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How Does Protein Help with Workout Recovery?

Hitting the gym hard? Don't let muscle breakdown slow you down! Eating protein after your workout provides the building blocks your muscles crave to repair faster, reduce soreness, and get you back in top shape to tackle your next fitness goal.

a woman standing in a field with mountains in the background
By Christina Manian
Jovan Mijailovic
Edited by Jovan Mijailovic

Published May 1, 2024.

A couple discussing protein for post-workout recovery.

Ever pushed yourself to the limit at the gym, only to wake up the next day feeling like a stiff board? Muscle soreness is a common experience, but it doesn't have to slow down your progress.

Imagine getting back to your workouts feeling energized and ready to conquer new challenges. Protein might be the key to unlocking faster recovery and maximizing your gains, so let's explore how it helps you repair and rebuild muscle.

Key takeaways

  • Protein is like the building block for your muscles. After a workout, they have tiny tears, and protein helps repair and rebuild them, which can lead to muscle growth.
  • Research suggests that 20-40 grams of protein is ideal after a workout to optimize muscle recovery. However, the exact amount can vary depending on the individual.
  • Traditionally, scientists believed there was a short window after a workout to consume protein for maximum benefit. Recent studies say it might be larger, possibly lasting up to 24 hours.
  • Animal-based protein sources are generally complete, containing all essential amino acids for muscle building. Plant-based proteins can be incomplete, but you can combine them strategically, such as with rice and beans, for better results.

How does protein heal muscles?

Protein is the fundamental building block for muscles, bones, organs, skin, hair, and nails. It helps with recovery by repairing micro-tears in muscle fibers caused by resistance training.

The human body uses 20 different amino acids to build protein, but it can only synthesize 11 of them on its own. The other nine are called essential amino acids and must come from your diet.

Among the essentials is a group known as branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs). One of the BCAAs, leucine, is a key activator for a specific pathway in the body that directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis. [1] It helps trigger the cellular machinery responsible for healing muscles.

BCAAs also contribute to the overall pool of amino acids available in the body. [2] Muscle protein synthesis relies on a constant supply of them. While leucine plays a unique role, having a sufficient amount of other BCAAs—isoleucine and valine—contributes to this reserve.

Amount of protein to take to speed up recovery

Research suggests that consuming between 20 and 40 grams of protein post-workout optimizes muscle recovery. [3] But there's conflicting evidence when it comes to the maximum amount the body can absorb in one sitting.

While the conventional belief was around 30 grams, the exact threshold varies among individuals. You should avoid taking excessive amounts of protein because it won't absorb well, causing the body to convert it into fat.

Note: InsideTracker includes albumin as a biomarker in the Ultimate Plan. Its levels are a key indicator of protein intake and liver health. Any significant changes can be a red flag for potential issues impacting recovery.

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The optimal time window for taking post-workout protein

Doctors usually recommend taking protein one to two hours after exercise. Supposedly, muscle cells are more sensitive to insulin during this time, which helps shuttle nutrients for recovery.

But, there's conflicting evidence for this recommendation. A review published in The Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy suggests timing has a minimal impact on muscle building compared to total daily protein intake. [4]

It also says that the "anabolic window" for taking the protein is broader than previously thought, lasting up to 24 hours after exercise. It also mentions that protein immediately after a fasted workout becomes more crucial.

Protein sources for post-workout recovery

Protein sources differ in their amino acid profiles. Animal-based ones are typically complete, containing all nine essential ones, including leucine, which plays a key role in rebuilding muscle.

Only some plant-based protein sources like quinoa and soy tempeh are complete. [5] The rest aren't, but you can get the same effect by combining them. For example, brown rice is lower in lysine. You can fill the gap if you eat it together with black beans, which are abundant in it.

Which protein source is the best to relieve sore muscles?

The debate surrounding complete vs. incomplete proteins often surfaces when discussing what's best for athletes. Those focused on strength training should prioritize animal sources—meat, poultry, eggs, dairy—for potentially better absorption.

A growing number of athletes like Novak Djokovic and Chris Paul are showing that plant-based protein sources can also fuel top athletic performance and recovery.

» Discover the benefits of ashwagandha for muscle growth

How to determine your ideal protein intake

Determining protein needs is highly individualized and influenced by various factors, particularly for those engaged in athletic activities of differing intensities and durations.

Note: Consulting a nutrition professional—such as a registered dietitian—is the best approach to ascertain personalized protein requirements to help muscle recovery.

Did you know?

Sleep is essential for maximizing protein recovery benefits. Your body undergoes critical processes, promoting muscle repair and growth. Studies have shown that skimping on sleep significantly slows down your progress. [6]

InsideTracker can integrate with wearables, such as Garmin, Fitbit, Oura Ring, and Apple Watch, to track your REM and deep sleep. By monitoring these markers, it provides actionable recommendations to help you maximize the benefits of the hours you spend in bed.

