Protein – Essential Sports Nutrition

protein-essential-sports-nutritionProtein is an important nutrient for everyone and should form an essential part of any healthy and well balanced diet, but even more so for competitive athletes, sports enthusiast or simply those of us who enjoy exercising to stay in shape.

Without sounding melodramatic, protein has been described by many nutritional experts as an essential nutrient, a key component in any diet but especially important for highly active and energetic athletes.

Even though there is still a lot to learn about this highly beneficial nutrient, scientific research is beginning to reveal many of the key factors that surround it and how it can be used to create performance improvements across a whole range of sports.

For example, such research now allows us to calculate average recommended consumption levels, measure protein metabolism during exercise and recovery, and to monitor protein balance in athletes specifically.

Athletes and protein

It is well recognised that endurance athletes (marathon runners, long distance swimmers, road cyclists) typically require more protein to cover a small amount of the energy expelled during training sessions.

They also need to consume more protein to help speed up the process of muscle repair and recovery after exercise is completed.

Similarly, strength athletes who are required to build muscle mass and increase capacity also require greater levels of protein – although they should ideally consume it prior to, or during the very early stages of their intensive resistance training and exercise sessions for best effect.

Protein requirements tend to be higher for all competitive athletes – it really only tends to be when to consume protein, and not how much that varies between sports.

Additionally, younger athletes who are still growing will also have elevated protein requirements.

What is protein?

Proteins are an essential nutrient required by the human body for building connective tissue, muscle cells and cell membranes, and maintenance and repair.

Regulatory proteins also act as transport vehicles or enzymes.

Based on amino acids, proteins are considered to be one of the primary building blocks of body tissue and form a key structural element in all cells present in the human body, especially muscle.

In addition to acting as a source of fuel, proteins can also improve sporting performance, build muscle and aid subsequent athlete recovery by repairing damaged tissue.

Amino acids

Proteins comprise amino acid based polymer chains linked by peptide bonds.

They are made up of many different sequences that contain over 20 different amino acids.

Some of these amino acids act as a minor fuel source during exercise whilst others, eight to be precise, are essential and must come from the diet.

Sources of amino acids include meat, milk, fish and eggs, whilst protein specific sources include fruits, pulses, whole grains, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds.

During the digestive process, proteins are broken down by hydrochloric acid and protease actions in the stomach into smaller polypeptide chains.

This digestive process is very important for the synthesis of those essential amino acids that cannot be created by the human body alone.

There are three primary types of amino acid and they are, essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids, and conditional amino acids.

Essential amino acids

The human body is unable to synthesise essential amino acids and so they must be obtained directly from foods that contain them.

Sources of essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Non-essential amino acids

Non-essential amino acids are synthesised by the body during the breakdown of proteins or directly from essential amino acids.

Sources of non-essential amino acids include alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid.

Conditional amino acids

Conditional amino acids are generally not considered essential, except under certain circumstances.

Sources of conditional amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

Protein consumption levels

In common with many other nutrients, there is not really any set rule as to how much protein you should consume as it depends on a number of factors.

For instance, because athletes come in many different shapes and sizes, protein consumption is more often than not recommended on the size of your body as opposed to the sport that you play.

Your Body Mass Index (BMI) should also be taken into consideration.

The following table provides a useful break-down of the estimated protein consumption for athletes – it is important to remember however that these are purely guidelines and all are based on exercise events taking place four to five times per week for 45-60 minutes.

Estimated Protein Consumption
ProfileProtein consumption (g/kg/day)
Sedentary men and women0.8 – 1.0
Elite male endurance athletes1.6
Moderate-intensity endurance athletes1.2
Recreational endurance athletes0.8 – 1.0
Football, power sports1.4 – 1.7
Resistance athletes (early training)1.5 – 1.7
Resistance athletes (steady state)1.0 – 1.2

What to eat

Although quantities of protein consumed need to be taken in to account when developing your diet plan, once you become familiar with certain protein rich foods you will be able to incorporate these into your diet in order to achieve your recommended/required levels.

For instance, for breakfast you could have 2 slices of wholemeal toast, 2 tablespoons of jam, 1 banana and 2 bread rolls each with 50g of chicken and salad which would all provide sufficient protein.

Similarly for dinner/snack you could have a stir fry with 2 cups of pasta incorporating 100g meat and a handful of fresh vegetables along with a small portion of jelly and custard, and a yoghurt, a piece of fresh fruit and a cereal bar… washed down with a glass of fruit juice.

Vegetarian sources of protein

In many instances people believe that meat, poultry and dairy products are the best way to top up your protein levels and whilst these are considered extremely protein rich foods, you should also recognise that vegetarian foodstuffs can also be very good sources of protein.

Cooked pasta, cooked kidney beans, nuts, wholegrain cereal and wholemeal bread are all excellent sources to consider.

Post-event and recovery nutrition

Even though protein is a significant nutrient to be consumed during training or competition, it is highly recommended that you also incorporate a protein-carbohydrate snack or meal shortly after a workout too.

Not only does the protein element help to repair and rebuild muscle tissue, it also provides carbohydrate fuel to restore muscle glycogen levels which is an important part of the recovery phase.

There are no two ways about it; athletes need to recover properly after training or competition, especially if they want to keep their body in the best possible shape.

There are three golden rules to successful athlete rehabilitation; and we refer to them as the three R’s:

  • Refuel

    Refuel muscle glycogen (carbohydrate stores).

  • Repair

    Repair muscle tissue (for maintenance and development).

  • Rehydrate

    Rehydrate to replace fluids and salts lost through sweat.

Generally, if you consume protein immediately after exercise or competition it helps to enhance muscle intake and the retention of amino acids.

It also offers a more balanced protein diet as whatever you use, you put back.

Protein and supplementation

Even though many athletes can acquire all the protein that they need from a good, well balanced and mixed diet, it may still be the case that additional supplements are required – especially for elite athletes, bodybuilders, strength and power athletes or those on challenging training programmes.

Often the best supplements to select are ones that offer a mix of both protein and carbohydrate in a single product, although there are a number of specialist high protein based products available.

Protein powders

Protein powders come in different forms and include whey, casein, egg, rice and soy.

Essentially these powders are manufactured sources of edible protein developed primarily as a high quality, convenient source of additional protein for athletes and bodybuilders.

The various types of protein powder can have different performance enhancing effects on individual athletes impacting protein metabolic responses, muscle exercise performance, rates of protein digestion and ultimately amino acid availability.

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