Fueling your body – protein timing explaineD

Protein intake for muscle maintenance and growth. 

During intense exercise, your body is put under strain and your muscles become slightly damaged. After exercise, during what is often referred to as ‘the recovery period’, your muscles are weakened and need refueling. It is at this point that protein intake is crucial as it supports the maintenance and growth of muscles. Strong muscles adapt to your training and in the end, this helps to really improve performance. The protein you ingest will provide the building blocks to (re)build the muscle. However, that is not all; protein also has another important function: it works as a signal for muscle protein synthesis, which basically means the building of muscle tissue. 

Therefore, it is important to eat enough protein over the day to (re)build muscle and allow your body to adapt to the intensity and frequency of exercise. The recommended daily protein intake is between 1.2 – 1.7g per kg body weight for people who regularly do endurance sports. Now you might think, Ok I’ll just eat a nice big steak for dinner and a protein shake after training, which provides me with plenty of protein and that should be fine. Well, not exactly! Yes, your total protein intake is important, but it is also crucial to distribute the protein intake evenly throughout the day. 

Protein distribution over the day.

Scientific research has shown that as well as total protein intake, protein intake distribution is also important for muscle repair. For example, in a study 3 different strategies for protein intake were compared, each with the same total protein intake of 80g per day:

  • Group 1 - 2 meals of 40g protein (2 x 40g)
  • Group 2 - 4 meals of 20g protein (4 x 20g)
  • Group 3 - 8 meals of 10g protein (8 x 10g)

Although total protein intake was the same across all the groups, distributing 20g of protein over 4 meals was shown to be best at stimulating muscle protein synthesis and thus muscle building (Areta 2003). Another study showed that a moderate amount of protein at each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) stimulated muscle protein synthesis more effectively than a skewed protein intake toward dinner (Mamerow 2014). 

Thus, it is important to have a good amount of protein (20g) in your meals, and you should look to repeat this a few times throughout the day. 

How does this work?

As mentioned before, protein is a trigger for muscle protein synthesis in your body, and thus to (re)build muscle. However, the effect of increased synthesis can only remain for a few hours. To help avoid this you can try to eat another protein rich meal every 3 – 4h. This way the ingested protein again works as a trigger to keep protein synthesis high. In other words, by eating a protein rich meal (20g of protein) every 3 – 4h you maximize muscle protein synthesis until the next meal, thereby maximizing the potential for the (re)building and adaptation of your muscles after exercise. 


So what should I do? To maximize muscle protein synthesis in the recovery period after exercise, and therefore assisting in the rebuilding of your muscles, it is not only important how much protein you eat in total (1.2 – 1.7g/kg/day), but also when you eat it (20g every 3 – 4h). For example: 20g of protein during breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and another high protein snack right after training or somewhere in between meals is a great start for an endurance or high-intensity athlete. 


Want to keep reading? Here are some interesting references to look up.

1.          Moore DR. Nutrition to Support Recovery from Endurance Exercise. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(4):294–300.
2.          Moore DR, Camera DM, Areta JL, Hawley JA. Beyond muscle hypertrophy: why dietary protein is important for endurance athletes. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Sep;39(9):987–97.
3.          Gillen JB, Trommelen J, Wardenaar FC, Brinkmans NYJ, Versteegen JJ, Jonvik KL, et al. Dietary Protein Intake and Distribution Patterns of Well-Trained Dutch Athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2016;27(2):105–14.
4.          Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14(1):20.
5.          Beelen M, Burke LM, Gibala MJ, Van Loon LJC. Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010;20(6):515–32.
6.          Areta JL, Burke LM, Ross ML, Camera DM, West DWD, Broad EM, et al. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J Physiol. 2013 May;591(Pt 9):2319–31.
7.          Mamerow MM, Mettler J a., English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, et al. Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults. J Nutr. 2014 Jan;144(6):876–80.