Protein is important for endurance athletes - and not just in the post-training recovery window. Read up on this key macronutrient to find out when, why, and how much protein will support your training goals.
There are three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. As endurance athletes, we all know the role that carbs play in fuelling us with energy (as glycogen, stored in the muscles and the liver). But how important is protein, what does it do, and exactly how much should we eat every day?
What Is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that primarily builds and repairs tissue. On a chemical level, protein is a structure of protein made of amino acids, organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen or sulphur. There are 21 amino acids in total, nine of which are called “essential” (because we must consume them through food or dietary supplements), four are “non essential” (the body can synthesise them), and eight are “conditional” meaning the body needs more of them at times of stress or injury.n without protein.
As part of our diet, protein foods are also a source of energy. They contain 4 kcal per 1g of protein (carbohydrates also contain 4kcals per gram, and fats contain around 9kcals per gram). It’s important to understand that this means per 1g of the macronutrient, not of the actual food weight. Using the example of chicken breast (a popular protein food), 100g of chicken breast is not 100g of protein. 100g cooked weight chicken is around 30g protein.
What Does Protein Do?
Forget any misconceptions you might have about protein and musclebound gym-goers. Protein is popular with the weight lifting community, but it does far more than help us build and maintain muscle mass. Protein - and its amino acids - help repair all tissue (including bone, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments), grow new cells, and keep our organs functioning.
After we eat, the protein in our food and drink is broken down into small amino acids which are then used to grow, repair, and maintain cells and tissue.
The human body can not exist without protein. And here’s something you need to know - our body can not store protein for a rainy day. It stores carbohydrate (as glycogen in the muscles and liver) and fat. But it can not store protein. That’s why it’s important to eat sufficient protein on a daily basis at regular intervals.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Remember that the body can’t store protein, and those nine essential amino acids must come from our food. It’s important to eat (or drink) sufficient quality protein at regular intervals throughout the day. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean chugging a protein shake every two hours. The body is constantly turning over protein, breaking it down, and putting it to use. The aim is to maintain a net protein balance, and you’ll achieve this by feeding your body a sufficient serving of quality, balanced protein every 3-4 hours.
What do we mean by quality, balanced protein? Not all sources of protein are created equal. Remember those 21 amino acids? Different foods will contain different amino acids, in various combinations and ratios. In an ideal world, you’ll give your body a wide range of amino acids (focusing on those essential ones) across your entire day of eating. Take a look at our food list below for the best sources of amino-acid rich protein foods.
The recommended amount of daily protein for active, healthy individuals is 2.0g protein per 1kg bodyweight. Double your bodyweight in kgs and that’s your daily protein number. Divide this by the amount of times you eat (include snacks and post-training recovery shakes). It’s best to take in 25g-30g protein per serving. If this sounds like a lot, remember that a scoop of good quality protein powder is around 27g protein, 100g cooked chicken breast is 30g, one of those little individual tubs of Greek yoghurt is around 18g, and a tin of no-drain tuna is around 26g protein.
Is Protein Just For Recovery?
Although protein plays a key role in building and maintaining cells and tissue, it’s not just the recovery macronutrient. Here’s a glimpse at how protein helps you be a better athlete before, during, and after activity.
It assists in the formation of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen to your working muscles
It controls fluid volume and helps maintains water balance in your body
The body can draw on amino acids from protein if you run low on carbohydrate
Healthy Sources Of Dietary Protein
Almost all foods contain some protein, so don’t think that you have to eat a pure protein source in order to get any protein. For example, even potatoes and broccoli have trace protein. But in order to hit your protein intake numbers, and to get that important mix of key amino acids, you should build your meals around a protein source. Here are 10 of the best.
- Chicken (not just chicken breasts, how about minced chicken meat, chicken sausages, chicken thigh meat)
- Turkey (low fat, high in amino acids, and a great alternative to chicken)
- Beef steak (cuts of steak or minced beef - great for batch cooking meals for busy weekdays)
- Eggs and egg whites (eggs are a perfect balance of protein and fats, but it’s the whites which contain pure protein)
- Cottage cheese (really versatile for savoury or sweet snacks)
- Greek yoghurt (choose real Greek yogurt, not “Greek style”, for high protein)
- Whey protein (always convenient and very cost effective)
- Tinned or canned fish (convenient and cheap to keep in the cupboard - tuna, sardines, mackerel are great)
- Prawns (a low fat high protein seafood choice which you can keep in the freezer)
- Tofu (not just for vegans, tofu is a high protein, low fat, highly adaptable food)
Whey protein is one of the best sources of protein, because of its superior balance of key amino acids including the essential aminos, and the three BCAA (branch chain amino acids). Plus it’s convenient, easy to use when you’re on the go, and works out favourably on a cost-per-serving basis.