As someone participating in an endurance sport like running, cycling or triathlon, it’s likely that you give pretty careful consideration to getting sufficient sources of carbohydrate into your diet. You’ll know that carbs are your principal source of fuel, being stored as glycogen in your muscles and converted to energy as required, and that it’s important to replenish that glycogen after a training session or race. But how much attention do you pay to the amount of protein that you consume, and when you eat it?
Unlike carbohydrate (glucose), which can be produced from fat or protein stores in the body if necessary, protein is an essential nutrient which has to be obtained from your diet. Or to be more precise, a number of the amino acids which make up different proteins are essential, meaning that they can’t be manufactured in the body. Animal proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, contain all 8 essential amino acids, while most plant sources of protein, such as legumes or grains, are lacking in at least one, so should be combined together in the diet, eg rice and peas. Exceptions are soya and quinoa. And there are a number of non-essential amino acids which are manufactured by your body from the essential ones you have consumed in protein foods.
We are literally made of protein; muscle, skin, hair, bone and organs are all manufactured from amino acids. Hormones and the chemicals of the nervous and immune systems are also protein-based. To prevent disease, government nutrition guidelines recommend 0.8g per kg of body weight each day. But there is a fairly general consensus among sports scientists that endurance athletes need more than this due to the additional bodily wear and tear caused by training. The recommended amount varies from 1.0-1.6g per kg of body weight 1; less than that needed by those in power sports but more than needed by the general population. A greater amount of protein is also needed during training cycles with higher volume and intensity, to facilitate muscle recovery, so vary your intake in line with your training programme and overall calorie intake.
Following this guideline, an 80kg male endurance athlete might consume between 80 and 128g of protein per day, depending on the intensity of their current training cycle, and a 60kg female endurance athlete might have 60 to 96g per day. So how much protein is there in various foods?
- Medium size chicken breast : 25-30g
- Medium size salmon fillet : 20-25g
- Two eggs: 14g
- Half a can of beans or lentils: 15-18g
- Two tablespoons of almond butter: 8g
- Small pot of yogurt: 8g
- 30g of cashews: 6g
Eating all that in a day would give you around 96g of protein, so towards the bottom end of the range for a male and towards the top for a woman.
A good rule of thumb is to plan a source of protein into every meal and snack. As well as helping to repair muscle damage, this will help to control your blood sugar by slowing down the digestion rate of carbohydrate foods to glucose and giving you a more sustained release of energy.
Here’s an example of how to build the protein foods above into a daily meal plan:
Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs with toast, piece of fruit
Morning snack: 2 oatcakes with 1 tbsp almond butter
Lunch: chicken and puy lentil salad, piece of fruit
Afternoon snack: 30g of cashew nuts
Supper: Baked salmon, 50g brown rice, two vegetables,
Evening snack: small pot of plain Greek yogurt with 1 tbsp of almond butter
It is particularly important to consume protein as part of your post-training recovery, ideally within 45 minutes of finishing. If you are training before a meal, make sure that you include protein in that meal. Or if you are doing a longer session, and not planning a meal immediately afterwards, I suggest consuming a specially formulated sports recovery drink or bar, which has the 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein that is generally thought to be the most effective for recovery. Unless you are intolerant or allergic to dairy foods, choose a product that contains whey protein. Or for cheaper options, have a basic chocolate milk drink or make yourself a fruit and yogurt smoothie. Then include around 20g of protein in your next meal. The effectiveness of protein on muscle recovery is not restricted to the first 45 minutes after exercise 2. It is best to spread your protein intake across the day, as your body can only utilise 20-25g of protein at one time.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk
1 Campbell et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. JISSN. 2007. 4:8 via BioMed Central.
2 Tipton, K. Optimising training adaptations by manipulating protein intake, in Sports Nutrition: From Lab to Kitchen. Meyer & Meyer Sport. (Maidenhead, UK.) 2010. Page 73.