Athletes need top quality protein, but needs can vary and the timing of protein intake is key.
How protein supports activity
Most athletes associate dietary protein with its role in muscle repair and growth, but that’s not the only reason it is so important. Protein is also used to support and enhance structural changes in bones and tendons, as well as to support functions of the immune and nervous systems. It also plays a major role in nutrient transport.
Protein helps with muscle recovery after exercise, too. After strenuous exercise, when muscle stores of carbohydrate (as glycogen) are depleted, protein promotes the resynthesis of glycogen – as long as adequate carbohydrate is available. By helping to put glycogen back into storage, protein helps athletes recover and prepare for their next training session or event.
How much protein do athletes need?
Protein needs vary from athlete to athlete because there are so many factors to consider. The type of activity plays a big part – generally speaking, strength athletes will need a bit more protein than endurance athletes – but age, gender, calorie and carbohydrate intake and duration and intensity of the exercise all factor in, too.
Protein needs can also fluctuate for an individual athlete. Strength athletes who are in their initial stages of training may need more protein than seasoned athletes, because they’re likely to see more pronounced gains early on. And, if the frequency or intensity of exercise increases, then protein intakes might need to be increased somewhat.
Protein recommendations for athletes are often determined based on body weight, and most sources advise a range of 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (or, about 0.6 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight). Endurance athletes may do fine with intakes at the lower end of the range, while strength athletes will usually aim for the higher end. Older athletes are also steered toward the higher intake range because they generally need a bit more protein for muscle repair and growth than younger athletes do.
Athletes who are trying to bulk up and lose fat at the same time may also need a bit more protein. If the athlete is restricting calories and/or carbohydrate intake in an attempt to lose body fat, it increases the chances that some protein will be burned for fuel. Taking in plenty of protein will help ensure that there is enough to support muscle repair and development, even if calories and carbohydrate intake have been cut.
While calculating needs by body weight should provide adequate protein to support activity and goals, some sports nutritionists prefer to make protein recommendations based on the amount of lean body mass (LBM) the athlete has. The reasoning is simple – just knowing body weight does not provide any information as to how much lean body mass (which includes muscle, bone, organs and tissues and fluids) the athlete has. Since protein supports growth and repair of LBM, it stands to reason that the more LBM an individual has, the higher the protein needs might be. When protein needs are calculated this way, it provides a more tailored approach. In this case, an intake of 2 grams per kilogram of LBM (or 1 gram per pound) is appropriate.
What type of protein is best?
Dairy proteins are considered one of the best protein sources for athletes, particularly for those who are looking to build muscle, and there are a couple of reasons for this. Milk contains two major proteins – whey and casein – which are rich sources of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs are important because they can be used directly as fuel by working muscles. And one BCAA in particular, leucine, is a key driver in activating a particular pathway in the muscle that stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
The two proteins in milk are digested at different rates, and this has advantages, too. Whey is a “quick” protein – its amino acids (including valuable leucine) appear in the bloodstream relatively quickly after consumption. Casein, on the other hand, is digested more slowly, so the amino acids appear in the blood more slowly and over a longer period of time.
What this means is that if you consume both proteins, your body can get a slow and steady supply of the all-important BCAAs over a long period of time. Taking whey protein right after a workout allows this quick-acting protein to stimulate muscle repair and growth, while casein might be good between meals or at bedtime, since it can supply amino acids when no food (and, therefore, no amino acids) is coming in, which can help to inhibit muscle breakdown.
Egg protein has not been extensively studied in athletes, but it is a great source of high-quality protein and an excellent source of leucine. Vegan athletes can reliably depend on soy protein, since it provides all the essential amino acids that are needed for protein synthesis. Pea protein is very rich in BCAAs and, while there are limited studies on its use in athletes, it appears to be as effective as animal-based proteins in supporting muscle development.
Why protein timing is so important for athletes
To get the most benefit from protein, it should be supplied steadily over the course of the day – every few hours and especially after strenuous training sessions to support muscle development. Whether resistance or endurance training, protein taken in within one hour after exercise is really important. During that critical ”metabolic window,” the body is highly sensitive to protein availability, so providing a source of protein during that time helps to minimize protein breakdown and stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Within an hour or so of completing a workout or event, athletes are advised to take in plenty of carbohydrates along with about 15 to 25 grams of high-quality protein (preferably dairy) which should supply the recommended 6 to 10 grams of essential amino acids to maximize their recovery.