Something's missing, however. You and the other athletes may be missing out on another essential nutrient, especially if you've been following the government's dietary guidelines. In September, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) released a position paper by nine researchers in the
field of protein and exercise. What did they conclude? The found that people who engage in regular exercise, like runners, don't just need more calories, but they also need more protein.
With every step a runner takes, for example, they carry two to seven times his or her body weight. Protein is what keeps your body healthy under all that strain. Adequate protein intake accelerates muscle growth and speeds recovery by helping rebuild muscle fibers stressed during a workout. Since protein helps muscles heal faster, athletes who consume the right amount are less likely to get injured. According to the authors of the ISSN paper: Athletes who get insufficient amounts of protein are at a higher risk of injury.
ISSN's study also concluded that high-protein intake has been shown to help maintain a strong immune system. After an intense bout of exercise, your immune system is weakened for
about four to five hours. Protein stimulates white blood cells, which helps shield against upper-respiratory problems. Other research done in the Military show that Marines who ingested high amounts of protein had fewer medical visits than those with lower protein intake.
So how much protein is enough?
The USDA's Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram (or .36 grams per pound) of body weight. But that's not enough for athletes, according to the ISSN, which says endurance athletes need 1.0 to 1.6 grams per kilogram a day (or .45 to .72 grams per pound). That translates into 75 to 120 grams of protein daily for a 165-pound individual. Don't worry about "overdosing" on protein. While some reports claim that high-protein intake is linked with kidney problems and calcium loss, the ISSN says it's not a concern for healthy athletes.
Lean meats and other animal products, like eggs, milk, and whey (a by-product of milk), pack a
lot of protein. Four ounces of chicken breast, for example, contain about 32 grams of protein. The fat in food interferes with the rate of protein absorption, so limit your intake of high-fat foods, such as rib eye or prime rib. Vegetable-based sources, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy, aren't as protein-dense. A half cup of black beans, for example, has about eight grams and they fall short on all nine essential amino acids, the chemical building blocks of protein. Soy is the exception and is a good source of high-quality protein. Athletes who avoid animal products can make up for this deficit by eating a variety of the most protein-rich vegetables and grains, such as soybeans, oats, and quinoa. The key is to consume a variety of protein sources since not all the protein in a food is easily absorbed by your body. The more variety the better.
So the next time you are thinking about carbo-loading for an athletic event or refueling with carbs afterward, consider whether or not you are including a high-quality source of protein. If not, you may want to add some grilled chicken or beans and quinoa.
Example of A Protein-Rich Day for an Athlete
A 165-pound athlete needs between 75 and 120 grams of protein daily. Spread intake throughout the day, eating some at each meal, to ensure your body has a steady supply.
3/4 cup oatmeal + two scrambled eggs + six ounces orange juice + cup of coffee with
skim milk = 25 grams
Banana + two tablespoons peanut butter = 8 grams
11 a.m. (pre-workout)
Half a bottle of low-fat chocolate milk (about four grams of protein per
serving) + 12 p.m. (post-workout) Second half of the chocolate milk = 8 grams
Two slices whole-wheat bread, four ounces all-natural sliced turkey, one ounce sliced reduced-fat cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard = 32 grams
Six ounces fat-free Greek yogurt = 14 g
Mixed-greens salad with peppers, cucumber, and tomato; one tablespoon balsamic vinaigrette dressing + four ounces grilled salmon + 1 1/2 cups steamed broccoli and cauliflower + 1/2 medium baked sweet potato = 33 grams
Protein Total=120 grams