Whether running sprints, swimming long distances or lifting weights, athletes expend more energy than the average person and their bodies need additional nutrients to recover from intense physical activity. Protein plays an important role in an athlete's eating plan as it helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. High protein diets are popular among athletes — especially those seeking a leaner, more defined physique. But how much protein is necessary?
Overall Eating Pattern
While protein is critical in building muscle mass, more is not necessarily better. Simply eating large amounts of lean protein does not equate with a toned body.
When determining protein requirements for athletes, it's important to look at the athlete's overall eating pattern. Athletes who consume adequate carbohydrates and fat end up using less protein for energy than those who consume a higher amount of protein. This means that protein can go toward building and maintaining lean body mass. Athletes need to ensure that they also are meeting needs for carbs and fat, not just protein.
Muscle growth happens only when exercise and nutrition are combined.
For example, research has shown that timing of protein intake plays a role. Eating high-quality protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy or soy) within two hours after exercise — either by itself or with a carbohydrate — enhances muscle repair and growth.
Duration and intensity of the activity also are factors when it comes to protein needs.
Energy and protein needs vary depending on whether athletes are in training or competing, if they are experienced athletes, are engaged in high frequency intensity training or involved in new training programs.
While athletes' protein needs are greater than that of non-athletes, they're not as high as commonly perceived. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training. Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day and after workouts.
Are Powders and Supplements Needed?
Most athletes can get the recommended amount of protein through food alone, without the use of supplements. Protein powders and supplements are great for convenience, but are not necessary, even for elite athletic performance. For example, protein powders can be useful when athletes need immediate protein right after a workout and don't have time for a meal.
Want to learn more about protein and athletes? Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.