The Special Protein Needs of Athletes (Excerpted from Chapter 10 - Nutrition and Weight Control)

For many years athletes believed that you ate muscle to build muscle. Strength athletes almost universally accepted the notion that meat (which generally consists of the muscle of animals), and plenty of it, was needed to enhance performance. There was much myth and some sense in this view.

Clearly, a pre-game steak (a meal that is relatively high in fat and protein) is not beneficial to athletes, particularly those who are involved in endurance sports. There are a number of reasons for this. Fat requires more oxygen than carbohydrates in order to be metabolized. Digestion of protein generates certain byproducts that are believed to hinder performance. Neither proteins nor fat are converted to energy as efficiently as carbohydrates.

For years modern nutritionists maintained that athletes required no more protein in their diets than the average person (the RDA for males aged nineteen to twenty-four is 58 grams per day) and that their only legitimate need was for increased calories, which were best provided by carbohydrates. Today research appears to support what many athletes have believed for years: that extra protein does seem to be of value for athletes, particularly those who are interested in building strength and muscle size. Nutritionists are slowly accepting the notion that extra protein may be beneficial to athletes in special situations (i.e., when muscle tissue is being broken down and built up as a result of intense training).

How much protein does an athlete need? Typically, prescriptions are related to body weight. Standard nutritional recommendations for the general public typically range of from .75 gram to .90 gram per kilo of body weight. This recommendation assumes that the average person uses a little less than .5 gram of protein per kilo of body weight per day. The recommended dietary allowances are in the .75 to .90 range because it is assumed that the quality of protein ingested will not be perfect (in terms of its composition and bioavailability) and that there is a need to provide for individual differences with regard to protein needs.

Recent research suggests that hard training athletes may want to establish target levels of 1.5 to 2.0 grams per kilo of body weight (perhaps even more for the athlete who is training very hard and seeking to facilitate hypertrophy). This level of protein intake appears to have little chance of doing any harm (unless an athlete resorts to a diet that is high in fat as well as protein). For athletes who are already at the limits of their weight classes in terms of muscular body weight, the 1.5 to 2.0 range indicated above, or even less, may be perfectly adequate. Not surprisingly, individual differences need to be recognized. Some athletes who consume as much protein as was suggested will neither feel well nor perform well. Athletes who are growing very fast may find that even more protein is needed. Each athlete needs to monitor his or her own reaction to protein in order to devise a dietary plan that will work. In addition, the same athletes may have different needs during different periods in their athletic lives. When the athlete is moving up a weight class and training to encourage muscle growth, more protein may be needed. When the athlete is training less rigorously or is maintaining his or her body weight, protein needs will tend to decline.

In most cases, the hard training athlete will be able to achieve needed protein levels without altering the percentage of protein in the diet (12% to 15% of calories is generally considered to be a good target range). This is because the athlete who is training very hard is typically ingesting more calories than one who is not. Consequently, the protein intake per kilo of body weight is automatically higher than it is for an athlete with a lower caloric intake. The exception to this rule may be the weightlifter who is training very intensely but with a relatively low volume of exercise. In this case, the caloric requirements of the athlete may not be very much higher than the caloric requirements of a relatively sedentary person. This weightlifter may need a higher than normal percentage of protein in his or her diet in order to achieve adequate levels of protein intake.

Copyright 1998 A is A Communications. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 15, 1998