Protein Shakes After Cardio: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?

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As both a supplement store manager and personal trainer, I am often asked whether protein shakes are beneficial following a cardio session or if they’re better reserved for strength workouts.

So, should you drink protein shakes after cardio? Yes, you should drink a protein shake after cardio, especially after intense cardio sessions (at >75% of your maximum heart rate for at least 10 minutes). Protein shakes digest quickly, allowing the nutrients (amino acids) to be absorbed right away to help with recovery and muscle building after cardio sessions. 

Failing to properly fuel your body after a cardio session can result in decreases in performance, increased lethargy and muscle soreness, and a potential loss in your hard-earned muscle mass. 

In this article, I’ll dive deeper into: 

  • The reasons why you should drink a protein shake after cardio
  • The potential drawbacks of drinking protein shakes after cardio
  • How long after cardio you should drink your protein shake
  • If the type of protein matters
  • What your post-cardio protein shake should include (with a recipe example)

5 Reasons Why You Should Drink A Protein Shake After Cardio 

5 reasons why you should drink a protein shake after cardio

1. Enhanced Muscle Recovery

Consuming protein after exercise has been shown to improve muscle recovery in both well-trained and novice athletes, so having a protein shake after a cardio session is recommended to facilitate recovery.

When you exercise, you create micro-tears in your muscle tissue. More intense cardio sessions (higher intensity or longer duration) will create more microtears because your muscles will have to work harder to keep up the pace. 

To repair the microtears that occur during a cardio session and help your muscles build back bigger and stronger, you need to consume an adequate amount of protein after your workout and throughout the day.

Research suggests that a protein intake of 0.4g/kg of bodyweight is recommended post-workout to facilitate muscle recovery. Additionally, a daily protein intake of 1.6g/kg of bodyweight has been shown to improve recovery and increase muscle mass

For example, if you weigh 75kg then you should aim for 30 grams of protein after your workout (which is equivalent to roughly one protein shake) and 120 grams of protein per day after optimal muscle recovery.

2. Increased Performance

If you are training to improve your athletic performance, having a protein shake post-workout can play a vital role in your overall performance outcomes by helping your muscles recover more quickly so you can continue to train hard during subsequent workouts.

This study involving a group of cyclists demonstrated that those who supplemented with carbs and protein post-workout recovered faster and had better exercise performance in subsequent exercise than those who only supplemented with carbohydrates. 

Therefore, having a protein shake (paired with carbs) following a cardio session can increase your ability to recover, which can positively impact your performance by allowing you to train at higher intensities more often.

Should you take whey protein?  If so, when and how much?

3. Muscle Preservation In A Calorie Deficit

If you are doing cardio and are in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight), there is a higher potential for you to lose both fat and muscle mass. Depending on your diet, up to 25% of the weight you lose could come from muscle mass.

Losing muscle mass would negatively affect your performance and your ability to lose weight (the less muscle you have, the fewer calories you burn per day), so it’s best to minimize muscle loss as much as possible.

To decrease the risk of muscle loss while dieting, you should ensure that you consume an adequate amount of protein per day (1.6g/kg).

Key Takeaway: Having a protein shake after your cardio session can help increase your protein intake to meet your daily protein requirements and encourage muscle retention while dieting.

4. Satiety In A Calorie Deficit

If you are incorporating cardio to lose weight, then having a protein shake post-workout can enhance feelings of satiety and fullness while also satisfying any sweet tooth cravings, which can help you stay in your calorie deficit. 

Staying satisfied and full while dieting is important because it increases your adherence to the diet. If you were hungry and unsatisfied, you would likely have a harder time sticking to your stick and seeing results.

So, having a protein shake ready to curb your hunger after your session can be beneficial.

5. Convenience

While it is possible to get all your daily dietary requirements from whole foods, the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that for athletes doing high volumes of training (cardio and/or strength), supplementation [with protein shakes] is a practical way to ensure both adequate quality and quantity of protein

Protein shakes are convenient and portable, providing a high-quality option when your schedule might not allow you to prepare a whole-food meal. 

Additionally, some people find that they cannot stomach solid foods after an intense training session, so reaching for a protein shake could be a more practical solution to ensure you’re refueling properly after a cardio session.

Are There Any Drawbacks of Drinking A Protein Shake After Cardio? 

The potential drawbacks of drinking a protein shake after cardio are:

Nausea or Upset Stomach

If you are drinking a protein shake after intense cardio that is higher in calories,  it’s possible that the protein shake could cause nausea or an upset stomach

The digestive discomfort could be attributed to a higher amount of calories (ranging from 300 to 600) being consumed too quickly, too much liquid, or simply a sensitivity to the protein powder itself.

