Move over whipped coffee, the at-home baristas are now infatuated with adding a protein shake to their cup of java. Proponents claim it works as a quick breakfast or as a general pick-me-up throughout the day, however, one of its touted benefits as a pre-workout booster has some experts raising their eyebrows.
The #procoffee hashtag on TikTok consists of a multitude of recipes, where everything from protein shakes to vegan powder is mixed with hot or iced coffee. Workout aficionados using this drink claim that the caffeine helps boost performance while a pre-workout protein hit can help muscle building during a workout. However, experts say that this isn’t really the case.
“I don’t see a real performance benefit or recovery benefit to [having a serving of protein] as a strategy before a workout,” says Daniel Moore, Assistant Professor in Muscle Physiology at the University of Toronto.
After resistance training, the body uses protein to repair and rebuild stressed muscles. Eating a protein and carbohydrate rich snack within a few hours after finishing up at the gym ensures that the body has the energy and amino acids — building blocks for muscle — it needs to properly repair itself. However, Moore explains that while there may be some time for the body to repair muscle during breaks in a workout, muscle repair really happens after the workout.
“When we’re exercising, our muscles are not worried about rebuilding themselves,” says Moore. “[They are] using the energy to fuel the muscles contractions, and so that recovery process is actually shut off for the most part. It’s when we stop exercising that that muscle is able to use the energy that it was devoting to the exercise to now devote it to the repair and recovery process.”
Moore refers to the adage “You don’t build muscle at the gym, you build it after the gym.”
Brian Roy, Interim Associate Dean of Faculty of Graduate Studies at Brock University and Professor of Kinesiology, also says that while eating before a workout is a personal choice, the majority of gym-goers won’t need to be expressly concerned about fuelling up before a typical 60-minute gym session. Anyone who wants to try a protein shake pre-workout, however, should be aware of how all the ingredients may affect them and their workout.
“Often these shakes have other components in them as well,” says Roy. “Some often have added sugar and other things that might, in combination with the protein, slow the digestion rate in someone’s stomach. If they’re doing anything really intense, that can lead to nausea.”
Nutrition timing an evolving field
The concept of timing a specific snacks based on various activities throughout the day, with the end goal of maximizing muscle gains, is known as nutrition timing. In 2008, the International Society of Sports Nutrition even published specific protein and carbohydrate recommendations to be consumed at precise intervals before, during and after a workout for enhanced muscle building, post-exercise recovery, and even enhanced emotional states.
However, while there is a significant amount of research on the timing and the amount of carbohydrates to eat for maximum performance, research on timing protein intake casts a little more doubt on the practice. The limited studies published on timing protein intake suggest that it has less to do with when you eat protein, and more to do with how much protein you eat regularly throughout the day.
Updated guidelines from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) say that consuming 0.25 to 0.40 g of high-quality protein per kilogram of body mass every three to four hours is associated with improved performance when compared to other diets. For a 150lb athlete, that’s about 17 to 27.2 grams of protein (roughly three hard boiled eggs) every three to four hours (we don’t recommend you eat three hard boiled eggs for every protein snack).
The ISSN also recommends eating a high-protein snack within 2 hours of finishing a workout to maximize muscle building.
Will coffee make you run faster?
The International Society of Sports nutrition notes that across a wide range of studies, caffeine intake before a workout has moderate benefits to both strength, endurance and cognition. Roy says that for the average coffee drinker, however, the effects on a workout are likely minimal. A lot of the perceived benefits from caffeine are often a placebo.
“The benefits of caffeine in in sport performance are really not that large,” he says. “Most people would sort of feel like they’re doing more, but in reality it really isn’t that big of a deal …caffeine is just a bit of a stimulant.”
Too much caffeine comes with a host of side effects that can interfere with a good workout. The sweet spot seems to be about three to four milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, taken about an hour before lacing up running shoes. For a 150 lb athlete, that would be about roughly 200 to 400 mg of caffeine, which could be fulfilled by large coffee from Tim Hortons (270 mg of caffeine.)
Moore warns that over-consuming caffeine in the long-term can impact blood pressure or sleep quality, two things that are important to our overall health. For this reason, if an athlete wants to implement a caffeinated pre-workout beverage, they might want to look at the rest of their diet to ensure their overall caffeine intake isn’t too high.
No replacement for a balanced diet
At the end of the day, or a workout, pre- and post-workout meals will not make up for a poor overall diet or lifestyle. Roy says that it is important to take a holistic look at the entire diet to ensure it contains enough protein, carbs, fat and other nutrients each day and consider if taking a supplement is even necessary.
“My caution would be how much are you consuming over the whole day?” he says. “Are you adding to your dietary intake by consuming a protein shake? And are you taking in too much coffee?
“I’d hate to see an athlete doing this three to four times a day. That’s a lot of caffeine and a lot of protein. That’s probably excessive.”
Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonesyjourn
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