At its most basic, sports nutrition for endurance athletes has two major functions: to deliver fuel for energy and adequate nutrients for recovery. Enter protein. Protein is a crucial for endurance athletes to recover, rebuild and go again
Protein for endurance athletes – when to consume protein
It’s been well researched that the best time to consume protein is after a hard training session or race. This is when the body’s cells are searching for the necessary fuel to repair. Your body will need help to repair the damage you’ve just inflicted on it.
Of course, damage is a natural part of the training effect - and the subsequent inflammation isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s merely the stimulus the body needs to come back stronger and faster.
Protein and endurance athletes – what is the protein window and why does it matter?
But hold your horses.
Although consuming protein after a session is ideal, don’t be pressured into thinking you must consume protein “within 15-minutes of finishing your session”, as many nutrition companies will have you believe.
The 15-minute protein window was invented by nutrition companies, and it’s easy to see why: if you’ve just finished the gym and “must” get a protein hit within 15-minutes, well you don’t have much choice but to reach for a shake, unless you're prepared to carry a chicken breast in your pocket. Queue increased sales.
But the 15-minute window is a fabrication. A study by the McMaster University in Canada showed that muscle protein synthesis is elevated for up to 24-hours post-exercise, stating “you don’t have to rush to pound a protein shake”.
The protein window is important, but it's not as narrow as you've been lead to believe
Dig a little deeper and you'll find plenty of studies showing that consuming protein within an hour is more than adequate, with another dose three or four hours later if it was a particularly hard session.
Protein and endurance athletes – how much do I need?
Protein portions are discussed like a matter of life and death, with detailed descriptions of grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight commonplace. But this really is not necessary. As protein is widely available in food, a good athletic diet will mean you're already getting plenty for basic needs.
Protein deficiency in the developed world is practically non-existent and wildly exaggerated to sell product - endurance athletes merely need to be aware of a little extra need post-session.
One thing worth noting is that you’ll reap greater gains by splitting your protein consumption throughout the day – over three or four snacks / meals - rather than loading it all within one meal.
Best protein sources for endurance athletes
What you're looking for here are sources that are as high on the nutrient density scale as possible: foods which are whole, unprocessed and with no sugars or sweeteners. So, if a product sells a shake with flavours like ‘cookies and cream' or 'birthday cake', it’s probably best to avoid as you’ll be getting a whole lot more than just protein!
Whole foods are the kings of protein for endurance athletes
There are many natural protein sources, but here’s a list to get your started. What’s best about these whole foods is that not only do you get a good dose of protein, but also a ton of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals included and no added crap!
Make these the core of your protein strategy:
- Nuts: at 15-25% protein, almonds, walnuts, cashews and peanuts all rock. Go for unroasted, unsweetened options and scoff by the handful, sprinkle into salads, mains and deserts or add to smoothies
- Seeds: packing similar protein doses to nuts (15-25%) chia, sunflower and flaxseed are all brilliant. Add any of these to salads, smoothies or deserts for a protein boost
- Oats: with 17% protein, oats are awesome for boosting protein content of any meal easily and tastily. Blend into smoothies, add to deserts or sprinkle on fruit salad
- Other key players: spirulina (at 60% protein per 100g it makes steak at 22% look positively weedy) is great to add to smoothies, while quinoa (13% protein) is the perfect substitute for white rice (3%), pasta (5%) or potatoes (2%) in main dishes.
- Eggs (13%) are great in any shape or form and meat and fish (all around 20-25% protein) can all be beneficial too although all of these come with a caveat - quality and moderation is everything. So many animal foods are from industrial production which far too often means sick animals stuffed with antibiotics and more that you're then ingesting. Be conscientious of the source and you’ll be right on.
Protein for endurance athletes – protein powder
For a convenient hit en route to the office post-gym session, a protein shake can be a winner. But please avoid the ones with manmade sugars and sweeteners – the worst of these to avoid are sucralose, fructose, acesulfame K and maltodextrin.
We created our Premium Protein as the antidote to ordinary sports nutrition. We’re proud that it contains only six natural ingredients, packs a solid 20g protein per serving and tastes delicious. Plus, it's really easy on the gut.
Our Premium Protein is natural and utilises the power of whole foods to deliver a protein punch
- Non-GMO soy powder: a decent option, but the non-GMO part is vital. Soy is one of the most heavily genetically modified crops in the world and GMO soy has a host of unwelcome benefits from liver issues to fertility problems. Certified non-GMO is the only way to go
- Pea and rice powder: more solid options, if they're not packed with added junk. A glance of the label will sort the good from bad
- Whey powder: avoid. While a small number of good whey proteins exist (organic, non-GMO, no sweeteners or additives) the vast majority are the lowest possible quality, packed with junk additives and sweeteners and overpriced to the point of ridiculousness. This post explains why whey protein is usually a bad choice.
Protein for endurance athletes: conclusion
So there you have it, all you ever wanted to know about protein for endurance in one handy hit - when to use it, how much to use and how to avoid the biggest mistakes out there.
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