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Former long-distance runner and two-time Olympian Ryan Hall gained a whopping 50 pounds of muscle since his retirement from competitive running in 2016. That’s a lot of muscle to gain, and it wasn’t just because of his new strength training routine.
“The first word that comes to mind when I’m asked about how I bulked up so much is nutrition,” he says. “I don't even like talking about training with people without talking about nutrition first, just because nutrition is that important."
Now, you may not be looking to add as much muscle to your frame as Ryan did, but if do think that adding five, 10, or 15 extra pounds could be beneficial to your fitness pursuits — like a Spartan race or DEKA event — you’re probably right. More muscle mass and strength will help you crush obstacles and make you more injury resilient.
Here, Ryan breaks down his process for packing it on.
What (and How) to Eat to Gain Muscle Fast
1. Eat More Than You Think
According to Ryan, the first step to building muscle and strength is being in a caloric surplus. That means consuming more food than your body requires to maintain its current weight.
“Your body can’t make something (like more muscle) out of nothing,” he says. “You need enough calories and the necessary amino acids to build with.”
Ryan suggests trying to be in roughly a 300- to 500-calorie surplus when you finish the day. To find out your exact caloric needs, there are plenty of calorie calculators available online.
2. Load up on Protein
The debate over how much protein you actually need to build muscle goes back and forth, and it’s usually anywhere between 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day to upwards of 1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. For Ryan — and from his own experience — he’s a proponent of making it a top priority macro for building mass while still keeping it simple.
“What worked for me has been taking in about 50 grams of protein every three hours,” he says.
However, because everyone is different, he recommends working with your physician, a registered nutritionist, or a dietitian to dial that in. Sounds like a lot of protein? Ryan agrees, and thus relies on shakes to hit that number.
“I use a ton of grass-fed whey protein, as eating this much protein is difficult to do when I’m on the road and find it challenging to find good sources of protein,” he says.
3. Increase Your Meal Frequency
To get in that calorie surplus, the old “three square meals per day” concept probably won’t hack it.
“I love eating tons of small meals throughout the day, as I see this as a constant flow of needed nutrients for my body to build with,” he says.
So in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Ryan aims to get heavy snacks that include a quality source of proteins, fats, and carbs. The ex-marathoner also makes sure to give his body plenty of carbohydrates pre-, during, and post-workout to give him energy during bouts of exercise while also supporting his body’s recovery process in the hours following.
4. Carb Up After Your Workouts
Carbohydrates are a very important macronutrient, especially in pre- and post-workout situations, Ryan says. In fact, a nutrient-timing position stance published in the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that the consumption of carbohydrates along with protein within 30 minutes of finishing a workout have been shown to increase “glycogen re-synthesis." In other words, it helps the body recover from the bout of exercise.
“I take in roughly 200 calories of simple sugar during the workout so I have maximal energy to pour into my workouts, and roughly 300 calories coming from simple sugar along with a whey protein shake post-workout,” he says.
5. Drink Your Calories if Necessary
Sometimes eating enough solid food or calories — especially when it’s quality food — can be difficult for Ryan.
“I would recommend drinking a fair amount of your calories if you need to,” he says.
His favorite way to do that is to add maltodextrin (a flavorless white powder complex carb that you can purchase online) to his protein shakes, along with liquid coconut oil.
Disclaimer: The protocol above is how Ryan made muscular gains himself. Always consult with your physician, a registered nutritionist, or a dietitian when making dietary changes.