Athletes and exercise junkies have gone mad for protein shakes and supplements over the past few years, with sales expected to reach £8bn over the next five years worldwide. The appeal of these products is that they claim to increase muscle strength, function and size, and although they’re largely consumed by 20-something men trying to bulk up for the summer before putting on a t-shirt a size too small to show off their hard work, they can definitely have a place in a active lifestyle.
Vanity aside, however, protein intake is an important factor to consider when exercising, especially if you are one of those who heads straight to the weights room to bench press your body weight. The science behind muscle gains after a workout is this: when you put a lot of pressure on your muscles, your muscle fibres tear and break. When they rebuild themselves, they rebuild bigger and stronger.
So, what does protein have to do with all this? Our muscles need protein to grow and repair so, to repair the damage done during exercise, we need protein. In the UK we easily get enough protein from our diets, and on average we exceed the recommended daily amount, which is 55g and 45g for men and women respectively – or more specifically around 0.8g per kg body weight every day. Exercise does not increase our protein requirements significantly enough to warrant drinking litres of protein shakes. Overloading on protein supplements will provide you with no extra benefits, nor will it speed up the bulking up process – your muscles can only utilise a certain amount of protein, so anything extra you take will go to waste. In fact, excess protein intake puts pressure on the kidneys and liver, which can have health implications.
More important than the amount of protein is the timing. You have a window of about two hours to aid muscle recovery, so this is the time to get the protein in! Most of us have our protein-heavy meal in the evening, so if you are a morning gym bunny rather than a post work gym-goer, switching this habit around would help you get the most from your workout and reduce muscle soreness.
Research shows that post-workout protein intake can affect these gains in a positive way, but it’s also important to remember that after a workout your muscle’s stores of glycogen – essentially energy – will be depleted, so including carbohydrate in your post-workout recovery fuel is equally as important. Hydration also goes without saying, but unless your workout exceeds an hour, water will suffice until you have finished your workout.
Because I do my exercise in the mornings, I have a couple of go-to smoothie recipes that I can quickly make up for a breakfast after a run. My favourite is this banana, peanut butter and chia seed smoothie, the recipe for which is below. Chia seeds have been dubbed “the runner’s food” because of their ability soak up to 10 times their weight in water, so they’re great for hydration, as well as being high in protein and packed with other nutrients. Peanut butter has a bad rep for being unhealthy because it is high in fat and calories, but it is also high in protein, so as long as your portion control/will-power is strong, then a tablespoon in your smoothie does no harm at all!
I have included non-dairy options for all the vegans out there too – happy exercising!
Homemade protein shake recipe
- 1 banana, peeled
- 150g low-fat natural yoghurt or soya yoghurt
- 100ml of semi-skimmed milk or dairy-free milk
- 1 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 tbsp chia seeds
- ½ tsp cinnamon (or to taste)
Simply whizz all the ingredients together in a blender and drink right away!
As ever, remember that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle will play a massive role in keeping your whole body in tip-top condition – these tips are specifically for all you super-sporty foodies who may require a little extra of the good stuff.
Check out our head nutritionist’s brilliant guide to alternative milks, complete with the perfect recipe for almond milk.