Protein is an important nutrient for athletes. Like all nutrients, when and how you consume protein can make a big difference in how your body utilizes it. We asked Hive dietician Kelly Jones how to maximize the benefits of protein in the body.
Protein is best suited as a structural and metabolic nutrient in the body. Unlike carbohydrates, protein is not well-suited to being an immediate source of energy. And while the majority of Americans are eating enough total daily protein to support their needs, active or not, adjusting timing of intake may be helpful to maximize protein use in the body to optimize performance. In this article you’ll gain a better understanding of protein’s functions, high quality sources, optimal timing, and ways to prompt intake more convenient.**
Functions of Protein
Protein is made up of amino acids, commonly referred to as “building blocks,” that form together in a variety of patterns to build structures and metabolic compounds in the body. Amino acids make protein unique compared to carbohydrates and fat because they contain Nitrogen, which is what gives it a structural value. Nine of the amino acids are considered to be essential, meaning they must be consumed in the diet because the body cannot make them, even if you eat enough total grams of protein. It is especially important for athletes to choose foods that provide adequate amounts of these essential amino acids.
While muscles are protein structures in the body that amino acids must maintain, other structures that take priority include organs and bones. Adequate protein is also needed for healthy connective tissues, hair, and nails. Metabolically, amino acids form into hormones and enzymes that regulate metabolic processes and support mental health. They also build proteins that support the immune system, transport other nutrients, and regulate fluid and pH balance.
Because of all of these critical functions, the body prefers to use carbohydrate and fats as energy sources, leaving the energy protein provides a backup option for critical times, just so the human body can still function when it isn’t getting what it needs. Therefore, by not eating enough energy in the form of carbohydrates and fat (especially carbohydrate for athletes and tactical professionals), protein may be utilized for energy rather than for muscle repair and growth. This is why we refer to carbohydrate as a “protein sparing” nutrient, in addition to the most efficient energy source for exercise.
Recommended Protein Intake for Athletes
Athletes need more protein than the general population for muscle repair and recovery, not as an immediate source of fuel. The ideal range is wide, so for those engaging in training plans with varied types of activity, it may be helpful to consult a sports dietitian to determine the right protein goals for you. The most well-accepted protein recommendation range for athletes and highly active individuals is between 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram, or 0.55 to 0.9 grams per pound. These recommendations are currently based on weight and activity level, with no differences based on gender.
Those engaging in regular high intensity aerobic and endurance activities should aim for 0.55-.65 g/lb of body weight (1.2-1.4 g/kg). Based on one recent study, some may require greater levels during heavy training periods. A study that tested endurance athletes response to varied protein intake during higher training periods suggested that intakes of 0.8g/lb (1.8 g/kg) are more appropriate. While more research is warranted, most athletes who eat enough calories already consume amounts greater than the current recommendations.
When it comes to those engaging in high volume strength training routines, well accepted recommendations range from 0.72-0.8g/lb (1.6-2.0 g/kg). For those competing in sports such as powerlifting and Olympic lifting, however, higher intakes may be beneficial.
Even higher protein intakes are necessary to recover from injury, maintain muscle during periods of lower training, and following high intensity or longer duration ultra-endurance racing. Levels between 0.9-1.13 g/lb or 2.0-2.5 g/kg are recommended in these instances. Still, many athletes are already consuming adequate protein and eating greater amounts than you need won’t necessarily lead to extra muscle gain. Instead, it may just lead to excess nitrogen and fluid losses via urine, coupled with either inefficient energy production (as carbohydrates are preferred) or fat storage.
Understanding Protein Sources
Proteins are rated based on “quality”, which is the bioavailability of the protein in the food. In simpler terms, a food labeled as a high-quality protein will have more total protein actually absorbed from the digestive tract and into the blood stream for the body to use. Proteins with more essential amino acids have higher quality scores (with 1 being the highest).
For decades, cow’s milk has stood out as the high-quality protein source most beneficial for post-exercise muscle protein repair. Recently, the reasoning has been linked not only to high total essential amino acid content, but also leucine content. Leucine is now well recognized as the single amino acid most important to trigger muscle repair post-workout. While cow’s milk and yogurt are a whole food option, they aren’t always available immediately after a workout. Therefore, whey protein, the milk protein most rich in leucine and known for quick-acting muscle repair, is the most widely used protein in sports nutrition products.
