Protein: What's the Real Story?

by Exercise Physiologist, Rod Cedaro

I've seen countless sports magazines prescribing protein rich diets, or worse still, protein supplements. So it's high time to answer the question, "Do athletes really need more protein than Joe Average?"

Do athletes need more protein?The answer is yes, but not significantly.

Organisations such as the American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians' Association of Canada have found that athletes only have slightly higher protein requirements than non athletes (1,2).

Body builders and strength athletes need to double their protein intake from around one gram per kilogram of body weight to two grams per kilogram of body weight, and hard training endurance athletes need 50% more protein. The following table lists approximate protein requirements for a 70kg athlete:

Type of Athlete Daily requirement for a 70 kg athlete
Energy (Calories per day) Grams per kg [lb] body weight per day Grams per day % of daily calories
Endurance  3800 1.2-1.4 [0.55-0.64] 84 - 98 9 - 10%
Strength  3200 1.6-1.7 [0.73-0.77] 112 - 119 14 - 15%

Athletes need more protein than the average person, but not significantlyMost people, including athletes, consume far more protein than they need. An athlete who is eating a balanced diet and aiming to maintain their body weight should only derive about 15% of their total energy intake from protein.

Extra protein generates waste products such as urea, placing a strain on the body's excretory organs such as the kidneys.

So what's the best way for an athlete to fuel their body? Hard training endurance athletes should consume a minimum of 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour. This should be consumed in 10-20 minute intervals for the first 1-2 hours after exercise. 

This is because during heavy exercise, muscles burn glycogen for energy. The ability to replenish glycogen is critical for athletes, as the faster glycogen is replenished, the faster they can reach an appropriate training intensity. To accelerate glycogen replenishment, athletes should base their diet around carbohydrates and eat as soon as possible after exercise.

Some studies suggest that consuming carbohydrate in conjunction with specific proteins such as Glutamine and Arginine may speed glycogen replenishment. However, this only applies when an athlete doesn't consume enough carbohydrate.

So don't waste your money on protein supplements. Eat a wide variety of foods and if you want to boost your protein intake, make a smoothie with low fat milk powder. It'll have the same effect for a tenth of the cost!

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(1) American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada 2000, 'Joint Position Statement: Nutrition and Athletic Performance Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise' v32, p2130-2145
(2) Rennie, M.J. and Tipton K.D. 2000, 'Protein and Amino Acid Metabolism During and After Exercise and the Effects of Nutrition' Annual Review of Physiology, v20, p457-483