By Matt Fitzgerald • For Active.com
Protein has a good reputation. You can tell by stopping by your local supermarket and looking at food packaging. Foods that are high in protein often brag about it with package callouts like “high in protein” or “9 grams of protein per serving.”
The other dietary macronutrients—carbohydrate and fat—can only envy protein’s good name. When was the last time you saw the phrase “high in carbs” or “high in fat” on food packaging?
Protein is no better than carbs and fat. All three macronutrients are important components of the diet that are healthful in the right amounts and potentially harmful in excess. Ironically, despite its better reputation, the optimal amount of protein in the diet is actually lower than the ideal amount of carbs or fat—at least for endurance athletes.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight daily compared to just 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg of protein. Fat needs are represented as a percentage of total calories—specifically 20 to 35 percent of calories—which is also significantly more than the roughly 10 to 20 percent of total calories that the ACSM’s weight-based protein recommendations equate to.
Real-world evidence supports the notion that the protein needs of endurance athletes are relatively low. The world’s best distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia get 10 to 12 percent of their daily calories from protein.
Meeting your protein needs as an endurance athlete is easy. You don’t even have to think about it. But to get the greatest possible benefit from protein in your diet, it helps to pay attention to when you consume it and to take measures to concentrate your protein intake at the times when it’s most needed and can do the most good. The three best times to protein-load are during and immediately after workouts, late in the day, and during the offseason.
Protein During and After Workouts
You’ve probably heard it’s beneficial to consume protein after workouts. Your muscles will repair the damage they suffered during the workout much faster if you consume at least 10 grams of protein in the first hour of recovery than they will if you wait longer to consume the same amount of protein. But taking in protein during the workout itself is even better because it prevents the muscles from suffering some of that damage in the first place. The ultimate payoff of this protection is better performance in the next workout.
This has been shown in a number of studies, including a recent one by researchers at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Ten competitive cyclists participated as subjects. Each of them was asked to complete a 2.5-hour ride in the morning while drinking either a carbohydrate-protein sports drink or a carbohydrate sports drinks with equal calories. This session was followed up four hours later with an all-out time trial. On a separate occasion the two rides were repeated, but this time the drinks were switched.
The authors of the study reported that the cyclists had lower markers of muscle damage and inflammation after the ride in which they drank the carb-protein sports drink and, as a direct result, they performed 1.8 percent better on average in the subsequent time trial.
Note that a little protein goes a long way during exercise and more than a little is sure to cause GI problems. The carb-protein sports drink Accelerade supplies 5 grams of protein per 12 ounces, which is ideal.
Protein Late in The Day
Although your diet should generally be high in carbohydrate and moderate in fat and protein, your macronutrient needs actually shift throughout the day. The morning is when you need the most carbohydrate to replenish liver glycogen stores that have been depleted during the night and to supply immediate energy for the most active part of the day.
In the evening, the body switches hormonally from an activity mode to a repair-and-regenerate mode. Taking in more protein in this part of the day will allow you to take full advantage of this switch. A 2012 study by Dutch researchers found that a high-protein snack consumed at bedtime after strenuous exercise increased overnight muscle protein synthesis.
Protein in the Offseason
In addition to the two times of day when protein intake should spike—during and immediately after workouts and in the evening—there is one time of year when it’s a good idea to eat more protein: during breaks between race-focused training cycles.
Specifically, I recommend that endurance athletes set aside a period of four to eight weeks immediately preceding the start of a new training cycle to focus on shedding excess body fat and getting a quick start back toward their ideal racing weight. Within this period you should consume 300 to 500 fewer calories per day than your body burns and at the same time increase your protein intake to as much as 30 percent of your total calories.
There are two benefits to doing the latter. First, research has shown that high levels of protein intake sharply reduce hunger during periods when a person is eating fewer calories than his or her body is using. Second, a high-protein diet has been shown to reduce muscle loss and increase fat loss during periods of caloric deficit, especially when combined with strength training.
This period of high protein intake should last only until the formal start of your next race-focused training cycle. Then it’s time to prioritize carbohydrate once again to meet the elevated energy needs of your body during intensive training.