Carbohydrates typically steal the spotlight when it comes to fueling an athlete’s performance. However, protein is just as vital to an athlete’s health. While this macronutrient doesn’t contribute as directly to performance as an energy source as carbs do, it is vital for almost every other bodily function including, of course, muscle tissue growth, maintenance and recovery. Whether protein is necessary isn’t up for debate, but how much one needs daily is currently being reevaluated.
The Dietary Reference Intake has daily protein needs set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but an athlete’s needs might be better met at up to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. And how much protein to consume is only the beginning.
OPTIMAL PROTEIN TIMING
In the past, all emphasis was put on getting enough protein, regardless of the details. Athletes looking to boost muscle mass, lean out or improve power are likely to need higher amounts of protein each day. However, evenly spreading protein consumption throughout the day appears to be an important factor in promoting protein utilization in the body. One study suggests getting roughly 0.5g/kg (36 grams for a 160-pound person) four times a day as the most beneficial amount for enhancing muscle synthesis while another study reports 25–30 grams of protein per meal is best.
Snacks matter, too. Having protein every 3 hours was found to increase muscle gains compared to consuming protein less frequently at 6-hour intervals even when the total protein consumed daily was the same. The biggest benefit of eating protein evenly at meals is it can increase satiety, leaving you feeling full all day long.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR OLDER ATHLETES
Another factor to consider is that with age, the body’s ability to efficiently process protein declines. Even if you’re looking to gain muscle and spreading your intake throughout the day, there does appear to be a cap at how much protein can be used to stimulate muscle gains. Meaning more is not always better.
One study in particular found no statistically beneficial results from consuming 20 grams of protein versus 40 grams of protein. For athlete’s reaching their 50s and beyond, spreading out protein might be even more crucial. If the body cannot efficiently utilize ingested protein for tissue needs, it will be stored as fat. Besides protein synthesis, having protein immediately after a workout helps support rapid muscle recovery, providing even more reason to consume small amounts throughout the day.
Tracking your intake is a great way to ensure you’re not overloading one meal and skimping protein at others. Spacing out protein intake can be a way to help you reach your health and fitness goals, but it is only part of the equation. Optimize your efforts by consuming a variety of high-quality plant and animal proteins (ahem, don’t rely on powders), increasing workout intensity, switching up training efforts and listening to your body’s cravings and satiety signals.
Originally published June 2019, updated June 2022
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