Olympic Marathoner Jared Ward is no stranger to the importance recovery has on performance. And protein consumption plays a huge part in the recovery process. Jared knows that the information around protein can be overwhelming to athletes who don’t share his love of reading meticulous research studies and academic journals. With his academic knowledge of protein and performance, along with his own personal experiences, Jared shares the “needs to know” about protein to give you a baseline to begin your recovery journey today.
Have you ever asked a dietitian how much protein you should be getting? Have you asked two or more? In the case of the latter, I bet you received different advice. Even top researchers vary in their recommendations, and sometimes drastically. For athletes (and we are going to define athletes in the sense that we are all capable of becoming — e.g. any person pushing the limits of their own body), you might hear recommendations for daily protein intake to be between .5 and 1g of protein for every pound of body weight, and from my experience this is a conservative range. But this is quite a domain! I weigh 150 lbs., so this range would suggest some top researchers might recommend I should consume 75g/day, while others would say 150g/day! (Comment below what has been recommended to you for your daily intake!)
I think it’s safe to say that the science of protein demands needs some refining — likely there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. However, I do believe that anecdotal evidence can shed light on our individual personal needs. Maybe that means protein intake is an art, more than a science. But there is some science I find worth noting, and I share some of that within 3 thoughts — laced with my own personal experience.
The magical dosage
There is largely a consensus that 20g of protein following exercise is sufficient to maximize muscle protein synthesis, or MPS (think muscular repair). There is some evidence that this could be a little higher in a few cases:
1) our older athletes: our bodies get less efficient with protein as we age)
2) following full-body workouts: where a large percentage of our muscle was stressed
3) those of us with a lot of muscle mass.
But really, there has been a lot of research on this and 20g is kinda magical. Additionally, Areta et Al. (2013) provided evidence that 20g is about the right dose size (to maximize MPS) for meals eaten in 3 hr. intervals over the 12 hrs. following exercise.
Some protein is better than none!
The first 10g of protein does a lot more for MPS than the second 10. Research recommends 20g to MAXIMIZE MPS, noting in most cases there seems to be little or no increase in MPS after 20 grams. So think of 20g as a full tank of gas, but if we can get half a tank that can go a long way in keeping us from drying out.
I aim for 10g of protein immediately following hard exercise (my personal favorite protein source is Honey Stinger’s Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate cracker bars), then a meal with 20g within 1.5 hours. Then another 20g every 2-3 hours between sessions (especially following really tough training).
Protein at night.
Sleep is key to recovery, and protein at night can supercharge the process! Thus, consuming protein at night right before bed increases MPS happening through the night. I love going to sleep feeling confident I’m doing everything I can to help my body use the time to best recover.
Worried about health risks of consuming too much protein?
For the most part, it’s converted to energy. From my perspective, a lot of the research claiming side effects of too much protein intake have high correlations to animal protein sources (and particularly red meat). If you are concerned that you are at increased risk of these side effects (but that you require the protein to fuel you) consider shifting some of your intake to plant-based sources. I seem to react to dairy, and even whey isolates. I’ve been using pea protein supplements for years now and feel I’m getting great results.
When Honey Stinger discussed with me adding protein to my favorite product (the Cracker Bar), I was a HUGE advocate for adding a plant-based protein. And the new protein packed Cracker Bars have 10g! My perfect post-workout dose.
Fun side effect of the Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Cracker Bar flavor: no dairy = better nutrient absorption for many of us.