Protein is an essential macronutrient and plays a major role in the process of getting faster through training. If you’re an endurance athlete you probably need more of it than you think, but timing is key, and there are lots of variables to keep in mind. Let’s clear things up!

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What is Protein?

Proteins are a huge category of complicated molecules that play a role in nearly every biological process and structure. There are tens of thousands of proteins in your body, involved in everything from digestion, to hormones, to the basic structure of cells and tissue. 

Protein molecules are themselves composed of thousands of smaller component parts called amino acids. 20 amino acids are essential to human life, and 7 of these can’t be synthesized within your body. These 7 amino acids can only be obtained from your food, making protein consumption a basic requirement for survival.

In common use (and throughout the rest of this blog post), the word “protein” refers to the protein you eat or consume, otherwise known as dietary protein. Protein is one of the 3 essential macronutrients, and while it is typically associated with meat and eggs, it can also be found in legumes, nuts, grains, and vegetables. 

Not all dietary proteins are the same—some contain more essential amino acids than others, and different proteins can have subtly different effects on your body. Additionally, your individual protein needs may vary depending on your age, sex, activity level, and other factors. Let’s take a closer look at some of the specifics of protein.

Do Cyclists Need Protein?

There’s a simple answer to this question—yes! All human beings need protein to survive, and athletes need more than sedentary individuals. And this isn’t only true for bodybuilders and weightlifters; protein is essential for endurance athletes, too.

This is because of a constant process known as protein turnover, in which old proteins are broken down and replaced with new ones. This is why your body needs the amino acids from protein in your diet, allowing it to build new proteins through protein synthesis. This process accelerates in response to the stress training places on your body, and by strengthening your muscles and enabling the adaptations of improving fitness, protein synthesis plays a major role in making you faster. 

How Much Protein Do Cyclists Need?

Exactly how much protein endurance athletes should ingest is a point of ongoing debate and research, but most sources recommend a daily intake between 1.2 – 1.4g of protein per kilogram of body weight for endurance athletes. But there’s good evidence to suggest your protein requirements increase in tandem with the demands of your training—one study suggests your intake should increase to 1.6 – 1.8g protein /kg/day on high-volume training days. You probably already know that hard training demands more fuel and rest, but add protein to that list.

For a 150 lb athlete, this equates to about 122g of protein on a high-volume training day—the amount contained in 6 burger patties, about 5 cans of beans, or almost 19 eggs! It’s an unrealistic amount to ingest in a single meal, but it turns out you wouldn’t want to anyway because your body is limited in how much protein it can utilize at once. 

Spreading Protein Intake Across Meals

The underlying mechanics of protein absorption are far beyond the scope of this blog post. But it’s often said that anything above 20g of protein in a single meal is burned, rather than contributing to muscle protein synthesis. This is a simplification, but there is a basic truth to it: your protein intake should always be spread across multiple meals throughout the day

That said, consuming proteins with other macronutrients slows the rate of digestion, which may let you effectively utilize more protein from each meal than if you ingest it alone. Also, slow-digesting proteins like eggs take a long time to metabolize, and your body is less likely to burn or waste excess protein from these sources. Conversely, some proteins (like whey) are absorbed very quickly, and large doses of these probably won’t contribute to muscle protein synthesis.

The takeaway: spread your protein across multiple doses each day. 20g per meal is a reasonable starting point, but up to 40g/meal may be ok if consumed along with other macronutrients. And finally, fast-digesting proteins are great for recovery shakes after a workout, when you’re trying to quickly jump-start muscle protein synthesis and aid recovery. Otherwise, slow-digesting proteins are probably a better choice.

Specific Recommendations for Female Athletes

Research is surprisingly limited on specific protein recommendations for female athletes. Most research (and protein recommendations) are based on body mass alone, and there is at least some evidence to support the validity of this approach—research shows male and female athletes respond similarly, in relative terms, to strength training; other research suggests protein turnover rates are similar for both sexes.

If differences do exist, they’re probably most pronounced during times of hormonal change—such as perimenopause, for instance, and possibly during certain phases of the menstrual cycle. However, more research is needed to make specific recommendations in this regard. 

One area where there is a clear (and potentially harmful) difference for male and female athletes is the societal pressure that exists around food. Many athletes aren’t getting nearly enough protein, and meeting recommendations can require a significant increase in food intake. Cyclists tend to be overly fixated on calories, and this pressure can be particularly acute for women, adding to the challenge of getting enough protein. 

Protein Timing: Should You Have Protein Before or After Cycling?

