Should Endurance Athletes Consume Carbs or Protein Post-Workout?

Man exercising on a stationary bike
Anna Berdnik / Shutterstock

Conventional wisdom tells us to have protein after a workout. But a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that a big dose of protein after endurance workouts isn’t more effective than carbohydrates. In the study, 60 guys aged 20 to 40 did a three-month endurance-training program. Half drank a shake containing 28.7 grams of protein after training and again before bed; the others had a carb shake. At the end, a 10K bike time trial showed that, yes, protein consumers improved their bike times by 15 percent, but the carb loaders were right there at 12 percent, suggesting that carbs and protein are almost equally effective for post-workout recovery and muscle adaptation.

When it comes to dieting post-workout, carbs aren’t the worst way to go: “Protein supplementation after exercise and before sleep does not further augment the gains in whole-body oxidative capacity and endurance exercise performance,” the study reads, “after chronic endurance exercise training in recreationally active, healthy young males.” It’s also important to never write off carbs completely, the study says, because carbs are the body’s main source for strength for moderate- to high-intensity endurance exercises. One way protein did pay off: leg muscle mass, with the protein group showing an increase 2.5 times greater than the carb consumers.

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