Protein is a critical part of muscle recovery and helps support muscle growth and development. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adult protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but most athletes need more, with values closer to 1 gram per kilogram, or — in some cases — as much as 1.1 or 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. (Intense exercise such as HIIT or functional fitness training results in even higher demand.)
“It's common to refuel with about 20-30 grams of protein after a workout, but again, many athletes will be on the higher end when there’s more rigorous training,” Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook, says.
With intense training and increased focus on muscle gains, athletes often train with maximum, high-intensity output and burn a lot of calories during each session (and during the day in general, too). When the body builds muscle, it leads to a greater calorie burn when at rest, too — thanks to a faster and more efficient resting metabolic rate (BMR), as a result.
Exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle. While this sounds counterintuitive, it's actually a necessary step in the growth process, and the body needs extra amino acids to build new muscle tissue.
“The more rigorous the exercise, the more muscle that will be broken down," Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, says. "Therefore, more protein is needed to provide amino acids in adequate amounts for rebuilding."
Protein Is an Essential Element of Post-Workout Recovery
Protein is necessary for recovery, especially for those wanting to build or maintain muscle. This is because protein is made of amino acids, which are needed in the rebuilding process post-workout. Unless you're eating enough post-workout protein (as well as throughout the day), there’s an increased risk that your body will burn muscle mass for fuel.
“During a workout, muscle is broken down and rebuilt after, which is when amino acids are needed the most,” Best says.
However, it is important to not overconsume protein, as the body can only efficiently process so much at one time.
“Otherwise, you can risk putting excess strain on the kidneys as they work to process this extra protein,” Best says.
You can discuss your ideal number with a dietitian or nutrition coach if you’re unsure of the value, but timing is key too.
“In order to protect and maintain (or even gain) muscle mass, consuming enough protein is key, and research has shown that protein should be consumed within 30-60 minutes after finishing a workout because this is the period of time that the muscles most need amino acids for muscle recovery,” Hultin says.
Related: The Dark Side of Excessive Protein
“Some studies show that recovery is also supported by consumption of protein along with carbohydrates, so don't forget to include a carb, like a banana, dairy or non-dairy milk, or a piece of whole-grain toast to complement your recovery protein."
It can be hard to prioritize post-workout fueling and satisfying your body within this short window, though.
“Many people have to get right to school, work, a commute, or other post-workout tasks,” Hultin says.
That’s where something portable and easy to take with you, such as protein water, is a really convenient way to hydrate and get the protein you need right after a workout.
The Benefits of Protein Water
Protein water can be a really easy way to meet your protein needs during recovery post-workout. If you're carrying your gym bag or driving, it's a portable option that doesn't need to be refrigerated or kept cold while you're on the go. And aside from being nonperishable (as opposed to dairy-based protein shakes), protein water is pretty easy to digest, too.
“This form of protein may also be more gentle on the gut, as it is digested more easily, without extra nutrients that could cause stomach cramping from digestion,” Best says.
“After a workout, much of the blood and oxygen have left the digestive system and entered into other areas where they're needed the most, such as in the muscles, meaning a large meal or a shake after a workout can be difficult to digest."
It’s also an excellent way to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes lost through sweat during your workout, and you can even drink protein water during your workout to replenish electrolytes and fluids and offer a bit of protein for energy and alertness.
What to Look for in a Protein Water Brand
When choosing your protein water, be sure to look at the nutrition label, first.
“Consider a no-added-sugar product or a product that uses a more naturally derived sweetener such as monk fruit,” Hultin says.
PWR LIFT water has zero sugar, so it’s great for athletes who are keto or diabetic. It also contains hydrating electrolytes and essential B vitamins to maximize post-workout recovery.
"Electrolytes are an added benefit of using a protein water, rather than a protein shake, after a workout,” Best says, as electrolytes prevent cramps and aid in muscle replenishment.
Hultin agrees, recommending that you choose a product with electrolytes such as sodium and potassium after intense workouts. Always consider your total daily caloric intake to see how best to make protein water fit in without leading to excess.
“Consider the calories you are aiming for in your day so that your recovery drink isn't too low or too high and fits into your overall nutrition goals,” says Hultin.
A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you assess exactly how much protein and how many calories your body needs after a workout if you’re unsure and need to find your sweet spot.
What to Avoid When Choosing a Protein Water
Keep an eye out for ingredients that you don't want in your water, as well.
“Many artificial colors or flavors create a more highly-processed product, so you may choose to avoid these products if this is important to you,” Hultin says.
And if you already supplement with vitamins or minerals from a multivitamin or even from a fortified protein powder, read the label on your protein water to ensure that it's not going to be providing added vitamins and minerals that are above your daily total needs.
“Finally, keep an eye on the added sugar or artificial sweeteners, as these can quickly add up to exceed your intake limits, depending on the product,” Hultin adds.
Added sugar is often sourced from unnatural ingredients and can counteract post-workout recovery.
“It adds empty calories and can be harsh on the digestive system, so look for protein waters without added sugar and that have been sweetened naturally,” Best agrees.
Sugar alcohols can also wreak havoc on the gut and digestive system in certain individuals, especially when finishing a workout, when you’re already more susceptible to gas, bloating, and indigestion.
How to Pair Your Protein Water With a Balanced Snack
If you're looking for 20 or 30 grams of protein post-workout, you can complement your protein water with a simple, high-protein snack. In that case, you'll want to find a snack that is easy to digest.
“Depending on the protein and carbohydrate content of your protein water when compared to your body’s overall protein needs based on your training and goals, you can consider combining protein water with a snack containing protein and carbs," Hultin says. "Peanut butter on half of a banana, some trail mix that’s made with nuts and seeds, and some unsweetened, dried fruit are all great options.”
Carrots and hummus make up another winning snack combination, as they're easy to pack and offer solid plant protein, healthy fats, and carbs, for a well-rounded recovery fuel option.