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Protein needs for training

Protein plays an important role in your response to exercise. Amino acids from proteins form building blocks for the development of new tissue including muscle, and the repair of old tissue. They are also vital for the development of hormones and enzymes. The question is, do athletes have an increased need for protein?

If you spend any time in the gym, you’ll have noticed a protein shake or two knocking around the free weights section. However, endurance and resistance-training exercise may increase daily protein needs up to a maximum of 1.6-2.0 g per kg body weight (BW), compared to the recommended intake of 0.8 g/kg BW for a sedentary person. The numbers may mean very little to you but don’t panic just yet!

Before you reach for the protein powder, first look at your current diet. Most people in the western world already eat more than sufficient amounts of protein to meet the requirements of a resistance-training athlete. Keep a food diary for a week to work out when you consume your protein and from what sources. Most people consume very little protein at breakfast and eat the majority at dinner. Athletes or active individuals should focus on quality, nutrient dense sources of protein consumed in small portions with every meal – including breakfast. Aim to eat 1-2 palm size portions of protein with each meal. Don’t forget to look at your snacks. These are often high in sugar and bad fats. Try swapping one of these snacks with a source of protein such as a handful of nuts or houmous and vegetables.

If you want your steak to do its job, you also need to ensure your energy needs are met. If you are dieting or restricting your energy intake, your body will start to break down protein. Maintaining a sufficient energy intake will help promote protein balance and increase protein retention.

Although some athletes consume excessively high protein intakes, I’m afraid there is no evidence that such dietary habits increase the gains in muscle mass and strength. There may be little harm in following such diets however, they are expensive and can fail to meet other nutritional goals, such as providing the fuel needed to maximise training and performance.

Enhanced protein balance is essential during the recovery phase – to overturn the increased rates of protein breakdown that occur during exercise, and to promote muscle repair and adaptation following exercise. Protein intake combined with carbohydrate, enhances protein recovery. When these nutrients are eaten soon after exercise, recovery is optimized. Good examples include, peanut butter bagel, chocolate milk, yoghurt and oat-based smoothie made with milk.

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