Protein is an essential part of all people’s diets. It’s the building block for much of the tissue in our bodies and is essential for our continued function. However, working out how much protein we actually need to consume is where it can become tricky, especially for athletes.
For everyday consumption for the standard population, guidelines are around 0.8g/kg body mass. When injured, it’s wise to increase this a bit as you often require more protein for the greater turnover and development of particular tissues (road rash for example).
For athletes, the number is a bit more difficult to determine. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2-2.0g/kg for athletic populations. This makes sense because, as an athlete, you generally have a greater muscle mass, are recovering from training and rebuilding damaged tissue at a muscular level, or are trying to increase muscle mass, therefore greater protein intake is required. This recommended amount is based primarily on strength athletes, such as rugby players and power lifters – populations who certainly look more muscular than the traditional ‘skinny’ cyclist.
Indeed, the recommendation for endurance athletes is at the much lower end of 1.2-1.4g/kg. However, during a study looking into protein consumption of one team of Tour de France competitors, the daily intake was 3.3g/kg, higher even than the Ineos (then Sky) target of 2-2.5g/kg. The reason for this is that, during multi-day events with great physiological stress, the body is constantly either in need of protein for recovering and rebuilding after the damage encountered from the racing.
There are other reasons behind this though. Each rider burned on average 5415kcal a day, significantly more than the average competitive cyclist will consume a day, even during a hard training block. To reach this energy intake so as to achieve energy balance and high energy availability, the riders eat A LOT! Most of this energy came primarily through carbohydrates (avg 12.5g/kg or 872g/day) so as to fuel the exercise and replenish muscle glycogen. But alongside their bowls of porridge, piles of pasta etc there was most likely yogurt, meats, cheeses and beans etc so as to provide not just protein but also flavour. Another outcome to bear in mind when eating so many carb sources is that a lot of them also contain protein. Rice has 4g for every 100g cooked, oats have 16.9g per 100g raw and pasta has on average 5g per 100g cooked. It’s easy to see how the protein amounts rack up!
Another way protein is consumed is through recovery drinks. It’s quick, it’s easy and, when time is of the essence, this is vital for professional athletes. But do we all need them? They’re not the cheapest things and other homemade options that are easily available can be just as effective. Chocolate milk is a longstanding recommendation for carbs and protein post training. However, the dairy/lactose in this can make it difficult to digest quickly for a lot of people, even those without intolerances, so maybe not the best option if time is of the essence. Scrambled eggs on toast works well, ~6g protein per egg and plenty of carbs in the bread. For a vegan alternative, baked beans or mushy peas have ~20g per tin as well as being packed with carbs. The benefit of eggs and other animal sources of proteins is that they are more complete proteins (containing either more or all of the amino acids required) and are also more bioavailable. Vegetable sources of protein are not as readily absorbed by the body so have to be eaten in greater quantities to get a usable quantity of the macro/micronutrients into the system.
Another important consideration is: do you really need added protein? A lot of food sources have good levels of protein in them already and, if you’re a meat eater, the likelihood is that you’re eating more than you need in some sittings. For example, a packet of ready-cooked chicken contains ~40g of protein per pack. As well as that, you’ve maybe had some carb sources, cheese etc already and that adds another 10-20g. It’s better to consume smaller quantities of protein more regularly throughout the day in 20-30g amounts. However for vegetarians and vegans, more protein is often required due to the bioavailability of the protein in those foods and the lack of complete protein food sources (foods that contains all essential amino acids). This essentially means that for say every 20g of protein consumed, not all of that will be processable by the body and used.
Finally, when is the best time to consume the protein? It’s a good idea to include it in your breakfast, which also helps with satiety, but don’t consume too much too close to a training session as protein takes longer to digest and process, so can leave you feeling nauseous. During training, protein isn’t essential and you’d be better off focusing on carb intake. As you train, blood is taken away from the gastrointestinal tract so digestion is compromised. That’s why it’s easier to consume gels than a slice of wholemeal bread when exercising. Focus on protein intake once you’ve finished your training session. A good rule of thumb is 20g within an hour of exercise being completed and then 20g every couple of hours throughout the rest of the day. Before bed is also a good time to consume protein as this gives your body the essential supplies needed for repairing and rebuilding tissue as you sleep. Sleep quality can also be improved if you don’t go to bed feeling hungry.
To summarise, for most athletes (not those competing in a Grand Tour!) the daily intake of protein can probably be in the 1.2-2g/kg range, depending on how much you’re training and if you’re doing S&C work as well. Eat little and often throughout the day rather than big bulk sittings, be mindful of how much protein is in the foods you eat, and prioritise protein around training, not during training.