Slow vs. Fast Absorbing Protein and When to Take Each

MuscleTech Staff
MuscleTech Staff
muscletech ryan hall drinking protein

By Ryan Hall

Even though I was an Olympic athlete working with some of the best in the sporting industry it took me quite some time before learning what foods make up fast and slow absorbing proteins, when to take each, and why it’s important to get it right. My goal here is to shed some light on what I’ve learned and what I recommend to athletes that I now coach.

Let me kick things off by saying that not all proteins are absorbed at the same rate.  This may or may not be surprising to you.  It was a surprise for myself.  While there are many factors that contribute to how fast your ingested protein is absorbed (what other foods you ate with your protein, digestive enzymes available to help with digestion, how well you chew your food, etc) there are certain protein sources that are absorbed more quickly in the body than others. Generally speaking, whey protein is going to be your go-to most quickly absorbed protein source.  I like to consume whey protein when I am looking to give my body the quickest access to protein, which is in the morning when I first am “breaking my fast” from sleeping and before, during, and post workout.  Most of the research I have read still suggests that it takes over an hour for your body to absorb whey protein so take that into account when timing your protein with your post workouts snack. I like to drink 20-30 grams of whey protein 90 minutes before I begin my lifting workout, another 20-30 grams when I begin my workout and another 20-30 grams upon completing my workout.   A lot of protein I know, and I am not suggesting you do the same.  Find what works for you through experimentation and go with that.  With that said, through my own self experimentation this has proven to be the most effective protocol for myself.  The reason I love to surround my workout with protein is because protein is the source that provides the building blocks my body needs to repair, restore and build. It’s imperative that I give my body the building blocks it needs while I am training if I am going to see optimal results.  

Now, if you are a runner I wouldn’t recommend sipping on protein throughout your workout as this could cause stomach distress.  Rather, I’d recommend taking in 20 grams 90 minutes before you run and another 20 grams immediately upon finishing.  Do pay attention to your gut.  It’s really important that your gut is feeling good on your run so if you find you have an upset stomach with whey protein pre-run I would recommend playing with pushing out your protein intake further and further from your run until you find what works for you.  Taking digestive enzymes can also help with protein absorption so you may want to add this into the mix.  

Now that we’ve discussed quick burning protein let’s discuss slow burning protein.  Casein protein powder is my go-to source for slow-burning or better stated, more slowly absorbed protein. I love these shakes as well as they are similar to a thick milkshake if you add ice and get the ratio of water to powder just right.  Slowly absorbed proteins, such as casein, are best taken prior to bed when our body does a bulk of it’s repairing and restoring and doesn’t have access to incoming protein.  I like to take in 50 grams of protein pre-bed, but again, experiment and see what works best for you.  

Aside from quick and slow burning protein sources and timing, I know there is a lot of conflicting research and confusion about how much protein one should take in within a day, how much can be absorbed in one sitting and other topics around protein.  I treat this conflicting data and research much in the same way that I treat conflicting scientific studies in the run training space, by realizing that everyone is an experiment of one and must find what works for them.  Find what works for you through self experimentation and move forward with confidence.  Science can’t argue with results.  Until next time, happy training!