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Most people know that protein can build strong muscles, but they may not know how much they really need. In America, we’ve pretty much had it pounded into our heads that we NEED MORE protein, but that’s not really the case anymore. In 2005 and 2006, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that both men and women over the ages of 20 take in almost twice the recommended amount of protein.

Contrary to popular belief, consuming large amounts of protein does not necessarily translate into stronger muscles. Protein will help muscles rebuild to a point, but after that, recovery begins to plateau. This means that you don’t necessarily want a TON of protein in order to build stronger muscles. Instead, you want to find the sweet spot that promotes muscle recovery without causing weight gain. So, today I want to discuss what every athlete should know about protein.

Protein Needs

So how much protein do you really need as an athlete? Well, as an athlete, your protein needs are higher than the average sedentary adult, but they are not as high as you might think. If you’re like me and you like equations,  you can calculate your own protein needs below.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine have the following protein recommendations for power and endurance athletes, based on body weight:

  • Power athletes (bouldering/weight lifting): 0.55 – 0.8 g/lb per day (1.2 – 1.7 g/kg)
  • Endurance athletes: 0.55 – 0.6 g/lb per day (1.2 – 1.4 g/kg)

So, a 150-lb climber training endurance would need about 83 – 90 grams of protein per day. If that same climber begins strength training or weight lifting, his or her needs could increase up to 120 grams per day. Use your best judgment to estimate your needs. Climbers who participate in consistent, structured training could likely benefit from the upper end of the ranges, but the lower end of the ranges are likely sufficient for weekend warriors and recreational climbers.

Most of us don’t know exactly how much protein we eat on a daily basis, but you might be surprised by your actual intake. The 2005-2006 NHANES found that men consume about 100 grams of protein, and women consume about 70 grams of protein per day, on average. If you want to get an idea of your current protein consumption, take note of everything you put in your mouth in one day, either measuring or estimating amounts to the best of your ability.

You can then enter your meals into a meal tracker app like MyFitnessPal or MyPlate if you have a smartphone, or use an online database like NutritionData or the USDA’s SuperTracker. This should give you a pretty good estimate of your current protein intake and help you adjust accordingly.

Nutrient Timing

Nutrient timing is a heavily debated topic in exercise science – and for good reason. Many consider the post-exercise period to be the most critical time for protein replacement, but studies in the past two decades have shown conflicting results. The common recommendation for athletes is to consume protein immediately following exercise, during the anabolic “window of opportunity”.

However, a review of these studies found that consuming protein immediately after exercise was only necessary and effective if the athlete exercised on an empty stomach (fasted state). Studies found that athletes who consumed protein 1-2 hours before exercise did not need to consume protein immediately after as well. Further research is still needed to determine the best nutrient timing recommendations for athletes, but a review of over 80 studies found that consuming protein both before and after exercise helped to maximize muscle recovery.

Remember: more is not always better. A study in 2008 found that muscle recovery reaches its peak after you consume about 20 grams of protein. After that point, muscle recovery reaches a plateau, and excess protein will either be burned as fuel or stored as fat.

Sources of Protein

  • eggs
  • meat
  • nuts and nut butters
  • quinoa
  • fish and seafood
  • tofu and tempeh
  • lentils and beans
  • protein powder

It’s pretty common for athletes to run to the store for protein powder in the hopes of meeting their protein needs, but this really isn’t necessary. Protein powders can definitely be a convenient option in a pinch, but in most cases, you can easily meet your protein needs with whole food sources. You can tinker with a meal tracking app or online database to figure out how much of these foods you should be eating on a daily basis.

To give you a general idea, you can get about 7 grams of protein from 1 egg, 1 ounce of any meat, 2 Tbsp of a nut butter, 1/3 cup of nuts, quinoa, tofu, or lentils, or 1/4 cup of tempeh. The protein content of protein powders will vary, but I’ll write more about those later.

So, the moral of the story is that protein needs will differ from person to person, based on body weight and training regimen. If you don’t follow any particular training regimen, then just try to meet your protein needs throughout the day. If you are training hard, don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit in order to find the method that works best for you.

Have you found a method that works well for you? Leave a comment below! I’d love to hear what’s working for you guys 🙂


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