Protein is used by the body to rebuild damaged muscle tissue after an intense (or even moderate) workout. Without protein, you would never get stronger, bigger or faster. Aside from a balanced diet, there are various protein supplements you can use to ensure you're getting an adequate amount to help aid the recovery process.
What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient and much like a carbohydrate or fat molecule, can provide the body with energy. However, unlike carbs and fats, the main purpose of protein is to build new tissue and rebuild damaged ones rather than to provide energy. Proteins (more specifically amino acids) are the main building block of all tissue in the human body.
When you do any sort of exercise, whether it's running, swimming or lift weights, you create tiny tears in your muscle tissue. Think of protein as the construction material needed to fix a broken wall. The rebuilding and recovery process is what makes you stronger, bigger and faster.
Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins
Protein is made up of amino acids of which there are two types: non essential and essential. If an amino acid is non essential, the body can make it on its own. If an amino acid is essential, the body can not make it and therefore needs to be consumed through food or supplements.
If a protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is a complete protein. If a protein lacks one or more of the essential amino acids, it is an incomplete protein.
When you eat a protein, the body digests it and splits it up into the amino acids that the protein is made from. For the body to be able to rebuild damaged tissue, it needs all of the essential amino acids. Some of the best sources of complete proteins, especially after a workout, come from supplements.
Protein Supplements, the Good and Bad
Though you can't survive purely off of protein supplements, they can give you a needed boost of protein, especially following a workout. One of the biggest benefits of using a supplement after a workout is that it can give you a fairly good amount of protein in a small serving. One scoop of powder typically has 25-30 grams of protein. To get that much protein from food you would have to eat an entire can of tuna (which isn't all that appetizing).
The two most popular types of protein supplements are whey and casein. Both are derived from dairy products so if you're lactose intolerant you should either try taking them in small amounts or look at other supplements, mainly soy and egg protein powders.
The main difference between whey and casein protein is the time it takes for these two proteins to be metabolized. Whey is known as a "fast acting protein" because it can be utilized by the body very quickly. Remember that strength comes from rest and recovery. When you workout, you damage your muscle tissue which can only be repaired during rest. A key nutrient involved in recovery is protein. The quicker you can get protein into your system, the quicker the recovery process will start. Since whey is taken up very quickly by the body, it makes an excellent post workout supplement.
Casein protein is known as a "slow acting protein" because it can't be utilized by the body very quickly. Casein is also a good protein to use immediately after a workout because the recovery process doesn't stop a few hours after you finish working out, it continues for 24-48 hours. To aid this recovery process, you need a steady supply of protein long after your body has used up any fast acting protein supplement.
Whey and casein complement each other very well if used together in a post workout protein shake. The whey will help start the recovery process while the casein will keep it going.
The Bottom Line
While protein supplements do a good job in aiding your post workout recovery, they should not be used as meal replacements on a regular basis. Vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients are sometimes only found in foods which is why it's crucial that protein supplements are used only in conjunction with a well balanced diet. In Part 2 of Protein Supplements, we'll discuss when to use protein shakes, ingredients of a shake and proper nutrition.