Protein is one of the three macronutrients we consume in our food. All proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, small molecules that can combine to create basic functions. Some amino acids can be produced by the body, these are non-essential amino acids, whereas others are required to be ingested for our body to have sufficient numbers to use them in processes. Proteins control almost all functions in our body at the molecular level and the specific combination of amino acids and their shape dictate the function of that particular protein. Insufficient ingestion of protein causes the body to lack the essential amino acids needed to produce more proteins and maintain proper functions. We don’t need a biology degree to understand the importance of protein in cycling, but let’s get a good footing in how protein fits into the diet of an endurance athlete.
Protein for Athletes
As athletes we should be thinking of protein as the nutrient for recovery. Although research suggests protein may account for upwards of 10% of the energy needed during workouts, other studies have shown that with sufficient carbohydrate intake, there is no difference in performance between athletes who consume carbohydrates and protein during their workouts and athletes who consume only carbohydrates. The real kicker with protein is it’s ability to help us prepare for the next day’s workout. Specifically, muscle repair is the biggest function of protein. There is evidence that protein intake can improve our body’s ability to regenerate muscles and reduce soreness and fatigue over short periods (24-48 hours).
With that being said, excessive protein intake is unnecessary. This research paper suggests that young men with adequate diets did not show increases in recovery from a post-exercise protein. Protein intake is only useful as long as the body needs more proteins to adequately recover. It’s also worth noting that protein ingestion is more effective when spread out evenly throughout the day in approximately 20g portions. From the paper, it appears additional protein is not utilized by the body for a meaningful purpose when excessive amounts are consumed.
Our society is obsessed with protein because it causes humans to feel full and can help resist cravings to allow for an individual to lose or maintain weight more easily. This is fine if you are a sedentary individual, but for high energy consumption athletes, the truth of the matter is that protein doesn’t really provide energy for the body. Before protein can be used in cells as energy, it needs to go through a process call gluconeogenesis to produce glucose. If we are ingesting protein for energy, why don’t we just eat carbohydrates that can be directly used by the body? Protein intake should only be sufficient to ensure our body has enough protein for recovery. If you want energy, eat carbs or fat. A good number for this amount seems to be around 125g for the average competitive cyclist. If you are slightly bigger or smaller, add a bit more or less, respectively.
And 125g is a lot less than you think. Each serving of pasta has 5g of protein in it. The yogurt you eat at breakfast has some 5-20g per serving depending on if it’s greek or regular. A good note for meat is that a deck of cards sized portion of meat is about 4oz or 25g of protein. The protein shake you take after working out is another 25g. For a cyclists to meet their protein goals, they just have to make a conscience effort to get some protein in their diet. As long as they reach beyond white rice and pasta and ensure they get some of any of the following: eggs, meat, dairy, nuts then they should hit their protein numbers.
The only exception for protein here is for explosive or high power athletes such as track riders or road sprinters who may want to hit closer to 200g/day of protein during heavy lifting phases of their training. For the rest of us, just make sure you have a protein source at all your meals and you’ll be fine.