Why Protein Is Important for Workout Recovery

Male athlete eating protein bar

Obradovic / Getty Images

Of the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), protein is the darling of exercise nutrition. From athletes to novice exercisers, high-protein beverages, bars, or cookies often tout effects on workout performance. 

Though it may sometimes seem like protein is given too much credit—and there is such a thing as getting too much—this critical nutrient serves lots of important functions, particularly after a challenging workout. For the optimal recovery meal or snack, you’ll want to reach for something that supplies a solid dose (and pair it with carbohydrates for even better results).

Here’s why protein is the go-to macro following a sweat session.

Benefits of Eating Protein After a Workout

Refueling with protein-rich foods supports workout recovery in a variety of ways, including the following:

Eating Protein Promotes Muscle Gain

Since it’s the building block of muscle tissue, it’s not surprising that protein helps bulk up your muscles. And while it’s important to eat sufficient protein in your overall diet, it’s especially beneficial for muscle growth after a workout.

When you perform strenuous exercise, tiny tears form in your muscles. For these micro-tears to heal and create new muscle, your body requires amino acids—which protein has in abundance. Replenishing with dietary protein helps the body build muscle back stronger and larger post-exercise.

Eating Protein May Help You Recover From Fatigue

Some research indicates that eating protein after a workout could keep you from feeling wiped out on your way home from the gym. In a 2015 study, basketball players consumed whey protein following training sessions. The protein supplement appeared to improve exercise capacity and have an anti-fatigue effect.

On the other hand, in a 2020 study on older adults, those who ate protein after prolonged walking had no less fatigue than those who did not eat protein.

One surefire way to amp up protein’s fatigue-fighting power? Combine it with carbohydrates. “Including carbs with your post-workout protein snack can help with recovery, as the carbs can help replenish glycogen stores,” says registered dietitian and certified personal trainer Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT.

Eating Protein Boosts Metabolism and Supports Weight Loss

If weight loss is one of your goals for exercise, you may want to go the extra mile by adding protein after a run or cycling session. “No matter which time of the day, eating protein can help support a healthy metabolism,” says Manaker. “It takes more calories to break down protein versus carbs, and protein has a satiety factor as well.” 

Eating Protein Helps Prevent Injury

Unfortunately, when you’re working out at a high intensity, injuries sometimes happen. But a high-protein diet could help you both bounce back faster and prevent sports injuries in the first place. 

It’s long been known that a high-protein diet helps wounds heal more quickly. And according to a 2022 research review, consuming enough protein is also associated with maintaining lean muscle mass, which in turn supports strength, power, balance, and exercise tolerance—all of which can reduce the likelihood of injury.

How Much Protein Do You Need After a Workout?

Post-workout protein recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all. “The quantity will depend on a few factors, including how much a person weighs and how long the workout was,” says Manaker.

As a general rule of thumb, though, you might start with about 20 grams of protein after exercising. In a 2014 study, when subjects ate 0, 10, 20, or 40 grams of protein shortly after working out, 20 grams was sufficient for maximal muscle-building (and there was no documented benefit of going higher).

What Type of Protein Is Best After a Workout?

So does it matter whether you blend up a protein smoothie or grill up a steak after your time at the gym? The type of protein you choose post-workout does matter. The best kind: complete protein, which contains all nine amino acids the body can’t produce on its own.

“After a workout, eating a complete source of protein that contains all of the essential amino acids is recommended,” notes Manaker. “Animal proteins and certain plant-based options, like quinoa, hemp, and soy can provide all essential amino acids.”

Sample Post-Workout Meals

For best results for muscle gain and recovering your energy, reach for post-workout meals that provide a blend of protein and carbs. Try any of the following combos:

  • Seasoned chicken breast with brown rice and broccoli
  • A smoothie of Greek yogurt, frozen fruit, and an optional scoop of protein powder
  • Whole wheat pasta with chicken or salmon
  • Whole grain cereal with low-fat milk
  • An egg scramble with diced bell peppers and tomatoes
  • Baked sweet potato with Mexican-seasoned black beans

Risks of Not Eating Protein After a Workout

Depending on the intensity of your workout, you could encounter some unpleasant side effects from skipping protein. “If you don’t eat enough protein after a workout, you may feel weak and your muscles may not recover as well,” says Manaker.

Over time, if you neglect this macro too much, you could lose muscle mass—and if you become really deficient, you could even experience adverse effects like a weakened immune system or anemia. So be sure to snag plenty of protein, both after a workout and throughout the day.

A Word From Verywell

Not every workout will require refueling with protein. If you’ve just gone for a brief, leisurely swim or a walk around the block, for example, you may not have created the need for much recovery. Unsure about whether to make post-workout protein a habit? Consider discussing the question with a personal trainer, registered dietitian, or general practitioner.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens if you don't eat protein after a workout?

    Occasionally missing a high-protein snack or meal after a workout isn’t likely to cause much damage. But by chronically underdoing it on protein, you’ll lose out on some of the best effects of exercising, like building muscle and boosting your energy levels.

  • Does protein help promote muscle recovery?

    Yes! Because strenuous exercise technically “damages” muscles by creating small tears in them, protein’s amino acids are key for helping them recover.

  • If your muscles are sore does that mean you are not getting enough protein?

    Soreness after a workout can stem from various causes, but not eating enough protein probably isn’t one of them. A 2014 research review that examined multiple studies didn’t find an association between protein intake and muscle soreness.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exerciseJ Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

  2. Ronghui S. (2015). The Research on the Anti-Fatigue Effect of Whey Protein Powder in Basketball TrainingThe open biomedical engineering journal9, 330–334. doi:10.2174/1874120701509010330

  3. Ten Haaf, D., Bongers, C., Hulshof, H. G., Eijsvogels, T., & Hopman, M. (2020). The Impact of Protein Supplementation on Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage, Soreness and Fatigue Following Prolonged Walking Exercise in Vital Older Adults: A Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial. Nutrients12(6), 1806. doi:10.3390/nu12061806

  4. Russell L. The importance of patients' nutritional status in wound healing. Br J Nurs. 2001 Mar;10(6 Suppl):S42, S44-9. doi:10.12968/bjon.2001.10.Sup1.5336.

  5. Turnagöl, H. H., Koşar, Ş. N., Güzel, Y., Aktitiz, S., & Atakan, M. M. (2021). Nutritional Considerations for Injury Prevention and Recovery in Combat SportsNutrients14(1), 53. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14010053

  6. Oliver C Witard, Sarah R Jackman, Leigh Breen, Kenneth Smith, Anna Selby, Kevin D Tipton, Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exerciseThe American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 99, Issue 1, January 2014, Pages 86–95, doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.055517

  7. Pasiakos SM, Lieberman HR, McLellan TM. Effects of protein supplements on muscle damage, soreness and recovery of muscle function and physical performance: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2014 May;44(5):655-70. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0137-7. 

By Sarah Garone, NDTR
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.