Protein is THE most reliable nutrient to reduce soreness, promote muscle repair and optimize your workout recovery. By consuming protein at each meal, and spreading out protein intake throughout the day, studies show serious athletes can perform stronger, faster and longer. In this 4-week series, we interview expert RDs and dietitians to bring you our EXTREME PROTEIN POWER-UP: top Spartan-approved strategies to more efficiently consume protein so you can max your OCR training regimen.
Sponsored by our partner, Orgain
Okay, real talk: there are a lot of protein powders out there. And not all are created equal. (Think: some are packed with sugar, some taste like chalk... you get it.) When picking a protein powder, you should not only ensure the basic nutritional musts (duh: non GMO, gluten-free, no preservatives or artificial flavors, and only high-quality, sustainably-sourced ingredients), but you should also know what kind of powder will support your athletic endeavors best. There's plant-based, whey, casein, you name it. But WTF is the actual difference between all of them, and how can you tell which powder is right for you?
“Picking out a protein powder can be a daunting task,” says Marley Oldham Carnes, MS, RDN, CSCS. Knowing what brands, products and ingredients you can trust is crucial, she adds. When it comes to preservatives and artificial ingredients in food, government regulations ensure that products are safe for consumption. “However, protein powders are considered dietary supplements, which are treated differently,” she warns. “This means not all products are tightly regulated or tested to ensure what is on the label is what is in the bottle.”
We don’t point this out as a scare tactic, but as a wake-up call to get serious about what’s in your protein powder. That said, we know you’re busy hacking your workouts and may not have a ton of time for research. So, we did the heavy lifting for you and pulled together a quick-hit guide of our favorite, Spartan-approved protein powders to get you started.
Which Protein Powder Should I Get?
To select the right protein powder for your fitness aspirations, first identify, in general, what your goal is. Then, make sure to get a powder that falls into these recommendations from Oldham Carnes:
GOAL: BUILD MUSCLE MASS
You’re trying to bulk up overall (prime for heavy lifters or athletes who need to gain weight.)
OPT FOR: High-protein but also high-calorie products—think: 25g of protein; 250cal per serving, or more.
GOAL: HONE ENDURANCE
You want to get stronger, build stamina and recover quicker while also trying to burn fat during your workouts.
OPT FOR: Lower calorie, protein rich products—think: 15-25g of protein, 150cal or less per serving.
The Spartan’s Protein Powder Guide
FOR VEGETARIANS & VEGANS: Plant-Based Protein Powder
Plant-based protein powders are ideal for vegetarian or vegan athletes and people who have a tough time digesting animal proteins. If a burger turns to a bowling ball in your stomach, you may consider switching to plant-based proteins, or at least incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet. The thing is, in order to get your metabolic bang-for-buck return with plant-based protein, you want to make sure the powder you choose is complete with all of the essential amino acids to maximize digestibility, according to this recent study from the journal of Nutrients. Simply put (quick science lesson) amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and your body can’t produce all amino acids by itself.
FOR QUICK RESULTS: Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein powder comes from cow’s milk and can be beneficial for athletes who don’t have trouble digesting animal-based sources of protein, and who need rapid muscle repair between frequent workouts. “I often recommend looking for an animal source protein powder so that athletes are maximizing the amount of protein they are getting from their powder,” says Oldham Carnes. Why? Because whey protein has the highest bioavailability of any protein, making it easier for your body to absorb and retain, overall. “Whey protein is a great quick-release protein powder that helps muscles recover quickly post exercise or training,” she says. But, just like there’s a quality difference in fast-food meat compared to organic grillables, so too, is it with whey protein powder. Make sure your whey supplement is sourced from grass-fed cows.
TRY IT: Clean Whey Protein Powder
FOR MAX RECOVERY: Anti-Inflammatory Protein Blends
Looking to make the most of your recovery routine? In combination with intentional mobility work and myofascial release practices, protein powders with anti-inflammatory ingredients can support your body’s natural repair process and ensure you’re ready to hack it tomorrow. To prevent the onset of soreness, follow your workouts with plant-based protein powder rich in antioxidant-heavy nutrients like tart cherry, turmeric, cayenne and ginger, which cut down on inflammation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When in doubt, ask your healthcare provider what supplements and ingredients you should be taking or avoiding based on your medical status.