Protein Intake for Athletes
By Rachel Tincknell, ATC
Within the last decade, protein supplementation products have flooded the market and taken the sports world by storm. One of the most common questions I am asked by my high school athletes regarding sports nutrition is, “How much protein should I eat each day if I want to get big?” Advertising schemes have us all convinced that in order to gain muscle mass, a post-workout protein shake is essential. Protein ingestion is a key component to a well-rounded diet for all individuals, athletes especially. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein for the average individual typically falls below the ideal intake for athletes due to their enhanced daily level of activity. I’d like to provide evidence-backed intake recommendations as it pertains to the unique nutritional demands of the athlete.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a range of 1.2-2.0g protein/kg body weight per day to support the athlete’s needs. The “optimal” protein per-meal intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis was determined at ~o.25g protein/kg body weight. Protein synthesis is essential to maintain and gain muscle mass, as well as for overall “recovery.” The following equation can be used to determine an athlete’s individual protein needs per meal based on their weight:
(____ lbs ÷ 2.2) x 0.25 = # grams protein per meal
Although greater amounts of protein can be ingested, research has not found any noted benefits of excess protein consumption. It is suggested that athletes consume 4 meals per day, with one pre-sleep meal that contains twice as much protein (~0.50g protein/kg body weight) as the other meals to offset muscle loss while sleeping.
The timing of protein intake is an important factor that can often be overlooked. The post-exercise meal, which accounts for one of the 4 recommended daily meals, should be within 2 hours following exercise. It is within this two hour window that muscle protein synthesis is optimized in response to exercise. In other words, the protein that is consumed within the two hours following a workout will be mostly used to support an athlete’s muscles. However, for the athlete seeking to increase their muscle mass, longitudinal studies suggest that increases in strength and muscle mass are greatest with immediate post-exercise protein intake.
Ideally, whole food protein sources provide the greatest nutrition to the growing athlete. In the average American diet, athletes are able to obtain the recommended protein intake with ease due to the high volume of meat and dairy that is regularly consumed. Protein supplementation products can be an easy and quick source of protein following a workout when whole food sources are not available, but careful review of the ingredients in these products is important. Often times they have a high amount of sugar or other sweetener to make them more palatable.
Philips SM. A brief review of higher dietary protein diets in weight loss: A focus on athletes. Sports Med. 2014;44(2):S149-S153.
Thomas DT. American college of sports medicine joint position statement. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(3):543-568