When it comes to diet and nutrition, everyone has their own school of thought about what is best. Should you eat smaller meals and snacks throughout the day, or should you stick to three meals only? Should you try intermittent fasting, and is it wrong to eat before bed?
While each of these questions comes with a slew of differing opinions that can be explored and considered in the context of your personal circumstances, one of the most common and interesting questions to consider for runners is whether you should take protein before bed.
Because protein can help increase muscle protein synthesis, runners often want to know if having a protein shake before bed or ingesting some other source of protein before bed can enhance workout recovery and help them get stronger and run faster.
In this guide, we will explore the factors that affect if you should take protein before bed and discuss the potential recovery benefits of protein before bed for runners.
We’re going to look at:
- Benefits of Protein for Runners
- How Much Protein Do Runners Need?
- Should You Take Protein Before Bed?
- How Much Protein Should You Take Before Bed for Recovery?
- What Kind of Protein Shake Should You Drink Before Bed?
Let’s jump in!
Benefits of Protein for Runners
The protein we eat is broken down into amino acids then assembled to make new proteins used to repair and rebuild muscles, tissues, cells, enzymes, and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA).
Protein is essential for runners, especially in the recovery process after a workout.
A review of 11 studies investigated the recovery benefits of ingesting protein along with carbohydrates after a bout of cycling versus consuming carbohydrates alone.
They found that adding protein to the post-exercise recovery fuel increased performance (both time to exhaustion and time-trial performance) in the subsequent endurance ride by 9% over consuming just carbohydrates alone.
Most distance runners are well aware of the importance of glycogen loading before exercise and glycogen replenishment after running. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates in the body, and the liver and skeletal muscles are the primary storage sites for glycogen.
While we tend to think of carbohydrates as the only macronutrient that impacts glycogen stores, research shows that post-exercise protein ingestion can improve glycogen replenishment, recovery, and subsequent workout performance.
The standard recommendation for carbohydrate refueling after exercise is to consume 0.6–1.0 g/kg carbohydrate within 30 minutes and every 2 hours for the next 4–6 hours.
However, adding protein, particularly when these carbohydrate needs fall short, has been shown to improve glycogen replenishment and decrease symptoms of muscle damage, including muscle soreness.
How Much Protein Do Runners Need?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average adult have a daily protein intake of 0.8 grams per kilogram or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight for general health.
We know that protein helps rebuild and repair muscle, along with other cells and tissues, and is used to synthesize new muscle tissue. Therefore, the protein requirements for runners and other athletes are higher than for the general population or sedentary adults because running causes micro-tears in your muscles.
Protein aids muscle recovery after running or strength training, helping heal any microscopic damage and building new muscle fibers to adapt to your training loads.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume at least 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For example, a runner weighing 154 pounds (70 kg) should consume at least 84-140 grams of protein daily to meet their physiological needs.
Since there are four calories per gram of protein, this range equates to 336-560 calories.
Keep in mind that your needs may be higher depending on your training, but most sports dietitians recommend a protein intake of 20-35% of your daily caloric intake.
Should You Take Protein Before Bed?
Having a protein-rich snack like cottage cheese or yogurt or drinking a protein shake before bed is a rising trend amongst runners and other athletes.
Research has generally demonstrated positive recovery benefits and muscle protein synthesis from ingesting protein before bed. The general consensus is that having protein before bed has a beneficial effect on muscle size, strength, and recovery.
For example, one study with healthy, young male athletes found that drinking casein protein before bed resulted in improved muscle protein synthesis and protein balance after resistance training compared to a placebo drink.
However, the recovery benefits of drinking a protein shake before bed may only be significant if your exercise session is actually in the evening.
For example, another study failed to show a difference in the benefits of casein protein shakes consumed in the morning versus evening when the workout was performed in the morning.
Therefore, if you’re a morning runner and refuel adequately after your workout with carbohydrates and protein in the recommended ratio of 3:1 or 4:1, and eat nourishing, well-balanced meals the rest of the day, drinking a protein shake before bed or having some other concentrated source of protein before sleep is likely unnecessary.
However, if you do an afternoon or evening workout or don’t meet your protein needs during the day, taking protein before bed may enhance your recovery.
How Much Protein Should You Take Before Bed for Recovery?
The timing of your protein consumption does seem to impact the effectiveness of the recovery benefits of protein following exercise.
Studies have demonstrated that ingesting 20 grams of protein immediately after exercise and then every three hours for the next 12 hours increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis more than having more protein less frequently (for example, 40 grams every six hours).
However, the recommendations are a bit different when it comes to how much protein to take before bed for recovery.
Research suggests that taking protein before bed for recovery from exercise is most effective when you consume at least 40 grams of a highly absorbable form of protein such as casein or whey.
This is more protein than the general recommendations for protein dosage and timing but makes sense, particularly for evening runners who are also using the pre-sleep protein as their post-workout refueling.
What Kind of Protein Shake Should You Drink Before Bed?
If you’ve decided that eating or drinking protein before bed might improve your recovery, it’s time to determine the best type of protein to have.
Most studies have investigated the recovery benefits of taking whey or casein protein before bed.
According to research, casein protein shakes are likely superior because casein is digested and absorbed slower than whey, providing a more stable energy source. Choose a minimally-processed casein protein powder with no artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or ingredients.
However, if you prefer real food, you can have a high-protein snack instead of a protein shake. Good pre-sleep protein-rich snack options include cottage cheese, which is also high in casein, and Greek yogurt, which has casein and whey.
If you are sensitive to dairy, lean meat or poultry is another decent alternative.
Overall, eating or drinking protein before bed can boost your muscle protein synthesis and support recovery from exercise, primarily if you work out in the evening or struggle to meet your daily protein needs.
To get into even more detail about running nutrition, check out The Complete Runner’s Diet: What To Eat For Top Performance.