Dietary protein is a key nutritional component to humans irrespective of whether they play sport or not. The role that protein has to play is vast and starts from the most basic sub-units right up to the most complex protein structures in the human body. Protein can build, transport cellular information and protein can communicate within the human body. So the question is not ‘do endurance athletes need dietary protein’, because the answer to this is obviously a resounding YES, but rather ‘do endurance athletes need to supplement with protein’…and this is what we’re going to dig a little deeper into.
‘Supplementation’ as a term describes the addition of nutrition into ones habitual dietary intake, so ‘adding’ something to their normal food and drink routine. Quite often athletes struggle to ingest adequate nutrition to meet their needs, especially when training at high levels of intensity, for long periods of time, and in difficult conditions e.g. temperature extremes. The medium in which we ingest nutrition will also influence the rate and quality of absorption, as well as improve the convenience. A liquid source of protein is preferable after exercise, this is because it’s absorbed faster and more readily compared to food sources…plus it can be carried around in your bag in powder form, ready to be mixed within the optimal anabolic window that is within 30mins after your exercise bout.
Whey protein has the highest biological availability compared to any other protein source, meaning it is absorbed more readily than other forms such as meat, egg, pea or soya protein for example. So when considering a protein supplement it might be prudent to start out with a whey protein powder and casein protein option for an optimal balance between fast and slow absorbing protein. Whey protein is easily digested, and consequently enters your blood stream at a faster rate compared to casein protein which forms a gel like consistency in the stomach, this means it’s absorbed more slowly and feeds you for longer.
Benefit of Protein supplementation
In the sport and exercise society, protein is of primary importance for it’s amino acid content, particularly the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). The BCAAs include Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine and they play a critical part in promoting muscle protein synthesis. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of protein, and protein are the basic components of muscle tissue meaning dietary ingestion is vital! Protein supplementation can come in the form of an out and out protein supplement, and/or a BCAA, the only stipulation is that whey protein is better suited to after your workout, whilst BCAAs are suited to before.
The benefit of delivering your body with protein before, during (dependant on duration and intensity of exercise) and after physical activity is irrefutable. Research has proven this theory for decades, making protein a supplement staple for athletes around the world. A regular supply of protein is recommended to minimise the catabolic side effect of training i.e. muscle breakdown associated with exercise, as well as promoting muscle anabolism i.e. muscle growth! Muscle tissue breakdown is universal to almost every sport, meaning protein replenishment is paramount.
Relevance to endurance athletes
An endurance athlete is any person that participates in sports or events that have a high dynamic demand, whereas power athletes perform moves that involves a high static demand. An endurance event is performed over a longer time period and will involve both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. Endurance events come with an inherent demand for both simple and complex carbohydrates in order to maintain glycogen stores for sustained energy, but what many endurance athletes fail to acknowledge is the strain endurance exercises place on their muscle. The breakdown of muscle is catastrophic in endurance events, particular ultra endurance events which are defined as any event lasting longer than 6 hours per session (Mitchell, Haskell, Snell & Van Camp, 2005).
Protein is needed before, during and after sustained bouts of endurance exercise in order to maximise acute and chronic performance and recovery. Protein should be delivered during exercise to stave off muscle catabolism, and the best method of doing this is the ingestion of BCAAs. For endurance events it is worth noting that your body can generally absorb around 10g protein per hour, so it makes sense to deliver it in a liquid form to prevent what’s known as a preferential shift of blood to the stomach, depriving your muscles and lungs of that much needed blood and oxygen. A liquid protein source should be consumed within 30mins after exercise to 1.) stave off catabolism (muscle breakdown) and 2.) promote anabolism, or muscle protein synthesis (Tipton and Luc van Loon, 2013).
Supplements suited to endurance athletes
If an endurance athlete can get optimal ratios of their requisite protein and carbs from one beverage, then it makes sense to use it…so here are a few examples that do just that:
- High 5 Protein Recovery
- Science In Sport REGO Rapid Recovery
- PowerBar Protein Plus Recovery
- XL Nutrition Xtra Protein & Carbs
These supplements deliver protein, carbs and micronutrients such as vitamin A, D, E, as well as iron, magnesium and zinc to name a few, in order to support full body replenishment after heavy bouts of exercise. XL Nutrition Xtra Protein & Carbs in particular, comes with added Creatine Monohydrate (5g per serving) which may suit muscle power endurance. However the muscle bulk that is secondary to the use of creatine may not be desirable for many endurance athletes.
So as an endurance athlete, is it in your interest to supplement with protein? Well, if you want to fully utilise the protein consumed, as well as maximise the rate and extent of muscle protein synthesis, then a whey protein source is a must! Contrary to common belief, protein will not pile on muscle bulk on its own, muscle needs a stimulus such as a heavy load performed in repeated bouts in order to develop muscle bulk. A consistent intake of whey protein will serve to minimise muscle micro tears as well as stimulate repair and repletion for future exercise bouts.
Best practice would be to consume a BCAA approx 20-30mins prior to exercise, as well as intermittent sips during the session (if you wish), followed by a whey protein within 30mins after exercise.
Supplement wish list:
Mitchell, J, H., Haskell, W., Snell, P., Van Camp, S, P. (2005). Task Force 8: classification of sports. J Am Coll Cardiol; 45: 1364-1367
Tipton, K, D., & Luc van Loon, J, C. (2013). Nutritional coaching strategy to modulate training efficiency. Nestle Nutrition Institute. Basel: Karger.