein synthesis will depend on various factors. Firstly, the type of exercise you completed. Following a strength training workout, it’s generally recommended to consume a 1 to 2 ratio of carbs to protein. That is, 20 to 40 grams of carbs and 10 to 20 grams of protein. For those who participate in an aerobic activity, such as walking, cycling or swimming, it’s recommended to adjust the ratio to 3 to 1. So, you would eat 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 20 grams of protein.

Additionally, it’s critical to factor in the frequency and intensity of your workout. People who participate in 30 to 45-minute workouts three times a week likely will not require increased protein intake to facilitate a full recovery.

People who work out 60 to 70 minutes a day at a high intensity, however, can benefit from adding a 200-calorie snack packed with both carbs and protein.

Additionally, men who participate in strength training are generally advised to consume 20 grams of protein following a workout. This was identified in a study in which groups of men were given 10 grams, 20 grams or 40 grams of protein after exercising. Only the groups that consumed 20 grams and 40 grams experienced effective protein synthesis, although the 40-gram dose did not provide added benefits.

How to Incorporate Protein Into Your Diet

Understanding how to increase protein intake in your post-workout routine is relatively easy. There are a variety of natural and supplemental protein sources available to athletes and novice gym-goers alike. Below, we’ll look at some foods and tips that can help you make sure you're getting enough protein to support your post-workout recovery:

  • Lean meats – When selecting your protein sources, opt for lean choices to minimize unhealthy fats. Consider thick skinless poultry, lean cuts of beef or pork, fish, tofu, tempeh and legumes like beans and lentils. These options are not only protein-packed but also kind to your waistline. You could also consider the benefits of meal prepping before your workout, one of which is having a delicious meal waiting for you as soon as you return home.
  • Plant-based protein – If you’re subscribing to a plant-based diet, incorporate foods like beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, tofu and edamame. Nuts are also packed with protein and are a convenient way to refuel your muscles quickly while still at the gym.
  • Eggs – Eggs contain all nine essential amino acids, making them an excellent choice for post-workout meals. Enjoy them scrambled, boiled for convenience or in a tasty omelet.
  • Dairy – Dairy products like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and low-fat milk are rich in protein. If dairy isn't your thing or if you're lactose intolerant, don't worry — there are dairy alternatives like almond milk, soy yogurt and protein-fortified oat milk.
  • Poultry and fish – Poultry, like chicken and turkey, as well as fish such as salmon, tuna and tilapia, are lean protein options that can easily fit into your post-workout meals. Grill, bake or steam them to keep your calorie count in check.
  • Protein shakes – For a convenient post-workout option, consider a nutrient-rich protein shake with whey protein, which effectively supports muscle synthesis more so than the other different types of protein powder.

Tips and Tricks

To stay on track with your protein intake, we’ve rounded up a few tips and tricks to help streamline your protein-rich diet:

  • Snack smartly – Keep protein-rich snacks on hand for quick energy and to curb those post-workout cravings. Greek yogurt, beef jerky, hard-boiled eggs and protein bars (choose the ones with minimal added sugars and additives) are great options.
  • Supplement sparingly – While protein supplements like shakes and powders can be handy, try to get most of your protein from real food. Supplements should only step in when it's challenging to meet your protein goals with regular meals.
  • Take balanced bites – Create well-balanced meals that bring together protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats. This ensures you're not only hitting your protein targets but also getting all the nutrients your body needs.
  • Feed morning muscle – Kickstart your day with a protein-rich breakfast. This will keep you feeling full and energized throughout the morning. Try omelets, Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts or whole-grain toast topped with peanut butter.
  • Get creative – Experiment with new recipes that incorporate protein-rich ingredients. Whip up some black bean burgers, a hearty chickpea curry or a comforting lentil soup. Trying different cooking methods and flavors can make your post-workout meals more enjoyable.
  • Portion check – Keep an eye on portion sizes to avoid overloading on calories. Protein is essential, but excessive intake can lead to unwanted weight gain. To monitor your portions effectively, a typical serving of meat or fish is roughly the size of a deck of cards.
  • Stay hydrated – Proper hydration is crucial when you're upping your protein intake. Remember that protein metabolism requires water, so make sure you're sipping enough fluids throughout the day.

Fuel Your Post-Workout Recovery With Invigor8

Protein is a critical part of muscle recovery after a workout, supporting muscle repair and growth.

For a nutrient-rich, nutritionist-approved protein shake that incorporates several nutritional complex and whey protein powder ingredients, choose INVIGOR8. Our organic superfoods powder can act as a meal replacement and support post-workout recoveries to help you meet your fitness goals.

If you happen to be someone who is looking to embark on a weight loss journey, you can explore our weight loss kit, which includes our superfood shake, as well as our signature appetite control support supplements and unflavored collagen peptides.

 

Sources:

  1. Everyday Health. Post-Workout Muscle Recovery: How to Let Your Muscles Heal and Why
  2. NASM. EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF RECOVERY.
  3. VeryWellFit. Why Protein Is Important for Workout Recovery
  4. Men's Health. How Much Post-Workout Protein Do You Really Need?
  5. Forbes. What To Eat After A Workout
  6. Healthline. 16 Delicious High Protein Foods

 

 

About the Author

 Mara Welty
Mara Welty

Mara Welty is a copywriter who specializes in health, wellness and CBD topics. With a background in journalism, she aims to deliver engaging, research-based content that builds trust and engages readers through informative storytelling.

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