Protein for endurance athletes
At its most basic level sports nutrition for distance athletes divides into fuel for pushing the body and protein for building it back up and it’s the world of protein for endurance performance we’ll be digging into here.
When to use protein
The time to be conscious of your protein intake is after a hard session or race. This is when the body will need an extra hit to help with rebuilding and repairing the damage you’ve just inflicted. This damage is a natural part of the training effect and it’s the stimulus the body needs to come back stronger and faster – protein in the recovery period is a player in how strong and how fast it becomes.
What is the protein window and does it matter?
The protein window is a phrase invented by the sports nutrition industry referring to the space of time after a session that you have to absorb maximum benefit from your protein intake. It exists primarily to panic athletes into unnecessarily excessive protein consumption as if a minute’s error could make all the difference.
Which of course is cobblers. Simply being aware of a need for additional protein after a big session and addressing it within an hour will do nicely.
How much protein do I need?
Protein portions are discussed like a matter of life and death, with detailed descriptions of grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight commonplace. This would be great a) if we meticulously weighed every meal for full macronutrient breakdown before eating, and b) if it were necessary.
It’s not, it’s just another industry ploy to increase protein use beyond what’s needed.
As protein is widely available in food, a good athletic diet will mean you’re already getting plenty for basic needs. Protein deficiency in the developed world is non-existent and wildly exaggerated to sell product. This means all you need to do to get protein for endurance performance right is remain conscious of a need for a little more post session and address it (for best protein sources see below).
Now keep an eye on progress. Not seeing the results you want? Increase intake gradually. Can’t tell if you’re seeing a benefit or not? This is a perfect sign you’re in the right place – carry on as you are.
Best protein sources
What you’re looking for here are sources that are as whole and unprocessed as possible, and that come without added sugars or sweeteners. If a product’s flavour options include things like ‘vanilla’, ‘cookies and cream’, or ‘birthday cake’ avoid – it will be rammed to the gills with junk. The desert trolley didn’t suddenly become healthy just because it got shoehorned into a protein product, it’s still the desert trolley.
Whole foods are the kings of protein
Not only do you get your protein with these, because they’re whole foods you also get a ton of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals included and no crap added. Make these the core of your protein strategy.
Nuts: at 15-25% protein, almonds, walnuts, cashews and peanuts all rock. Go for unroasted, unsweetened options and scarf by the handful, sprinkle liberally into salads, mains and deserts or add to smoothies
Seeds: packing similar protein doses to nuts (15-25%) chia, hemp, sunflower, sesame and flax are all brilliant protein sources and can easily be added to salads, mains and deserts or blended into smoothies
Oats: with 17% protein, the humble and mighty oats are awesome for boosting protein content of any meal easily and tastily. Blend into smoothies, add to deserts or sprinkle on fruit salad
Other key players: spirulina (at 60% protein per 100g it makes steak at 22% look positively weedy) is great to add to smoothies, while quinoa (13% protein) is the perfect substitute for white rice (3%), pasta (5%) or potatoes (2%) in main dishes.
Eggs (13%) are great in any shape or form and meat and fish (all around 20-25% protein) can all be beneficial too although all of these come with a caveat – quality and moderation is everything. So many animal foods are from industrial production which far too often means sick animals stuffed with antibiotics and more that you’re then ingesting.
A backup, these are your secondary protein sources when time constraints make real food options impractical. Do not make these the foundation of your protein intake though and avoid any with manmade sugars and sweeteners added.
No-sugar powders are the worst for adding these ingredients – in a pinch a powder with added sugar is at least better than one with sweeteners.
Non-GMO soy powder: a decent option, but the non-GMO part is vital. Soy is one of the most heavily genetically modified crops in the world and GMO soy has a host of unwelcome benefits from liver issues to fertility problems. Certified non-GMO is the only way to go
Hemp and rice powder: good, solid option, as long as they’re not packed with added junk. Label reading will fast sort good from bad
Whey powder: a last resort. While a small number of good whey proteins exist (organic, non-GMO, no sweeteners or additives) the vast majority are the lowest possible quality, packed with junk additives and sweeteners and overpriced to the point of ridiculousness. This post explains why whey protein is usually a bad choice.
So there you have it, all you ever wanted to know about protein for endurance in one handy hit – when to use it, how much to use and how to avoid the biggest mistakes out there.
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