Protein in Sports Performance
Protein is the only macronutrient with a recommended intake – it is essential for growth, repair and maintenance. And when it comes to sport nutrition and optimising your workout – whether it be strength training or training for an endurance event such as a 10km run – protein will undoubtedly be an important focus.
I’m a student of dietetics, but I also work at my university gym. So I get asked a lot about nutrition to support training – protein in particular. From my own reading and experience, I know it’s really important, but you don’t have to chug protein shakes in order to make “gains”. What is clear is that you can get all the protein you need from food – it’s far more enjoyable that way anyway. Protein supplements are simply there for ease and convenience but offer no advantage over our diet.
I’ve heard lots about people are getting it wrong: having too little in general, having incomplete sources or having it in unnecessary amounts. This blog is aimed at those trying to support their training with this important macronutrient, but I hope everybody can find something useful here.
How much do we need?
In essence you need more than the general population who are not exercising on a regular basis. For the healthy population the recommendation is 0.75 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day – that’s around 45g for an average woman and 55g for an average man. Most Britons easily fulfil their daily protein target from the food they normally consume.
How much extra you need depends on what type exercise you are doing, the duration of your exercise, its intensity, all in association with your ultimate goal. It will be different if you are training to run a marathon, compete in a triathlon or working out in the gym to improve those biceps and abs.
If you are running distances you will need 1.2-1.4 grams/kg/body weight. For example, if you are 70kgs in weight you need: 84-98grams of protein.
If you are regular strength or gym power based activities, you require more in the region of 1.6- 1.8grams/kg body weight or 112 – 126 grams protein if you weigh 70kg. If you are training regularly it is well worth assessing how much protein you are consuming by inputting your food intake into a free app for several days, such as MyFitnessPal or My Diet Coach. These will allow you to assess your protein, in addition to other macronutrient intake.
It is another Myth that eating excess protein can damage your kidney or liver or for that matter, make you fat. That said, eating more protein than you require most certainly does not give you additional performance benefits, however much you may like to think it may. Any excess will be used for fuel and the rest excreted as urea.
Sources of protein
Protein is important in repairing damaged cells which occur when we exercise and importantly when building new muscles. The ideal protein is one that contains all essential amino acids, including 2 grams of leucine per serving.
For example: 600mls of milk or flavoured milk, 27 grams of whey powder or 3 eggs.
Leucine acts as a trigger for protein synthesis by activating a compound called mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) which is the ‘switch’ for manufacturing protein.
Can vegans take on adequate protein to support their training? Yes they can. Good sources include kidney beans, soya beans and peas. There are more and more vegan supplements available – pea protein supplements, for example – and this market is to likely continue to grow.
There are complete vegan sources, with quinoa, buckwheat, hemp and chia being examples. The most complete source comes from eggs, however. It is far easier for a meat-eater or a vegetarian to access complete protein sources compared to a vegan. Animal sources are far more likely to be complete sources of amino acids (see table below). In this case, combining proteins (or protein complementation) is necessary to ensure you have a complete mix.
The America College of Sports Medicine advise vegetarian athletes to eat around 10% more protein than non-vegetarians because plant proteins are less well digested than animal proteins.
Baked beans on wholemeal toast
Vegetarian pasta bolognese
Rice, peas and beans
Rice and tofu
Quinoa salad with beans
Peanut butter sandwich
Hummus and pitta
Noodles with tofu
Yoghurt and almonds
Lentil dahl with naan bread
Cereal (whole grain) with milk
*incomplete protein sources that can be combined
How much and timing
I once witnessed a close friend of mine who was – at the time – a competitive powerlifter eat a whole chicken in one sitting. Don’t do this, please, you really don’t need it.
What you do need to cover your increased requirements, is 20 grams of protein at each meal making sure the meal is also well balanced. That is don’t get too hung up on protein.
20 grams of protein is easily achieved at mealtimes, starting with a protein rich breakfast such as eggs (yes again, or porridge made with milk, flaxseeds and chopped nuts or chia seeds or probiotic yoghurt with added seeds.
Protein keeps you feeling less hungry for longer as protein releases the gut hormone glucagon which tells your hypothalamus that you are full. Protein is a great way of starting your day and, of course, it helps if you are trying to lose weight.
People participating in longer gym sessions lasting up to 2 hours, may need to consume protein (& carbs in roughly equal proportion) beforehand as pre-exercise protein releases amino acids during exercise which get working immediately on that much needed muscle repair.
Just to add, if you are participating in an endurance event lasting many hours, there is no advantage in studies examined, if you have a carbs only drink during the race, versus a protein/carb drink.
For example 300mls milk or a pre workout sports drink.
Having 15 -25 grams of protein in the 2 hour ‘window of opportunity’ immediately following exercise is optimal for muscle repair and promotion of an anabolic hormonal environment. That said, it is only really necessary if you are planning to train or compete again within 24 hours.
You need the higher end (25grams) after strength and power training and nearer the lower end (15grams) after endurance activity.
Milk is an optimal food for achieving this, providing both protein and carbs which boosts your glycogen storage. Carbs and protein stimulate insulin release and prompt the muscles to take up glucose and amino acids.
Recovery does not stop after 2 hours but continues for several hours, so it is important to take regular protein rich foods and drinks throughout the day.
If possible, finish your day with a milk based drink as casein (80% milk protein) is a ‘slow acting’ protein. Studies have shown it may be beneficial if taken at night for promoting recovery and muscle growth.
The following foods contain 20 grams of protein which can easily be incorporated into your favourite recipe.
600mls of milk/milkshake
85 grams of cheese
250mls plain yoghurt + 50g almonds
85g meat or poultry
27 g whey protein (330-500mls) or 80g protein bar
It is really important to have a healthy diet and lifestyle: this will aid metabolism and bioavailability (and your body’s capacity to effectively utilise protein) but, more importantly, support your general health, immunity and wellbeing. This balance will not occur overnight, it takes weeks and months to achieve.
If you’re trying to build muscle, it’s important not to overly focus on protein. Equally important is your energy intake, which needs to be sufficient. Without sufficient energy intake, fatigue will set in early on and protein will be prioritised to satisfy energy requirements.
Please join us shortly on our YouTube channel to see me asking Simon Inman Personal Trainer at The Dorchester, some sport nutrition questions about what he advises his clients to do in terms of fuelling up.
This blog was written by student dietitian Ed Turner, with scientific Sports Nutrition reviewed by Registered Dietitian Sian Shepherd.
Reference used for above blog compilation:
‘Food for Fitness’, 4th Edition Anita Bean. 2014.
The book also includes some great recipes which indicate the protein macronutrient, fibre, sugar and salt content of each.