How Much Protein Do You Need?

By Katie Rhodes | April 17, 2017, 5:04 p.m. (ET)

chocolate milk 

What do we want in performance goals when we make dietary efforts and changes? We want to be faster, stronger and more efficient by gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass, decreasing excess body fat and fueling properly for on-point performance and recovery. Let’s not over complicate things. These dietary efforts are based on the building blocks of food: fat, carbohydrates and protein. Protein, by far, shows up more in sports research, publications and conversations than the other macronutrients, and for good reason. But, with the wealth of information at our fingertips, confusion and questions arise on what is practical information to follow and what still needs further exploration. I base my sports nutrition practice on the hard work of researchers and the implementation of their success on my athletes. I want to share with you my overview of protein and the basics you can take away to improve your health and performance.

Training and Protein’s Function

What promotes protein adaptations: consuming protein during or after exercise, or both? Although there is evidence that protein consumed during exercise could set your recovery up for more success during resistance training, most research points toward consumption after exercise. After exercise, protein is consumed to optimize adaptive responses to maintain and build muscle and to promote muscle recovery by maximizing muscle protein synthesis while the catabolism, or breakdown, of protein is inevitably underway. The goal is to stay in a state of muscle protein synthesis, which is achieved through ingested protein and exercising on a regular basis. Dietary protein after exercise invades the steps of muscular damage and works to bring our bodies in to a positive state of protein anabolism, or building, for muscle gain and gains in oxygen capacity. Although the major conclusive research for the benefits of protein after exercise has been shown with resistance training, compared to endurance training, after endurance training there are marked increases in the oxidation of the amino acid leucine. One could conclude that this elevates the need for other amino acids, the building blocks of protein. 

Timing of Protein Consumption

There is not a well-defined window of time to consume protein after exercise. However, what is accepted is the sooner you consume protein after exercise, the better the outcome in regards to muscle protein synthesis and repair. What I recommend to my athletes is to consume around 20 grams of protein and 30g of carbohydrate within 30 minutes of concluding an endurance workout lasting an hour or longer. Although carbohydrates don’t contribute significantly toward adaptation processes and muscle repair, they are necessary metabolically to restore blood sugar levels and start the process of replacing glycogen stores. Research has shown that consuming more than 20 grams of protein post-workout does not improve muscle protein synthesis, but actually excess amino acid was oxidized and not used. So, go ahead and save your calories for your next meal containing protein and consume it within 2 hours to continue its benefit on recovery.

How Much Protein is Too Much? 

More is not always better when it comes to protein ingestion. There are many studies concluding that consuming higher amounts of protein per day does not contribute to muscle protein synthesis and other functions requiring protein. For example, one study compared a low protein intake (0.86g/kg/day), moderate protein intake (1.4g/kg/day) and high protein intake (2.4g/kg/day) and concluded that with the low protein diet protein synthesis was reduced below beneficial needs, and there was no difference in protein synthesis between the moderate and high protein diet. The high protein diet showed the excess amino acids were oxidized and not beneficial. What has been concluded from various similar studies is that consuming around 1.3-1.8g/kg/day is a good range for athletes to shoot for to optimize protein utilization without consuming so much that it isn’t utilized toward protein requirements, but could be taking the place of meeting fat and carbohydrate requirements. In addition to this daily recommendation, spreading out your protein intake throughout the day promotes continued repair compared to having large amounts of protein at once. For example, one study in particular found significant results from consuming 20g of protein every 3 hours for 12 hours post exercise.

Protein Source for Consumption

After endurance exercise, it is known your body needs a spike in the amino acid leucine to activate muscle protein synthesis. Whey based protein has the highest availability of leucine compared to that of soy and intact casein. A mix of high quality protein is recommended to activate and sustain this process. As many have read before, milk with a concentrated sugar-based sweetener, like chocolate or strawberry, has shown to be a cost effective and a very rational alternative to expensive protein supplements. 

Katie Rhodes, owner of OWN-Nutrition, is a registered and licensed dietitian in Little Rock, Arkansas, with a Master of Science in clinical nutrition. Through her experiences training elite athletes and working in the clinical setting at Arkansas Children's Hospital and the Central Arkansas Veterans Association, Rhodes understands that what we are putting in our bodies directly affects our performance, quality of life and longevity. She's worked with triathletes for six years on their nutrition year round as well as focusing on race day nutrition. Rhodes primarily works with clients remotely, through phone calls and Skype for communication, to supplement unique, personalized nutrition plans.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.