The Science behind Protein: Supplementation for the Endurance Athlete
Dr. Crionna Tobin, PhD , Optimum Nutrition In-house Nutrition Expert
Traditionally, endurance athletes solely supplemented their diet with carbohydrate powders in order to sustain their high energy requirements during high volumes of training. However, an increasing body of research suggests consuming protein following periods of prolonged endurance exercise and intense training can support recovery, and potentially enhance endurance performance. Therefore, protein is fast becoming a key nutrient in the endurance athlete’s nutrition plan.
Protein is a critical nutrient in the body and acts in both a structural and functional role. Structurally it is a key element of muscle, bone, ligaments and tendons while also playing a role in a wide range of metabolic interactions such as promoting a healthy immune system. In addition to this the endurance athlete requires protein to repair and remodel muscle proteins to support and improve strength and endurance capacity. Therefore, providing the endurance athlete with high quality protein at key times throughout the day will ensure delivery to the muscle to support recovery and these training adaptations, while also allowing the body to function optimally for health.
It is important to emphasise that whenever possible, runners should meet their unique individual nutrient needs through whole food that complements a healthy lifestyle. Supplementation is not designed to replace a well-designed nutritional plan, instead, its main role is to complement and support healthy nutritional practices.
The benefits of protein supplementation
Where supplementation can significantly benefit a runner, however, is during times of intense, prolonged endurance training. Research recommends an increased intake of protein of between 1.2-1.8g per kilogram of body weight for anyone who takes part in endurance exercise. This equates to 135g of protein for an average 75 kg person equivalent to approximately 4 ½ chicken filets. In fact anyone who exercises intensely for more than 60 minutes 3 times or more weekly should increase their intake of protein to support their body’s ability to recovery after the training session. In addition to their carbohydrate requirements to support training and performance, this represents a considerable amount of nutrients to consume derived purely from whole food. Consequently, supplementation provides an effective way of complementing good nutritional practices to meet the nutritional needs of active runners. Furthermore, while athletes might be able to meet their nutrient requirements during training with whole food, an additional important consideration is nutrient timing and quality. It’s not always possible to consume a meal at specific times directly after training to support recovery; therefore, supplementation provides an efficient and convenient way to achieve macronutrient targets. One 30g scoop of whey protein generally provides 25g of high quality protein similar to that found in a small chicken breast.
Will eating protein increase my muscle size?
One common misconception was that protein supplementation per se results in an increase in muscle size and bulking. This would obviously be detrimental to running performance. Importantly, however, in the absence of resistance training, protein supplementation in isolation does not result in significant changes in muscle size. Instead, supplementation with certain protein products can improve muscle quality rather than size, and support adaptations that promote enhanced endurance capacity.
When is the best time to eat protein to support recovery?
Research suggests consuming high quality protein within 90 minutes, such as Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey™ Protein after aerobic and anaerobic training provides increased muscle remodelling which promotes endurance capacity. Protein consumed within this time has also been found to increase the rate of glycogen resynthesis particularly when carbohydrate intake is below 0.8g per kilogram of body weight. However, it is not always possible to eat a meal containing a sufficient amount of protein (approximately 20-25g / one chicken fillet) within this window of opportunity. Taking a protein shake during this post-exercise period, such as Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey™ Protein will provide the required concentration necessary to facilitate exercise adaptations. In addition to the 90 minute period immediately following exercise, it is suggested that athletes distribute their daily protein requirements evenly throughout the day. For example, ingesting 4 x 20g of protein every three hours is better than 2 x 40g doses every six hours to support skeletal muscle growth.
Which Optimum NutritionTM products are recommended to support endurance training?
Specific Optimum NutritionTM products that would be suitable for competitive runners to support their daily nutrient requirements and performance goals include Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey™ Protein, Gold Standard BCAA Train and Recover™ and Essential Amino Energy™. Whey protein provides a high quality protein source, while Gold Standard Train and Recover™ has a blend of essential branch chain amino acids and vitamins for muscle and immune support. In addition to providing an important source of branch chain amino acids, Amino Energy™ also provides a source of caffeine that can aid concentration and focus during exercise, and potentially limit feelings of fatigue. Again, these supplements should only be used to complement an appropriate nutritional plan that provides enough quality protein throughout the day and during specific windows following exercise.
Jager R., 2017. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Protein and exercise.
Philips et al., 2012. Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes