Protein for athletes
Protein is about the one thing in nutrition that most people agree on, to some extent at-least. For years, athletes have been aware of the importance of protein for performance.
From the Hindu Wrestlers drinking goats milk by the gallon to Rocky chugging down raw eggs. While gyms all over the world are full of bros supping whey from a shaker cup pre-inter and post workout.
But, how much protein do you really need?
Like all things in nutrition; it depends.
So, before jumping in at 3-4 shakes a day how about determining what it is that you're trying to achieve?
When you look at the official guidelines for protein consumption the minimum government recommendation is 0.8g per kg of body weight for sedentary folk (1) but this might be too low even for the most sedentary individual (2).
You, however are not sedentary, you train, you play sport and you have a desire to fuel your body for performance because you are an athlete and you have an increased need for protein.
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The ACSM recommend 1.2-2 g/kg BW for strength and endurance athletes, possibly more for periods of extreme training, caloric restriction or injury (3).
The ISSN recommend 1.0-1.5 g/kg BW for moderately active individuals and 1.5-2.0 g/kg BW for intense high volume training (1,4).
Meanwhile the IOS recommend 1.3-1.8 g/kg BW for athletes but 1.6-1.7 g/kg BW for strength training and as much as 2.7 g/kg BW when in a hypocaloric diet phase (1).
The higher amount helps to maintain lean mass while optimizing fat loss for body composition.
For years the ideal intake for building muscle has been considered to be around 1g per lb of bodyweight or 2.2 g/kg BW.
For a very advanced body builder with lots of lean mass looking to get even leaner they often take this up to as much as 3.3 g/kg BW. Although Eric helms and Alan Aragon came up with a range of 2.3-3.1 g/kg LBM(5) for natural bodybuilders. So, it’s safe to say that the leaner and more muscular you are the more rationale there is for upping your protein to around the 3 g/kg range. That's a LOT of protein!
But where does all this information leave you?
We go back to the beginning of this article, context. What are you goals? What are your lifestyle priorities? What is your level of experience?
For the average man or lady on the street looking to get a little more toned the bottom end of those recommendations will be a good starting point.
But, seeing as there is so much variability in the guidelines this means that we have to experiment to find what is optimal for each individual.
But, it's safe to say that anything above 2 g/kg BW is going to feel like a LOT of protein to most recreational athletes.
I’ve worked with cyclists, runners, footballers, swimmers, triathletes, tennis players even rugby players and many don’t consume nearly enough protein.
To be fair, most rugby players get it, they require more muscle mass and therefore have never been afraid of the gains it’s the less strength based sportsmen and women who tend to come up short.
To shake or not to shake
So, should you be using a protein supplement or not?
We need to come back to that word context again. There is no need for protein supplementation, although a lot of people regard whey protein as a food and not a supplement, I still feel it’s important to get the majority of your protein from actual chewable food.
This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. I am currently on 2 g/kg which, for me is 154g of protein a day. Easily achievable simply by eating three square meals a day, I just ensure that I have a good portion of protein dense food at each meal.
In my experience most people consume about 0.6-0.8 g/kg which is very low and this includes a lot of the sports people I have worked with, especially endurance athletes.
But, if you look at any of the endurance based magazines like Runners World or Cycling Weekly when they run articles on sports nutrition it’s all about granola, flapjacks, pasta. Fat and protein barely get a look-in.
However, when the typical diets for the riders in the Tour de France were analysed (6) it was seen that the average intake was 3 g/kg which is in-line with bodybuilding diets.
The theory for this being that during the race their effort levels are greatly increased and so too are their protein (and calorie) needs. Clearly higher protein doesn’t inhibit adaptations to endurance performance.
Muscle protein synthesis
MPS is the process where ingestion of protein, in particular the amino acid leucine stimulates muscle growth. Maximising MPS is important for keeping the metabolism high and preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue especially during hypo-energetic periods of activity or dieting.
3g, or 0.05 g/kg BW of leucine per serving is recommended for this (7). Foods that are rich in leucine and provide the recommended amount per typical serving include:
- Chicken and turkey
- Lean beef
- Whey protein
(note: whey protein isn’t suitable for vegans or people with lactose intolerance but pea protein is a good leucine rich alternative).
Timing of protein may or may not be an issue but there is an argument that evening out your protein throughout the day better stimulates MPS. With a minimum of 25g servings about 5 times a day being advised by McNaughton and Witard (8). That sounds a lot but, really that’s 3 meals plus a shake post workout and a snack pre-bed. Many of you probably do that already.
This even becomes an important consideration for older athletes (and gen pop for that matter) who may experience age related degenerative bone disease (osteoporosis). A 20-25g serving of leucine rich protein at each meal should help to fortify bone density for people where this is a concern (9).
So, if body composition or muscle recovery are important factors in your training then there is clearly rationale to back up the use of whey protein supplementation. It’s a lot easier to pack a shake in your kit bag for later consumption than it is a chicken teriyaki.
Likewise, if you are at the upper end of protein consumption then a shake or two might help you to hit those targets, especially if you are a large athlete.
So, let’s put this all together. The lower end of the scale is really for the general public who are only mildly active.
- Athletes have an elevated need for protein at between 1.5-2.2 g/kg BW
- Higher levels still may be necessary to support lean mass retention during hypo-energetic periods 2.3 -2.7 g/kg seems a good range and up to 3.1 g/kg for very muscular individuals aiming for very low body fat
- If you want to keep it simple let’s just say 2-3 g/kg BW
- Aim to get most of your protein from whole food sources like beef, chicken, eggs and fish
- Supplementation with a whey shake or similar isn’t necessary but can be convenient
Once you have decided on the correct amount for you and your performance goals that needs to remain stable on a daily basis. Yes, eat the same amount of protein each day and don’t worry too much about timing, if you are eating 3, 4 or 5 meals a day you’re covered.
For endurance athletes, although a range of 1.5-1.8 g/kg BW is generally recommended going higher won’t hurt and might be necessary during high volume events like a grand tour race.
If maximising your nutrition for sporting performance is of interest to you then contact me via my coaching profile here:
- “Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition”. S Afr J Clin Nutr 2013;26(1):6-16
- Pencharz PB, Elango R, Wolfe RR. “Recent developments in understanding protein needs - How much and what kind should we eat?” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 May;41(5):577-80. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0549. Epub 2016 Apr 25
- ACSM Position Stand: Nutrition and Athletic Performance doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
- Kreider et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010, 7:7 http://www.jissn.com/content/7/1/7
- Helms et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:20 http://www.jissn.com/content/11/1/20
- Santalla, A., Earnest, C., Marroyo, J. A. and Lucia, A. (2012) The tour de France:An updated physiologic review. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7 (3). pp. 200209. ISSN 1555-0265
- Norton et al. “optimal protein intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis Examinations of optimal meal protein intake and frequency for athletes” 2009.
- McNaughton & Witard. New insights into protein recommendations for promoting muscle hypertrophy. The sport and exercise scientist issue 41.
- Paddon-Jones and Rasmussen. Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia: Protein, amino acid metabolism and therapy. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2009 January 12(1): 86–90. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e32831cef8b