Power Up with Protein

More than just a muscle mender, protein is equally important before and during a hard training session


Posted: 10 January 2011
by Kelly Bastone

Credit: Michael Rosenfeld/ Getty Images

If you skimp on protein your body will borrow it from muscle to meet its needs, undermining the fitness you've worked so hard to achieve. "Getting enough protein protects your lean mass," says Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "And that's where your power comes from."

The benefits

Because protein slows digestion and lowers a food's rating on the glycaemic index, it prevents high-energy carbs from sending your blood sugar soaring, then crashing. That's especially valuable during long training sessions or races, when steady-release energy keeps you from running out of energy. During fuel shortages, your body sends protein to the liver, where it is turned into backup carbs.

But the power of protein doesn't stop there. Its amino acids act like recovery agents that refresh your body: after a muscle-ravaging session, protein rebuilds tissues and prepares them for more exertion. It also bolsters the immune system - our bodies require protein to make infection-fighting white blood cells.

Daily Intake

Triathletes should consume a daily dose of 1g of protein per 1kg of body weight. Eat 15-25g of that during recovery, within an hour of finishing a ride or run. And always target lean sources. "Skip the animal proteins that are loaded with saturated fats, such as full-fat cheeses and burgers, and opt for reduced-fat dairy or lean meats," says Anding. Here's how to maximise your protein intake - without taking in unwanted calories.

High-quality proteins

High-quality proteins offer more muscle-building amino acids than others, and thus are more valuable to endurance athletes. "Eggs and dairy products are incredibly high-quality sources," says Anding.

Such proteins are considered 'complete' because they contain enough of all the essential amino acids needed to rebuild cells. Milk is particularly high in branched-chain amino acids, including leucine, which has been found to trigger muscle recovery.

Most plant proteins are 'incomplete,' lacking a few key amino acids. "To build and repair tissue, those proteins need a little help," Anding says. Traditional food pairings often form complete combos: beans are good, but adding rice increases the overall protein quality.

Proteins are absorbed at different rates (similar to fast-and slow-release carbs). Whey, a milk protein, is digested quickly - which is why it's preferred in recovery beverages (see The Protein Decoder, below). But another milk protein, casein, is digested slowly, so it's ideal for minimising blood-sugar spikes throughout the day.

Double up

Choose protein sources that are also high in other valuable nutrients. Lean beef and dark-meat chicken (legs and thighs) contain high-quality protein and iron, which helps deliver oxygen to muscles.

Cold-water fish (such as cod and salmon) offer protein and omega-3 fatty acids - anti-inflammatory agents that ease aching joints and muscles. And many low-fat dairy products combine doses of protein with calcium, which stimulates muscle contraction.


The protein decoder

Whey: A milk protein that is digested quickly - which makes it the ideal protein to consume during exercise. It's also a good choice for recovery.

Casein: Milk's primary protein releases its amino acids slowly, delivering
a steady supply of muscle rebuilders to a tired body.

Soya: A plant-based protein source containing antioxidants. After initial scepticism, most experts now believe it's as digestible as milk proteins. 


Eat this: Eggs

These portable protein sources are your golden ticket to toning up

How to use them:

➜ Top whole-wheat toast with a scrambled egg and 1 tablespoon salsa for a low-cal twist on huevos rancheros.
➜ Chop hard-boiled eggs and add them to
a salad, or stir with a squirt of mustard and plain nonfat yogurt to make a low-fat egg
salad you can stuff into a pitta or wrap.
➜ Eggs are a good way to thicken recipes. Swirl one into soup as it simmers to make it more filling, or crack an egg into hot couscous or rice as it's cooking for a creamy texture.


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