When selecting proteins at meal time, it is safe to assume any lean animal proteins are a high-quality option, with poultry and eggs standing out due to their low saturated fat content. Additionally, for those following vegetarian diets or looking for more diversity in their protein sources, soy protein has long been known as a high quality plant source, with pea protein emerging as a great option, too. If not consuming these high quality proteins in a meal, and instead choosing high protein items such as beans or lentils, for example, including a “complementary” food, such as a high protein grain with nuts or seeds as a garnish, can increase the protein quality of the meal.
Protein Timing to Optimize Athletic Performance
It’s no secret that ingesting protein post-workout is important to begin the repair process. Still, some people miss their opportunity based on poor appetite, and others prioritize their intake after training so much that they take the emphasis off of intake the rest of the day.
To maximize muscle recovery, aim to eat at least 10 grams of high-quality protein within 30 minutes of completing exercise. This can be obtained via Honey Stinger Protein Waffles, which get their protein from whey and peas and also offer 15 grams of carbohydrates to restore blood sugar levels. Then, aim to eat a balanced meal within 2 hours.
With the exception of a meal you may have before exercise, spreading protein intake between four balanced meals throughout the rest of the day is recommended. For recreationally active individuals who have dedicated training plans as well as those participating in endurance and intermittent sports, doses of at least 0.14 g/lb (0.3 g/kg) of protein to maximize muscle recovery around the clock are adequate. Of note, for those with higher protein needs, such as Olympic lifters or powerlifters, 0.18g/kg or 0.4g/kg at each meal is likely more appropriate.
For example, a 130 lb person needs 17 grams of protein at minimum, while a 230 lb person would need 31 grams. If those individuals were participating in heavy weight training at a high frequency, needs may rise to 23 grams and 40 grams respectively. For reference, just three ounces of roasted chicken breast, half a cup of cooked broccoli and a medium baked potato will offer 32 grams. Just increasing the portion size of chicken to 4 ounces results in a meal offering 41 grams of protein. Protein is most frequently consumed at dinner, so other meals may need more attention for protein intake. Additional protein can be consumed in smaller doses during pre-workout and post-workout snacks, with Honey Stinger Protein Waffles being appropriate immediately after exercise.
Convenient Protein Pre- and Post-Workout
Before training, especially for those exercising in the morning who haven’t eaten since the evening before, or for those engaging in endurance activity lasting more than 2 hours, a small dose of protein can be helpful. While carbohydrates should still be a primary focus to fuel activity, a few grams of protein prior to exercise may aid in muscle preservation.
After a training session, whether endurance-based or short and of high intensity, it is common for hunger hormones to be suppressed, even though it is an optimal time to take in fuel for the body to recover. Since it can be hard to eat an actual meal with a poor appetite, a small convenient snack supplies both protein and carbohydrates to kick-start your recovery process.
Honey Stinger Protein Waffles are a delicious post-workout snack after intense exercise to begin the muscle repair process before you’re able to eat a full meal. They can also be eaten as a snack before moderate to intense strength training workouts to provide energy, preserve muscle and prevent hunger. In addition, while ultra-endurance athletes should primarily focus on ingestion of carbohydrate to improve time to exhaustion and exercise intensity, this population can benefit from ingestion of some high-quality protein during exercise to prevent excess muscle damage and support immune function.
Putting it all Together
To be used most efficiently, protein should be eaten in moderate amounts each time you eat, rather than larger amounts commonly consumed post-workout and at dinner.
High quality protein sources should be selected or built at meals and snacks to optimize protein use for muscle repair.
Despite post-exercise appetite suppression, or lack of access to whole foods after a workout, protein intake immediately following exercise is beneficial for muscle recovery and ultimately, physical performance.
After your next tough lifting session, HIIT workout, or high intensity run, when eating whole foods isn’t convenient, a Protein Waffle is ideal to kick start your recovery.
Written by Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, a consultant sports dietitian for Honey Stinger and owner of Kelly Jones Nutrition, a nutrition communications and sports nutrition business that serves athletes at every level from high school and collegiate to weekend warrior and pro.
** The information and suggestions written above are for general educational purposes only and should not be considered individual medical nutrition therapy or advice. Always seek the advice of a physician before beginning any physical fitness activity program or a dietitian before implementing new nutrition practices.