In almost every situation, an athlete knows they need to eat protein to perform at their best. Strength trainers, coaches, and parents drum the idea of more protein in their heads. The need of protein for athletes is an undeniable subject that almost all sports professionals agree upon.
Beyond the eat more protein headline that these experts offer, very few athletes understand how much and how often to consume protein. Worse, they don’t have a clue what proteins are best for them.
So when the athlete hears they need more protein, they run to their nearest supplement store. They ask the supplement expert behind the counter for a protein powder to help them build muscle mass and support athletic performance. The clerk (I mean expert) makes the recommendation of a whey protein supplement or other forms of protein supplements, and the athlete is on their way out the door.
Now, with the protein powder on their counter, they turn the label around and read the instructions. The back says to mix 1 scoop of protein into 6-8oz of water as needed to support their daily protein intake. Not a very detailed set of directions, but at least it’s a start.
The athlete then adds a single scoop of protein to their daily diet, boosting their protein intake up by approximately 24 grams. Has the athlete done their job and followed the directions of their personal trainer, coach, and parent?
Possibly, but you first need to know the current daily protein intake of the athlete, their sport of choice, and daily activity level. Without this information, it is hard to say for sure that they have reached their dietary protein requirements for peak athletic performance.
Understanding an Athletes Current Protein Intake
Before deciding the exact protein needs of an athlete, you first need to understand how much they are currently consuming. Asking an athlete to go from 80 grams of protein per day to 160 grams of protein per day is a recipe for a gastrointestinal disaster.
Each athlete is an individual with their own previous dietary habits. An athlete may need more dietary protein, but it should increase it carefully. Dramatic shifts in protein will hinder the athletes’ ability to perform and make their lives miserable.
By having the athlete fill out a dietary log, you can then recommend increasing their protein weekly by approximately 10-20% until they reach an adequate protein intake level.
Unless there’s an urgent need to change the athlete’s protein intake, waiting till offseason to make these adjustments has better probability that the athlete adheres to the program.
Understanding the Quality of the Protein They Consume
As a sports nutritionist, you can have a big impact on a client’s body composition and athletic performance by simply asking them to consume better protein sources. Especially true in the young athlete, much of their diet is incomplete proteins. These provide less protein synthesis, leading to lowered abilities to recover.
Reviewing the client’s dietary log allows you to peek into the foods the athlete is consuming. Switch this, for that is a fast way to see progress with the client and sports nutrition coaches can make these changes during season or off season. By choosing essential amino acid rich protein sources that lead to greater muscle protein synthesis, your athlete will look better, feel better, and perform better.
How Much Protein Does an Athlete Need?
OK, let’s get to the juicy part of this article. The question you have been waiting for us to answer. Now is the time to find out how much protein an athlete should eat. Unfortunately, determining the right amount of protein is not that simple…
Protein needs vary based on several factors.
- Does the athlete’s weight and body composition need to change? Asking a client to gain or lose 10lbs makes a difference in how much protein they need.
- Where does it land on the scale of being an aerobic or anaerobic workout? Meaning, is it more of an endurance activity or a momentary burst of power and strength?
- How much active time is there during the sport? Each sport has a different amount of total time under strain and even in an endurance activity, this plays a role in how much protein an athlete will need.
- What position does the athlete play? In team sports, different positions have different physical responsibilities. An outfielder may be more relaxed than the catcher, who sits in a full squat position for most of the game.
- How old is the athlete? A youth athlete is not only growing muscle density, but they are growing inches on their body. A middle-aged individual is seeing a drop in protein synthesis because of lowered levels of hormones.
- What is the lifestyle of the athlete? A youth athlete has cognitive demands that require glucose and amino acids. The adult athlete has children that require physical and mental energy. The athlete between these stages of life may have more recovery ability but let their social lifestyle interfere with their needs.
- What is their genetic predisposition? While more complicated to answer, we all have our own set of genetics. These dispositions can make a difference in body mass & muscle fiber makeup.
An Athlete Has Their Own Unique Protein Requirement
OK, so now you understand that the question of how much protein does an athlete need, isn’t so easy to answer. A sports nutrition coach needs to look deeper into the life of their client if they hope to bettee estimate of how much protein they need to perform well.
While we cannot answer that question here, through a few steps, you will find the answer you need.
Energy Expenditure by Sport
There are plenty of online tools and academic publications that can help you understand the general energy expenditure of your athletes’ sport.
If you cannot find your exact sport, break down the time that they are an endurance athlete, power athlete, or both. Then look for a sport that mirrors each of these and review that literature.
Muscle Fiber Activity by Sport
This may be a little harder to find, but in mainstream sports, the answer you need exists. While you may have a general understanding of the type of physical activity the athlete undergoes, look for a more detailed answer about the athlete’s sport and, hopefully, position.
Strength Training Program
Athletes don’t just perform on the field, they perform in the gym as well. A part of sport nutrition is understanding the type of exercise they are doing outside of practices and games.
Energy Expenditure Hour by Hour
After you have determined the energy and muscle fiber expenditure of your athletes chosen sport, you now need to understand their lifestyle hour by hour. The hour by hour method approach differs from the TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) method, as it takes a granular look at the client’s life.
Life Stages of the Athlete
Research the specific age of your athlete and look for how their protein needs are affected. This is not an exact science, but will sit in your mind as part of the nutrition strategy before making your final recommendations.
An Athletes Body Composition
If an athlete needs to increase muscle or decrease fat, then first consider the following best practices.
Fat Loss: When your athlete loses body fat, they compromise muscle loss caused by the reduction in total calories and specific metabolic processes. Your client may need more protein than if they were looking to maintain body weight.
Weight loss for athletes has to be pondered, as it may be detrimental to athletic performance. For this reason, it is best that fat loss programming happens off season.
Muscle Building: Your athlete may need more calories and protein to stimulate the desired muscle growth. Understanding how much muscle will give you an idea of how much protein and the time it will take.
We need to deliberate and be forward thinking for muscle building nutritional programming. Increases in lean mass require greater muscle repair, which requires longer sleep & recovery times.
What types of Protein To Recommend an Athlete
Not all protein is created the same. Athletes need a diet that is rich in complete protein sources. These sources should be high in BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids) and the remaining EAA’s (essential amino acids).
While protein pairing with incomplete protein sources is better than nothing, athletes need foods that protect and promote lean muscle mass such as meats. When tolerable, certain dairy products can be an excellent protein source.
And yes, athletes can benefit by supplementing with a high quality protein powder, which offers easy protein ingestion and fast digestion. They have researched extensively and proven protein supplementation effective in supporting muscle tissue in athletes.
Getting it Right the Second Time
No matter how much research you put into preparing the perfect nutrition plan, the first program you create will always be off course. Determining an athlete’s protein, carbohydrate, fat and overall calorie intake requires an iteration after you have worked with the athlete and better understand how their body operates.
Don’t search for the perfect protein quantity, instead, do enough research to get started. Then, make sure the client knows that their nutrition will adjust to better fit their lifestyle and goals.
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