Athletes in training often wonder if they require more protein that sedentary people, especially those participating in strength training. Athletes often do need to consume more protein, but in amounts that are not as high as some would think.
Usual recommended levels of protein intake are 0.8g/kg of body weight daily. Recreational athletes would require the same or slightly more, around 1.0g/kg of body weight daily. Most athletes would require 1.2-1.7g/kg body weight daily. Athletes in strength-focused sports especially bodybuilding and weightlifting would need to be at the upper end of this range. Ultra Endurance athletes can require as much as 2.0g/kg body weight daily.
The importance of increased protein for athletes is to ensure adequate intake in amino acids - the protein building blocks. Amino acids help to rebuild the tissues that are broken down during workouts and exercise allowing for growth in muscle mass.
The intake of this protein following exercise is important. The first 1-2hrs following exercise is the time when protein anabolism (rebuilding) occurs. It is thus advantageous to consume protein within 1-2 hrs of concluding exercise. The protein can be in the form of meat (chicken, beef, pork, fish), milk or dairy products, vegan options - nuts, beans, legumes, etc. or protein bars.
It is important to ensure that daily caloric intake is sufficient. If energy intake is insufficient chronically, then muscle protein can be broken down to provide energy. This loss of protein on top of the breakdown from exercise can intensify a decrease in strength. Athletes who are constantly cutting calories to maintain or achieve a low body weight, like wrestling, distance running, gymnastics, figure skating, dance are at greater risk.
It should be noted that most people do not suffer from a lack of protein in their daily diets, but rather an overabundance. On top of that, most people tend to have more protein than necessary at individual meals. Protein also acts to stabilize blood sugar levels. It is more prudent for all people, especially athletes, to eat smaller individual servings of protein throughout the day. One guideline would be to have a serving of protein that fits in the palm of the hand every 2 hours from the time of waking to the end of the day. This will allow protein levels to remain at a steady state and prevent the distress on the digestive system by having to digest larger quantities of protein following meals.
The types of protein are also important. Protein quality is based on the amino acid content of the protein. Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids in proper quantities, like animal proteins. Most vegetable proteins do not fall into this category unless in combination. The exception is soy which is a complete protein. Vegan combinations of beans and rice, tofu and rice, peanut butter and wheat bread consumed on the same day, not necessarily at the same time, will provide complete proteins to the body.
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