Try sipping your protein shake more slowly following your cardio session to see if your nausea improves. If it doesn’t, then it may be that your protein powder isn’t agreeing with you.

Cost Investment

The cost of protein powder may turn some people off of protein shakes because a high-quality whey isolate can run you between $1.30 and $2.00 per 25 gram serving.

If you pair this cost with a high-quality carbohydrate supplement like EFX Karbolyn ($1.30-$1.50 per 50g serving), you could be looking at $5 per post-workout shake.

Let’s say you train cardio 4 times per week. You would be spending up to $20 per week, totaling more than $1000 over a year for post-workout nutrition alone.

That said, if the only way you’ll consume enough protein and carbs after a cardio session to facilitate recovery, increased performance, and muscle mass retention is by using supplements, then it might be worth it.

How Long After Cardio Should You Drink A Protein Shake? 

You want to optimize recovery, so does that mean running to the changeroom and slamming your protein shake as quickly as possible? 

No.

Recent research has indicated that what matters most is the total amount of protein consumed over the course of the day (ideally 0.4 g/kg of bodyweight four times per day, to achieve at least 1.6g/kg bodyweight per day) and not how close to your workout you consume it. 

The theory of a 60-minute “anabolic window” within which protein needed to be consumed for optimal recovery has been debunked.

Furthermore, the body isn’t always great at multitasking. During exercise, your body is focused on delivering oxygen and blood to the muscles and is not focused on digestion. 

By waiting for at least 20-30 minutes after your workout, you are less likely to experience negative side effects, like nausea, while still reaping the full benefits of the protein shake.

Does The Type of Protein Matter For Your Post-Cardio Shake? 

For optimal recovery following a cardio session, choose a whey isolate or whey hydrolysate, like Transparent Labs Grass-fed Whey Isolate. These types of protein will digest the fastest, providing amino acids at a faster rate and encouraging faster recovery. 

Because these two types of protein have also had almost all of the lactose removed, they tend to digest more easily, causing fewer digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea.

If you follow a vegan or plant-based diet and prefer to stay away from whey, Vega Sport offers a plant-based option with added branched-chain amino acids for extra recovery.

Although certain types of protein may be better for digestion, what’s most important is that you consume an adequate amount of protein following your workout, whether from a particular type of protein powder or whole foods.

What Should Your Post-Cardio Protein Shake Include? 

After cardio, especially a high-intensity cardio session, you should consume a protein shake with both protein and carbohydrates to repair muscle damage and muscles and replenish your energy stores.

Your post-cardio protein shake should include 0.4g of protein per kilogram of your bodyweight. Additionally, the optimal protein:carb ratio for a post-workout shake is 1:3-4.

For someone weighing 75kg, this works out to 25g of protein and 75-100g of carbohydrates in a protein shake.

This can be achieved by mixing your protein powder with a powdered carbohydrate supplement like EFX Karbolyn for convenience or by mixing your protein into a fruit smoothie.

Using fruit instead of powdered sugar is still effective for recovery, with this 2018 study indicating that fructose (fruit sugar) can improve recovery and performance in both runners and cyclists. 

Key Takeaway: A post-cardio shake containing protein and carbs is the most beneficial, especially when consumed in a 1:3 or 4 ratio.

Protein Shake After Cardio: Recipe Example 

My favorite recipe for a protein and carb-based post-cardio shake is: 

  • 1 scoop protein (offering between 20-30 grams of protein)
  • 1 cup Spinach 
  • 1 banana 
  • 1 cup berries 
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 cup vitamin D fortified milk or milk substitute

This protein shake has 20-30g of protein, 60g of carbs, as well iron, calcium, and Vitamin D to aid in recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

Protein Shake or Real Food After Cardio: Which Is Better? 

If you are training for performance, a protein and carbohydrate drink in a 1:3-4 ratio post-workout will accelerate recovery and encourage muscle growth. If you are training for fat loss, a protein-rich meal will provide better feelings of satiety, helping you control overall calorie intake, and support fat loss. 

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About The Author

Jennifer Vibert
Jennifer Vibert

Jennifer Vibert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Nutrition Coach, and supplement store manager. She has a Bachelor of Kinesiology with a major in Fitness and Lifestyle and a minor in Psychology from the University of Regina. She is a Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, with a passion for helping clients learn the fundamentals of nutrition and supplementation in order to build healthy, sustainable habits.