Jan 2016 09

Protein & Sport

By: John Hubbard

What did the body builder say when the health food shop ran out of protein powder?

"No Whey?!"

Ok, you're right, maybe I shouldn't do jokes.


Do athletes need protein?

Look online, in any gym or in any health food shop and you'll see a whole industry for protein bars, powders and shakes. Protein is big business, but does is actually do any good?

Weight lifters and body builders have used protein shakes for donkey's years to help them build body mass. Within the last decade or so, easy-to-take protein bars have become increasingly popular with triathletes and marathon runners.

Interestingly, though, academics have only recently caught up with what's happening on the ground.

The "bible" of sports nutrition, Burke & Deakin's book Sports Nutrition has led the way in research-based evidence to support what athletes have been doing all along.


How much protein do I need?

If you're not training for strength or an endurance athlete then your recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g x your body weight in Kg.

So a person who weighs 88Kg who just does a bit of exercise needs 88kg x 0.8g = 70g of protein a day.

So for me, weighting in at  76Kg that's an RDA of 61g of protein. Here's how I get that:

  • 2 slices of toast for breakfast, 5g

  • Beans on toast for lunch, 15g

  • 1 banana for mid-afternoon snack, 1g

  • Chicken breast for dinner, 39g; plus broccoli (1g) and mashed potato (4g)

  • 2 slices of toast for late evening snack, 5g

So without thinking about it, I'm taking in around 70g of protein, which is around 10% more than my RDA

Mind you, that said, as you can see, a lot depends on what I have for dinner. If it'd been spaghetti bolognese instead of a chicken breast then my dinner would only have contributed 22g of protein to my RDA instead of 46g which would mean I wouldn't be taking in enough protein on that day.


Why do I need protein?

Protein is necessary as it's used by the body to repair tissue.

Protein is used to repair organs as well as muscle,  so it's pretty important.

As you get older, protein is actually more important. As we age, we lose muscle mass (see this previous blog), and protein become increasingly important in maintaining lean muscle.

But too much protein in the body can cause problems, the biggest of which is the risk of overloading the kidneys & causing kidney damage. So it's important to try to get roughly the right balance in what you ingest.


Why do athletes need more protein?

Strength Training

For those who are into their strength training - be it weight lifting or body building - the answer is straightforward.

Protein helps speed up the process of anabolism which is the metabolic process of building up of body cells, especially muscle mass, from nutrients in the bloodstream.

Research by Lemon in 2001 at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, finally caught up with what every resistance training athlete knows - that eating or drinking protein in some form immediately before, during and immediately after high-intensity resistance workouts increased the rate of muscle bulk growth.

For bodybuilders and weight lifters who are just starting out or looking to increase muscle bulk dramatically, Burke & Deakin (the "Bible" of sports nutrition, remember) recommend ingesting twice the RDA - that's 1.6g of protein for each Kg of body weight.

For resistance athletes who've reach a steady state, the recommendation comes down a bit to 1.2kg of protein for each Kg of body weight.

These figures assume, though, a really high-intensity resistance workout (pretty much working the muscles to complete failure) 3 to 4 times a week.


Endurance Training

Endurance athletes such as triathletes and marathon runners need protein mainly to keep up the repair and maintenance of lean muscle mass.

If you're training at the highest levels for these sports, then Burke & Deakin recommend 1.6g of protein for each Kg of body weight (which is a HUGE amount)

If you're a "recreational" endurance athlete, doing training for one or two marathons or triathlons a year, then the recommendation is 1.2kg of protein for each Kg of body weight.

Research (again, from Lemon in Canada) shows that unlike resistance athletes, the best time for endurance athletes to ingest protein is solely after training.


How to increase your protein consumption

If you're training and want to increase your protein consumption you can either go down the route of protein shakes or more regular food stuffs.

A single egg contains 13g of protein. So a boiled or scrambled egg or two is the easiest way to bump up your protein intake quite quickly.

As we've seen, an average sized chicken breast contains 39g of protein, so adding an extra one of those to your plate will increase your protein intake dramatically.

Similarly, a can of tuna contains 30g of protein. A salmon fillet 23g of protein, a steak around 27g.

There's a "window of opportunity" when the protein you ingest is more readily available to your muscles. The optimal time to consume protein to maximise its effect on muscle growth & repair is within 30 mins of exercise.

So if you're into bodybuilding, then you want to be consuming your protein within the window that is 30 mins before, to 30 mins after exercise. In which case, using protein shakes is a great way to get the protein into your system so that it can be metabolised before, during and after.

If you're an endurance athlete then you'll want to consume your protein after the event, in which case, if possible,  it's best to do so with more natural food-based sources of protein.

That last sentence might sound as if it's come a bit out of the blue... I'm not knocking protein bars or shakes in any way - they're really useful sources of protein when you need them (and, as I've said, ideal if you need protein during exercise).

The thing is that if you're training hard then you also need to be consuming enough carbs and fat to give you the stores of energy that you need to perform in your sport. The foods that you need for those will also contain a decent amount of protein.

What you don't want to do is overload your kidneys by, say, doubling the amount of protein that your body can metabolise. So if you can "kill 2 birds with one stone" and get your protein requirements at the same time as your fat & carb needs, then you're on to a winner.