Protein requirements for athletes

One of the most discussed topics regarding sports nutrition always seems to be around protein requirements. There seems to be so much confusion around timing, type and frequency. This piece aims to clear up the questions and guide athletes, both elite and recreational, to consume the right amounts of protein to suit their sport. There is substantial research to indicate athletes do require higher amounts of protein compared to sedentary individuals to assist with recovery and stimulating new muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Protein additionally assists with replenishing glycogen, when insufficient carbohydrate is consumed post-exercise. However the confusion seems to stem from the clever marketing around protein supplements, bars and amino acids products, which often drive the message that “more is better”. Advertisements additionally place the greatest emphasis on protein supplementation post-exercise, which leads athletes to believe there is an anabolic window, where protein must be consumed immediately post exercise. While this may be true to some extent, and the consumption of protein is recommended post-exercise, the real key in maintaining strength and allowing an athlete to recover is to distribute the consumption of protein evenly, 4-5 times within the 24 hours following the session. This allows individuals to maximise the stimulus of MPS and can aid individuals in replenishing glycogen and balancing their diet to suit other performance goals of changing their body composition for their sport. The general consensus around protein intakes per day, based on sports nutrition position statements and research, indicates a figure of between 1.2-1.7g/kg/day. This total figure should be divided in to ‘doses’ to continue to allow the athlete to recover optimally in the 24 hours following an exercise session. A ‘dose’ of protein should contain around 20g of protein, which contains 2-3g of leucine – one of the key amino acids to stimulate MPS. Leucine-rich protein ’dose’ options include:

  • 100-150g of meat, chicken or fish
  • 200g of greek yoghurt
  • 500mL of milk
  • 2-3 eggs
  • 300-400g of legumes
  • 30g whey protein

Amino acids supplements are sometimes used, and in some cases abused, however if the athlete’ s intake is optimised, there is no additional need or benefit gained from consuming them. Athletes can look to work with a Sports Dietitian to help periodise their protein intake based on their training programs to ensure they can perform at their best in every training session or game situation. References: Phillips, S, M. (2012). Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. British Journal of Nutrition, 108, pp S158S167 doi:10.1017/S0007114512002516