Hydration helps your body process protein

Proper hydration helps you process protein in three ways:

  1. Dissolution and transport: An enzyme called pepsin needs to break down protein into amino acids for absorption. Water dissolves them in the digestive system, which helps the process. [7]
  2. Waste removal: During protein metabolism, the body produces waste products like ammonia. It can be toxic if allowed to accumulate. The liver converts it into a less harmful substance called urea, which water dilutes and transports to the kidneys. [8]
  3. Maintaining kidney health: Dehydration can put extra strain on the kidneys, making it harder to remove waste products. Adequate water intake keeps urine diluted, helping it function more effectively and potentially reducing the risk of stones. [9,10]

The National Academy of Medicine offers a general guideline for daily fluid intake, recommending around 13 cups (104 ounces) for men and nine (72 ounces) for women. [11]

But, this is a starting point, and your individual needs may vary depending on different factors. If you exercise regularly or live in a hot climate, you'll likely need to drink more than the general recommendation.

Quick ways to include protein into your diet

Replenishing your body after a workout is crucial for optimal recovery and muscle building. Here are some creative ways to incorporate protein-rich options into your post-workout routine to aid the process:

  • Smoothies: Blend Greek yogurt, protein powder, spinach, and berries for a delicious and refreshing recovery boost.
  • Chia seed pudding: Overnight chia seed pudding with almond milk, protein powder, and a sprinkle of nuts provides sustained energy and healthy fats.
  • Power oatmeal: Jumpstart your recovery with an oatmeal bowl. Combine ½ cup rolled oats with a scoop of protein powder. Top it off with sliced almonds and a drizzle of honey for extra flavor.
  • Savory snacks: Don't underestimate savory options. Hard-boiled eggs, a salad with grilled chicken or chickpeas, or cottage cheese with chopped vegetables offer a satisfying protein punch. Include one of them in your post-workout meal to help muscle recovery.
a man and a woman eating a meal together

» Check out what happens to your body after a marathon

Beyond the workout: The key to muscle recovery

Protein is your post-exercise MVP. By providing the essential building blocks for muscle repair, it helps you recover faster, minimize soreness, and get the most out of your training. So next time you crush your workout, fuel your recovery with protein and watch your fitness journey accelerate!

Recovery is one of the 12 goals you can choose when registering your blood results with the Ultimate Plan on the InsideTracker app. The platform will analyze key biomarkers that help you reduce your risk of injury and promote recovery from workouts or existing injuries.


[1] Y. Shimomura et al., “Nutraceutical effects of Branched-Chain amino acids on skeletal muscle,” ˜the œJournal of Nutrition/˜the œJournal of Nutrition, vol. 136, no. 2, pp. 529S-532S, Feb. 2006, doi: 10.1093/jn/136.2.529s. Available:

[2] M. D. Neinast, D. Murashige, and Z. Arany, “Branched chain amino acids,” Annual Review of Physiology, vol. 81, no. 1, pp. 139–164, Feb. 2019, doi: 10.1146/annurev-physiol-020518-114455. Available:

[3] R. Jäger et al., “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 14, no. 1, Jan. 2017, doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8. Available:

[4] B. J. Schöenfeld and A. A. Aragon, “Is there a postworkout anabolic window of opportunity for nutrient consumption? Clearing up controversies,” ˜the œJournal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy/Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, vol. 48, no. 12, pp. 911–914, Dec. 2018, doi: 10.2519/jospt.2018.0615. Available:

[5] I. Berrazaga, V. Micard, M. Gueugneau, and S. Walrand, “The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review,” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 8, p. 1825, Aug. 2019, doi: 10.3390/nu11081825. Available:

[6] S. Lamon et al., “The effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment,” Physiological Reports, vol. 9, no. 1, Jan. 2021, doi: 10.14814/phy2.14660. Available:

[7] R. Heda, F. Toro, and C. R. Tombazzi, “Physiology, Pepsin,” StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf, May 01, 2023. Available:

[8] S. S. Mohiuddin and D. Khattar, “Biochemistry, ammonia,” StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf, Feb. 20, 2023. Available:

[9] M. S. Pearle et al., “Medical Management of Kidney Stones: AUA Guideline,” ˜the œJournal of Urology/˜the œJournal of Urology, vol. 192, no. 2, pp. 316–324, Aug. 2014, doi: 10.1016/j.juro.2014.05.006. Available:

[10] M. D. Sorensen et al., “Impact of nutritional factors on incident kidney stone formation: a report from the WHI OS,” ˜the œJournal of Urology/˜the œJournal of Urology, vol. 187, no. 5, pp. 1645–1650, May 2012, doi: 10.1016/j.juro.2011.12.077. Available:

[11] “Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate,” in National Academies Press eBooks, Available: