For many years we have been under the impression that more protein is better for muscle gain. Where this doesn’t necessarily hold true, it has led to many people increasing their daily protein intake way past the norm.
One way of really increasing protein and calorific intake is to consume a bolus amount prior to sleep – usually in the form of casein. The main idea here is to increase muscle protein synthesis rates and reduce the potential of muscle degradation during the period of sleep, providing a positive net balance. As a result this is said to increase recovery and the overall adaptation to exercise over time.
This has been a common practice for many years and led to the ‘whey after training / casein before bed’ strategy of recovery – promoted by many top athletes and bodybuilders. As with all traditional sports nutrition strategies though we have to ask ourselves whether it is really worth all the hype, or whether it is in fact just another example of ‘Bro Science’ being at the forefront of the sports nutrition industry.
A fairly recent study by Luc van Loon’s group at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands put this idea to practice and tested out whether pre-bed protein increased protein synthesis compared to a placebo. Interestingly, they found that muscle protein synthesis was indeed 22 percent higher overnight following a pre-bed protein boost. This supporting the traditional idea of our guts being ‘awake’ during this period of sleep.
A few years later and the same group developed this original research and published a new study in the Journal of Nutrition. Here they tested whether pre-bed protein enhanced strength gains after a 12-week training programme, again compared to a placebo. 44 subjects lifted weights three times a week, and were given either a placebo drink or a high protein drink before bed. The high protein drink contained a combination of casein and casein hydrolysate (PeptoPro®) and provided roughly 28 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrates. Remarkably, the study found that although both groups increased strength, the protein group had greater improvements in muscle strength, muscle size and muscle fibre size compared to the placebo.
Of course there are limitations such as whether smaller amounts of protein are as effective, or whether the same holds true for solid vs liquids, but the basis of the research is there to show a positive effect of pre-bed protein on muscle mass.
What Type of Protein?
There are many different types of protein on the market (from pea to egg) but the most effective source for pre-bed protein is thought to be casein. One reason is that, like whey, it is derived from milk and has a comprehensive amino acid profile and particularly high in the amino acid, glutamine. Whilst it doesn’t provide as much leucine as whey it still contains an effective amount to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The other reason is that it is slow digesting by nature and therefore has a more sustained release into the muscle. This making it perfect for maintaining a positive protein balance through the overnight fast.
It’s become a given that consuming protein after exercise increases post exercise muscle protein synthesis rates, thereby facilitating the skeletal muscle adaptive response to exercise training. One thing to note is that the post-exercise increase in muscle protein synthesis rate is not maintained during subsequent overnight sleep though and this period is often argued to be a ‘wasted’ period of recovery.
Recent work clearly illustrates that protein intake before bed can improve muscle recovery and increase muscle strength and size compared to a placebo effect. Consequently, dietary protein ingestion prior to sleep may represent an effective dietary strategy to inhibit muscle protein breakdown, stimulate muscle protein synthesis and facilitate the skeletal muscle adaptive response to exercise training. If you want to make those marginal differences to maximise recovery and increase muscle gains then try consuming 20-30g of protein prior to bed in the form of slow digesting proteins – a casein-based shake would do the trick or even a large glass of milk.
About the Author
Steve has a Masters degree in Sports Physiology and works within the BULK POWDERS™ product team. His role includes all aspects of new product development, from recipe concept and formulation, to website content and legislations.