A deep dive on protein and athletes: best sources, when to take it, how often and much more
After our recent post about why protein shakes suck, we had so many great questions about whether protein powders were necessary, which were best, if real food could be a viable substitute for athletes and whether concepts like 'the protein window' mattered. There was so much we decided to dive into the whole subject in more detail so here goes.
Why recovery means more than protein & why most recovery products do more harm than good:
Hard training causes a number of damaging effects in the body which need dealing with properly for recovery - and maximum performance gain - to be achieved. These include increased inflammation, ramped up acidity, increased free radical production and - for endurance athletes hitting 1-2 hour-plus sessions - depressed immune function (more on immune suppression in endurance from this blog post here).
Any processed food not only fails to address any of these issues, it also actively makes these symptoms worse. Processed, manmade and high GI sugars compound the problem further. Add the fact dairy is naturally acidifying and increases inflammation and almost any protein shake or bar is a timebomb waiting to wreck your performance and recovery. For more on how much sugar is really in your protein shake or bar, check this post on food industry tricks, and for the mechanics of how so much added sugar is legally hidden on a nutrition label check this one here on the great maltodextrin caper.
If we liken the body after a hard workout to a fire, using processed, high-sugar, dairy-based protein products to recover is rather like throwing matches onto that fire. It can only make the situation worse.
- Hard training + processed food = kaboom!
Protein is definitely needed as a key part of performance and recovery but you can add any extra needed via good quality real food - nuts, oats, beans, lean meats and fish, eggs, and so on.
A great and easy DIY protein shake for example is to throw a banana, oats, some water and a handful of almonds into a blender with ice. The almonds and water blend up to make almond milk adding a creamy texture with an awesome non-dairy protein hit, the oats up the protein count further and the banana delivers taste, glucose and potassium. Cheaper than protein powder, tastier, and so much better for you it's not funny. Oh, and it won't leave you painfully holding in massive farts when you go out for dinner with the in-laws later on.
Do we need a specific amount of protein in a set time after a workout?
In the real world, no. Stressing over exactly how many grams of protein to hit in precisely the right timeframe is exactly how the industry wants us to think, because when that panic is created they can set themselves up as our saviours and the only reliable option for hitting exactly what we need, exactly when we need it. Great for sales, less good for athletes, for all of the reasons above.
Instead, simply being conscious that you’ve had a hard session and knowing some increased protein will be beneficial, while also remembering that getting it in within the first hour after training will help, is all that’s needed. Then address that need with real food.
If anyone doubts this approach, they should try it for a month and see what difference they feel.
Most people automatically reach for the protein products when they get serious about training, so have never experienced training without them. The gains they experience are far more likely to be from their training, while the downsides they experience - bloating, stomach issues, acidity, delayed recovery, illness - are far more likely to be from the products they're using.
But with both factors in play at the same time it's impossible to separate one from the other, particularly when you add the placebo effect of so much protein marketing.
To break the cycle drop all processed sports nutrition for a month, swap to real food, and see how you feel. Our money would be on everyone seeing improvements. But we’re all an experiment of one so if you don’t feel benefits and genuinely feel better with processed products then stick with them.
What's the evidence from elite athletes?
These guys always grab the sponsors' products when the cameras are rolling - that's what they're paid to do and not only do athletes have a living to earn, they have a limited time window to do so. Pro sport is not a lifetime career, particularly in aerobic sports. But what do they do when the cameras aren't there?
33Fuel co-founder Warren was originally a journalist for the UK's major papers which gave him a unique insight into both sides of the coin. As he explains:
'At a press event I attended which was sponsored by a large nutrition co with Chris Hoy, he was given his ‘recovery pack’ after being on track, which he then quietly gave to a friend before tucking into a chicken sandwich. I have no idea if he ate the ‘recovery pack’ another time, all I do know is that the world's most successful Olympic cyclist and a man no one would ever call short of muscle or power, opted for a chicken sandwich after a session over powder or processed bars.'
- Chris Hoy: very strong, very fast, likes chicken sandwiches
Real food is always the best option. There is no other part of our diet where we actively choose processed food for performance, yet in sports nutrition otherwise smart and educated folks have been blindsided into believing an exception somehow exists. It doesn’t.
Particularly when you look at the amount of added sugar in any protein product. There are generally 3-5 sugar sources, the most common being maltodextrin, acesulfame K (also called acesulfame potassium and E950), and fructose. All are sugars and all are most commonly found in junk food across the board, which says all you need to really know - the short and longterm health damage of over-consuming processed sugars are as real for regular sedentary joes as they are for hard-charging athletes.
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