You’re an endurance athlete. You run, bike, swim, do triathlons—or maybe even 12+ hour to multi-day ultras.
When it comes to your nutrition, you eat lots and lots of carbs. You drink gallons of water. You mind your electrolytes.
But what about protein? That’s for weight lifters, right? Not so fast. Protein is important for endurance athletes too! In fact, just like strength-trained athletes, if you exercise for hours at a time, you need more protein compared to those who are sedentary. For anyone exercising for long periods of time, protein’s role is not to provide fuel – that’s accomplished by carbohydrate and stored fat – it’s to help with:
- Repairing muscle damage that occurs normally with exercise
- Supporting lean muscle growth
- Protecting immune function
- Facilitating fluid and electrolyte balance
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The sports nutrition experts agree that during regular exercise training, both men and women may need more protein on a daily basis than the average Joe or Joan. Here are the estimated protein needs of athletes:
|Sedentary people||0.8-1.0g per kg (0.36-0.45g per lb)|
|Recreational exercisers||0.8-1.0g per kg (0.36-0.45g per lb)|
|Serious resistance athletes: early in training||1.5-1.7g per kg (0.68-0.77g per lb)|
|Serious resistance athletes: established training program||1.0-1.2g per kg (0.45-0.55g per lb)|
|Serious Endurance Athlete||1.2-1.6g per kg (0.55-0.73g per lb)|
Protein comes from a variety of sources – some from plants, others from animal products. High-quality proteins are easily digestible, contain the essential amino acids that your body can’t make for itself and are well absorbed. High-quality proteins include animal proteins, such as dairy casein and whey protein, eggs, meat, fish and poultry, but don’t worry vegetarians (or those that like to mix it up), soy (soy protein isolate, tofu, soybeans) are high quality proteins as well.
The best way to meet your protein needs is to consume a variety of these sources. Here are a variety of foods and the amount of protein they provide:
|Food||Serving Size||Protein Content (grams)|
|Cottage cheese||½ cup||14|
|Peanut butter||1 T||4|
Fast or Slow Proteins
You may have heard about proteins that are “fast” or “slow”. These measures of speed are referring to the rate of digestibility. A “fast” protein, like whey protein is rapidly digested and leads to a large, acute rise in plasma amino acids. Casein is considered “slow” since the rise in plasma amino acids is more gradual and prolonged. Soy protein isolate is right in the middle – an “intermediate” that shows a peak in amino acids later than whey and remains elevated longer.
Research in the past couple of years has shown that a blend of fast, intermediate and slow protein may be the best to support muscle growth and recovery. Apparently, the threesome (whey, soy and casein) may help to prolong the “anabolic window” or the amount of time muscle growth is stimulated by the presence of amino acids in the muscle.
Protein consumed after exercise will provide the necessary building blocks to help build and repair muscles. Consuming protein within 20-30 minutes after exercise will help you recover better and reap the training benefits of your workout. About 15-25 grams of high-quality protein is recommended during this window post-exercise.