National Protein Day: Answering Questions Athletes Have About Protein

Protein might just be the most debated topic in sports nutrition.  What better time than on National Protein Day to dig into the science to answer questions athletes have on why, how much, when and what type of protein should I be consuming?

Why is protein important for athletes? 

  • Protein is found in every cell in the human body and is involved in almost all bodily functions.
  • Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are used to grow new body tissues, including muscle; to make enzymes that help release energy from food for muscle contraction; to form hemoglobin which supplies oxygen to exercising muscle; and to maintain fluid balance, helping athletes stay hydrated, to name a few.
  • Exercise causes damage to muscle tissue and athletes need to repair and replace the damaged muscle proteins. The process of breaking down and repairing and rebuilding over time leads to muscle hypertrophy and increases in muscular strength.

How much protein is recommended? This question seems to generate a lot of opinions, creating confusion.  As such, it has spurred the scientific community to find answers.  Here are some of the key findings:

  • Athletes engaging in strength training with the goals of increasing muscle size and strength benefit from consuming an overall daily protein intake in the range of 0.7-0.9 g protein per pound of body weight.
  • For endurance athletes, consuming an overall daily protein intake in the range of 0.6-0.8 g protein per pound of body weight, helps support muscle repair and improve energy capabilities in the muscle.
  • Higher training volume either by increasing training duration and/or intensity, increases protein requirements. Refer to the table to determine your daily protein needs to support your training.

Protein Recommendations for Strength Trained & Endurance Athletes

Duration of Training Strength Training Recommended Protein g per pound body weight Endurance Training Recommended Protein g per pound body weight
Training 1 hour or less 0.7 g 0.6 g
Training 1-2 hours 0.8 g 0.7 g
Training > 2 hours 0.9 g 0.8 g
  • There are times through the training season when athletes don’t consume enough calories to meet their training needs. This can happen by choice when an athlete wants to lose weight.  Or it can happen by circumstance, when athletes can’t keep up their calorie intake to meet the demands of a long competitive season.  During these times, increasing protein intake to 0.9-1.2 g per pound of body weight, will help athletes maintain their muscle mass.  Losing lean body mass or muscle during the competitive season reduces performance.
  • Training has a protein-sparing effect which means, better trained athletes experience less protein breakdown and uses less protein for energy during training. Think of this as a perk from all your hard training.
  • Eating more protein than is needed to support training, does not grow bigger muscles, it is used as energy which reduces muscle protein synthesis. OR, it is stored as fat! Plus, the excess protein often replaces much needed carbohydrates that provide the fuel to drive high performance and maximize training adaptations.

When is the best time to eat protein?  Timing of protein intake may be as important as how much you consume over the course of the day.

  • Spread protein intake across the day by eating small amounts (15-30 g protein) in meals and snacks, every 3-4 hours. This eating pattern increases availability of amino acids to muscle tissue, optimizing muscle building and repair.
    • Focus on including high quality protein food sources such as lean chicken, pork and beef, seafood, milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, beans, legumes, quinoa, nuts, and seeds into each meal and snack throughout the day.
  • After a heavy training session (either longer duration or high intensity), consume protein (15-30 g) along with 0.5 g carbohydrate per pound of body weight. This will augment the effects of training by improving muscle protein synthesis, reducing muscle protein breakdown and ultimately promoting a more complete recovery.
    • Focus on high-quality easily digested protein, such as whey, milk, soy or pea proteins.
  • To reduce muscle protein breakdown overnight, try consuming 20-30 g of protein before bed. Focus on foods that have casein, a slower acting protein, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • It is important to recognize the benefit of eating whole foods and drinking fluids as the foundation of a good sports nutrition plan. However, day to day, athletes may have trouble consuming a well-balanced, nutrient rich diet. In times when consuming 15-30 grams of protein at meals and snacks is difficult, Ready Products offers a convenient way to help athletes meet their daily protein requirements.
    • Ready Water, 20 g whey protein isolate, great during and after training to promote muscle protein synthesis
    • Ready Protein Powder 25 g whey protein, convenient mix with water or milk (increases protein and adds carbs), great recovery snack, breakfast option as a smoothie
    • Ready Protein Puffs, 10 g pea protein, convenient snack, after school, added to a salad to boost protein intake, add milk to have a high protein cereal
    • Ready Clean Bars, 12-15 g whey or whey +soy protein, great snack, boost protein intake at breakfast, after exercise, before bed.
    • Ready High Protein Bars 21 g protein milk protein isolate (casein + whey), great before bed snack.

Chief Science Officer, Dr. Kim Beals