Background: Protein supplements are frequently consumed by athletes and recreationally-active individuals, although the decision to purchase and consume protein supplements is often based on marketing claims rather than evidence-based research.
Objective: To provide a systematic and comprehensive analysis of literature examining the hypothesis that protein supplements enhance recovery of muscle function and physical performance by attenuating muscle damage and soreness following a previous bout of exercise.
Data sources: English language articles were searched with PubMed and Google Scholar using protein and supplements together with performance, exercise, competition and muscle, alone or in combination as keywords.
Study selection: Inclusion criteria required studies to recruit healthy adults less than 50 years of age and to evaluate the effects of protein supplements alone or in combination with carbohydrate on performance metrics including time-to-exhaustion, time-trial or isometric or isokinetic muscle strength and markers of muscle damage and soreness. Twenty-seven articles were identified of which 18 dealt exclusively with ingestion of protein supplements to reduce muscle damage and soreness and improve recovery of muscle function following exercise, whereas the remaining 9 articles assessed muscle damage as well as performance metrics during single or repeat bouts of exercise.
Study appraisal and synthesis methods: Papers were evaluated based on experimental design and examined for confounders that explain discrepancies between studies such as dietary control, training state of participants, sample size, direct or surrogate measures of muscle damage, and sensitivity of the performance metric.
Results: High quality and consistent data demonstrated there is no apparent relationship between recovery of muscle function and ratings of muscle soreness and surrogate markers of muscle damage when protein supplements are consumed prior to, during or after a bout of endurance or resistance exercise. There also appears to be insufficient experimental data demonstrating ingestion of a protein supplement following a bout of exercise attenuates muscle soreness and/or lowers markers of muscle damage. However, beneficial effects such as reduced muscle soreness and markers of muscle damage become more evident when supplemental protein is consumed after daily training sessions. Furthermore, the data suggest potential ergogenic effects associated with protein supplementation are greatest if participants are in negative nitrogen and/or energy balance.
Limitations: Small sample numbers and lack of dietary control limited the effectiveness of several investigations. In addition, studies did not measure the effects of protein supplementation on direct indices of muscle damage such as myofibrillar disruption and various measures of protein signaling indicative of a change in rates of protein synthesis and degradation. As a result, the interpretation of the data was often limited.
Conclusions: Overwhelmingly, studies have consistently demonstrated the acute benefits of protein supplementation on post-exercise muscle anabolism, which, in theory, may facilitate the recovery of muscle function and performance. However, to date, when protein supplements are provided, acute changes in post-exercise protein synthesis and anabolic intracellular signaling have not resulted in measureable reductions in muscle damage and enhanced recovery of muscle function. Limitations in study designs together with the large variability in surrogate markers of muscle damage reduced the strength of the evidence-base.