Most cyclists strongly associate protein with a “recovery window” said to last about 45 minutes post-workout. Recent research suggests this may be a narrow and limiting way to think of it. Yes, protein after a ride benefits recovery, especially from a hard workout—but overall intake throughout the day may be equally or more important than what you ingest during that 45 minute period. 

Protein Before Your Workout

Protein intake should start at breakfast before your ride. This is partly for logistical reasons; as we’ve already covered, it’s tough to get enough protein if you’re not spreading it throughout the day. It’s also backed by science, with research in strength athletes finding 3 high-protein meals are better than 2.

Immediately pre-workout, the primary purpose of nutrition is to fuel the work and optimize performance through this fueling. Carbohydrates are key (especially for high-intensity training) but protein can play a supporting role here, too. While it probably won’t improve your performance during your ride, some protein ingested with carbs before you begin your workout may help facilitate recovery and adaptation afterward. 

Protein During Your Workout

Likewise, protein ingested on-bike isn’t shown to improve performance. In fact, it might even disrupt digestion, and it shouldn’t be taken at the expense of the carbohydrate fuel your muscles need to sustain the demands of your workout. But a recent meta-analysis suggests that protein ingested with carbs during a workout may slightly improve time to exhaustion, possibly by acting on your subjective perception of exertion. 

As with pre-workout ingestion, research suggests consuming protein along with carbs during a workout can improve muscle protein synthesis immediately following exercise. Since muscle protein synthesis is a process by which your body adapts to training, this might improve the effectiveness of your training overall. On-bike protein probably isn’t something to prioritize on race day, but during a long workout, it may be worth considering eating a small amount.

Post-workout Protein

Post-workout nutrition has two main goals: to restore your muscle glycogen stores with carbohydrates and to facilitate the body’s shift to an anabolic state of repair and recovery with protein.

Traditionally, a 4:1 ratio of protein to carbs has been recommended for this purpose. But it’s probably not the ratio of one macronutrient to another that’s as important as simply getting the protein and carbohydrates your body needs. The more depleted your glycogen stores, the more carbs you need to restore your supply, and research suggests ingesting protein and carbs together improves glycogen synthesis and improves subsequent performance.

Post-workout protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis, reduces protein breakdown, and allows your body to repair the muscular damage that occurs as a result of exercise. Immediately after a workout, fast-digesting proteins are ideal for this purpose; most experts consider whey protein the best choice for your recovery shake. But don’t limit post-workout protein intake to just after you get off the bike. Muscle protein synthesis is elevated for as long as 48 hours after exercise, so continue ingesting protein across multiple meals during this time (and beyond). Use slower-digesting protein from a varied mix of whole food sources to allow yourself to meet your daily needs without ingesting more than your body can utilize at once.

Protein Before Bed

You may think of dinner as the last meal of the day, but if you’re on a training camp or at a stage race consider eating a protein snack before bed. The hours you spend sleeping are a neglected opportunity for muscle protein synthesis, and by eating a snack rich in slow-digesting protein before bed, you can noticeably improve your recovery and readiness for subsequent tough workouts. This is a common technique amongst pro athletes. 

Protein and Masters Athletes: Do Older Athletes Need More Protein? 

As athletes age, we experience a natural degradation of muscle quality and quantity and a resulting decline in performance. This is known as sarcopenia, and after a subtle start in the late thirties or early forties, it accelerates as athletes enter their fifties and sixties. 

A significant cause of sarcopenia is anabolic resistance, in which less muscle protein synthesis occurs as a result of the same dose of protein than it otherwise would. This reduces an athlete’s recovery, which in turn leads to less training. Less training stimulates less muscle protein synthesis, and the process continues. It’s an unstoppable feedback loop that ultimately leads to weaker muscles and decreased performance, but there’s evidence that nutrition and exercise can significantly slow its effects.

This may have implications for protein needs. Anabolic insensitivity means older muscles incorporate less dietary protein; a study of resistance athletes in their seventies shows it may take as much as 50% more protein to achieve the same level of muscle protein synthesis seen in younger athletes. As a result, some experts recommend that older athletes ingest more post-workout protein (about 40g) than younger athletes (for whom 20g may be sufficient). 

But as with all things protein, the evidence is mixed. At least one study suggests older athletes’ protein requirements are the same as their younger selves. But no matter how contradictory the evidence, one thing can be said for sure: regardless of age, cyclists need lots of protein. Give your body what it needs, and you will get faster.

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References/ Further Reading

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Churchward-Venne, T. A., Holwerda, A. M., Phillips, S. M., & van Loon, L. J. (2016). What is the Optimal Amount of Protein to Support Post-Exercise Skeletal Muscle Reconditioning in the Older Adult?. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(9), 1205–1212.

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