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The role of protein for strength and endurance athletes has been hotly debated over the years. In the past, strength athletes have argued that more is better when it comes to increasing bulk and muscle mass, whereas endurance athletes have almost ignored protein; opting primarily for carbohydrates to fuel training and exercise.
It’s now known that both strength and endurance athletes require an increased amount of protein, and that neither too little, or too, much protein is a good thing.
1. What are proteins?
2. Which foods contain it
3. How much?
4. Protein for strength v endurance
5. Timing is key
6. Can you have too much?
7. Protein supplements
8. Bottom line
Protein is an important nutrient involved in a number of structural and regulatory functions in the body. Having enough protein is important, because protein contributes to tissue structures (for example your muscles are made up of protein) and is important in many metabolic, transport and hormonal systems. Thus; having a negative protein balance can often lead to muscle breakdown.
Proteins are made up of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), which are joined by bonds called peptide bonds. These bonds link amino acids together, and when 100’s of amino acids are linked together, this forms a protein.
There are about 22 amino acids used to build proteins. Some of these amino acids the body is able to make and some of these amino acids must come from our diet. In total, there are about 9 amino acids, which are considered essential and must come from the diet/the food we eat because our bodies are not able to produce these amino acids.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when talking about eating protein? For me, a vision of Rocky Balboa downing 6 raw eggs comes to mind, along with the protein supplement companies. The supplement industry is huge, with each company promoting the latest product to help you bulk up or to get leaner.
But is it necessary to get the protein you need by downing raw eggs or spending big bucks on shakes, powders and bars?
The good news is – you can get all the protein your body needs (whether you’re a professional strength athlete, an endurance athlete or a recreational gym goer) from the food you eat each day. Yes, eggs (raw and/or cooked) are included here, because they’re packed with protein and other nutrients.
The key to ensuring an adequate intake of protein is to choose foods or food combinations that offer all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Food sources of protein that contain all the essential amino acids are typically referred to as HIGH BIOLOGICAL VALUE PROTEIN sources. The main food sources of high biological value protein include animal foods such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy.
Plant sources of protein (for example nuts, grains and legumes/lentils) normally don’t contain all the essential amino acids – generally 1 or 2 amino acids are missing. Thus, to get the required amount of amino acids from plant based foods, combining different types of plant foods together at the one meal is important.
Does this mean you’re in trouble if you vegetarian or vegan? Absolutely not!
Yes, it might be easier to get your protein from food sources that contain all the essential amino acids, but as long as you combine a variety of protein containing plant foods at the one meal, your body will still get the required protein it needs.
Firstly, to function at your best you need to ensure you’re having enough protein each day. This amount will vary with the type of training you’re doing and with your individual body size.
Any form of strength and/or endurance training will increase your daily protein need. This is because during endurance training a small amount of protein is broken down and used for energy, while strength training leads to muscle breakdown and for muscle growth to occur you need to be in positive protein balance (the rate of muscle protein synthesis must be greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown). For this to happen you need to have enough protein through the food that you eat.
The good thing is that these days, we generally eat more protein then we need, so eating a little extra to accommodate training needs shouldn’t be too tricky.
It’s interesting to see that daily protein requirements are pretty similar for both types of athletes. That is, an endurance athlete training at moderate volume or intensity will have the same daily protein requirement (about 1.2g protein/kg body weight) as a strength athlete, who is in the maintenance phase of training. So, for example, a 60kg athlete (strength or endurance), training at moderate volume and intensity will need about 72g protein each day.
The total daily protein requirements for both types of athletes will typically increase as the training volume/intensity increases or as the phase of training changes. But again, these aren’t significantly different between the two groups of athletes. The estimated protein requirement for a strength athlete in the muscle gain phase of training is about 1.6g protein/kg body weight compared to 1.7g protein/kg body weight required by an endurance athlete when training volume and intensity goes up.
By including protein rich foods at each meal and snack, and by hitting the total daily protein your body needs (taking your training phase in to account), you will train, recover and function at your best. This is true for both endurance and strength training athletes alike.
The next thing to consider is nutrient timing.
To allow adequate recovery after prolonged exercise or to build muscle after a strength workout, a recovery snack consisting of protein and carbohydrates is recommended, particularly if you’re an endurance athlete (carb’s are only required when rapid restoration of glycogen is required – they don’t really make a difference to muscle protein synthesis), within about 30-60 minutes of exercise. This will help to kick start the recovery process, leading to a more positive protein balance, reducing protein breakdown and stimulating protein synthesis.
Foods containing approximately 10g protein include:
More isn’t always better! Particularly common in strength athletes – consuming more protein than what is recommended, after training isn’t necessarily going to mean bigger muscles.
The amount of protein needed in the post-exercise recovery snack is about 15-25g of high biological value protein (more is required if the recovery snack consists of plant based protein). This is the same as having a glass of low fat milk or a tub of low fat yoghurt after a training session.
Having more protein than ~25g in the post workout recovery snack is of no extra benefit to muscle protein synthesis. Any extra protein will simply contribute to extra calories.
Where practically possible, you should try to get your training nutrition (including recovery nutrition) from natural food sources. For example low fat milk, yoghurt or eggs on toast all offer great sources of protein after a training session. However, protein shakes and powders can also have a place in a well-balanced training nutrition program
Commercial shakes, powders and bars are particularly useful in times when you may not have access to a portable, convenient meal/snack. Shakes, powders and bars may also be useful if your appetite is shot after training – something which is common after long, hard, intense sessions.
When choosing a protein supplement, remember you don’t have to buy the most expensive protein powder on the market to get the same results. Sustagen Sport and even skim milk powder (both available from your local supermarket) are much cheaper options compared other protein powders out there, and both will deliver the same result.
An adequate intake of protein is essential for anyone participating in sport and the protein requirements don’t differ that much between endurance and strength athletes. Opt for natural food sources of protein, where practical, otherwise, make use of what’s commercial available – just don’t get sucked in to the most expensive products out there.
Finally, whether you’re an endurance athlete or a strength athlete looking to bulk up, it’s equally important to include a protein rich snack after key training sessions to maximise recovery or build muscle mass. But remember that the requirement immediately after training is only about 15-25gr of high biological value protein. Beyond this amount, your body will use extra protein as energy – so any extra protein will only contribute to more calories.
Aragon, AA and Schoenfeld, BJ ‘Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?’ Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013, 10:5 http://www.jissn.com/content/10/1/5
Burke, L and Cox G ‘The Complete Guide to Food for Sports Performance – peak nutrition for your sport’, Allen &Unwin, © Louise Burke and Greg Cox 2010.
Burke, L and Deakin, V ‘Clinical Sports Nutrition’ fourth edition, The McGraw-Hill Companies, © 2010 Louise Burke and Vicki Dean.
McArdle, W. Katch, F and Katch V, ‘Sports and Exercise Nutrition’ second edition, © 2005 Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
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