Why Athletes Need More Protein
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I've been an endurance athlete for a long time, but I haven't always been strong and thriving. For many years, I battled an eating disorder that resulted in me being weaker, more prone to injury, and of course, unhappy. During this time, I embraced a vegan diet under the false pretense that it would be both healthier and better for the planet. I stopped eating meat, then I stopped eating dairy and other animal products. My protein sources were mostly tofu, tempeh, and beans. I occasionally drank a protein shake, but found most of them hard to stomach.
I clung to veganism hard, even after I went through treatment for my eating disorder, even after I started running ultramarathons, and even though I wasn't feeling good on a diet of rice, beans, vegetables, and tofu. I spent over a year seeing a dietitian who specialized in eating disorder treatment, and she was concerned not only with my tendency to resort to my old habits during stressful times, but also with my loyalty to veganism.
"Running these long races puts a tremendous toll on your body," she told me. "You need adequate energy intake, but you also need bioavailable protein." It wasn't until I ran a hard 100K race and had a lot of trouble recovering that I reconsidered my stubborn stance. Maybe she was right, I thought. So I started eating chicken and eggs and salmon. Eventually, I started eating beef, elk, and bison as well. At first, I didn't know how to feel about my new diet. It was uncomfortable and strange to bite into a burger when I wasn't used to beef, or to buy cuts of raw chicken when I hadn't handled meat in years.
But soon, I noticed a sizeable decrease in recovery time. After my last 100 miler, I spent a week resting and eating extra high-quality protein, and my muscles recovered incredibly fast. My dietitian taught me to incorporate protein at every meal, and told me to shoot for roughly my body weight in grams of protein every day. I weigh 150 pounds, and I tracked my food intake on October 31, 2022 to illustrate what I eat in a day in my effort to consume adequate protein. I didn't include coffee or water, and like most calorie tracking, this is an estimation at best.
I consumed 134 grams of protein and nearly 2,400 calories. I also weight trained in the morning and ran 6 miles after work, totaling just over two hours of activity for the day. This level of activity is not unusual for me.
I learned that consuming enough protein is important, but isn't the only important factor. Muscle growth happens when exercise and nutrition are combined and research has shown that the timing of protein intake is just as important as overall protein intake itself. Eating high-quality protein (organic beef, wild-caught fish, eggs, etc.) within two hours of exercise has been proven to enhance muscle repair and growth. Energy needs and protein needs therefore vary; on days when I train twice, I need more of both. On days when I train less, or when I'm resting, I don't require as much food or as much protein.
Consuming high-quality animal protein is also the best way to consume amino acids, which are the molecules that combine to form proteins. When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left. The human body uses amino acids to help the body break down food, grow, repair body tissue, and more. There are 20 amino acids, nine that are "essential," meaning we need to get them from food, and 11 of which are "nonessential," meaning that our bodies can produce them. Animal protein sources provide all nine essential amino acids while plant-based sources do not.
While I generally eat more than 130 grams of protein per day, I'm also highly active, working out six days a week and often doing two workouts in a day. Protein needs vary depending on the type of athlete, current body weight, total energy intake, whether weight loss/gain is a goal, an individual's age, quality of protein, and more. The general rule of thumb is to consume 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg of body weight for endurance athletes and 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg of body weight for strength and power athletes. The greater the number of hours in training and the higher the intensity, the more protein is required. And while I personally have reaped the benefits of eating more protein, I highly recommend seeking professional counsel when figuring out your unique calorie and protein needs.