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Recommended Protein Intake for Athletes

Recommended Protein Intake for Athletes

Alright, so you’re in the process of fine-tuning your macronutrient goals. You’ve read a handful of random articles about recommended protein intake for athletes but you’re not sure how it all translates to you and your personal situation.

For some of you, it is thrilling to feel like you can have such control over what lands on your plate. For others, it is somewhat stressful trying to ensure that you are hitting the mark each day. I hear you! Hitting a specific protein goal each day can be very tricky when you are constantly on the go, are a picky eater, have limited options in a cafeteria etc. BUT, fear not. In this article, I will review the recommended protein intake for athletes, how that calculation pertains to you and how you can reach your daily protein goal with finesse!

Why is protein so important?

It does not matter what sport you play or what your body composition goals might be; adequate protein intake is critical to human survival! Protein is a component of literally every cell in your body! Your hair and nails are actually made almost entirely of protein.

The major benefits of protein in the body are as follows:

  • Assists in the building and repairing of tissue
  • It is a key building block for cartilage, bone, skin, muscle, and even blood
  • It helps to create enzymes and hormones

Protein is known as a macronutrient, meaning that we need fairly large amounts of this nutrient to maintain our health. Here are some of the signs that you may not be eating enough protein:

  • Poor recovery post workout, excessively sore for an extended period of time
  • Constant hunger
  • Unexplained decrease in lean muscle mass
  • Inability to gain lean muscle mass
  • Inability to lose weight

How do I calculate my protein needs?

First and foremost: In order to make sure that you are meeting your daily protein goal, I would like you to actually sit down and calculate your needs. In an ideal situation, you would be working with your local registered dietitian to estimate your protein needs. However, I realize this is not possible for everyone so I am going to teach you a quick way to complete the task on your own.  It may not be perfect, but it should help you come pretty darn close to where you need to be.
Step 1: Get on a scale and retrieve an up to date body weight. Assuming the scale provided your weight is in pounds, divide that number by 2.2 in order to get to kilograms (kg) of body weight.  For example, purposes, let’s say you weigh 140 lbs. This amounts to 63.6 kg.
Step 2: Think about your goals. Are you trying to maintain muscle mass? Gain lean mass? Do you have a health-related condition where you are required to limit your protein intake?

Here is a quick cheat sheet to help you through the process.

Low Protein Intake

.8-1.0 g of protein per kg of body weight is a safe recommendation for athletes suffering from a current medical condition requiring them to restrict dietary protein intake. This amounts to 51- 64 g protein/day for the 140 lb athlete.

Moderate Protein Intake

1.2-1.7 g of protein per kg of body weight is the recommended range for the average athlete.  Endurance based athletes and low to moderate intensity weekend warriors typically feel and perform best at 1.2-1.4g of protein per kg of body weight. Think swimming, cross country, triathlons, rowing etc. Strength and power athletes tend to maintain lean body mass easier around the 1.4-1.7g protein per kg of body weight. Think football, hockey, sprinting, wrestling etc.

It is also important to note that in some cases, the recommended protein intake will depend more upon the athlete’s individual goals vs. the nature of the sport. For example, a cross country running hoping to add a little lean mass may find his or herself closer to 1.5 g/kg vs 1.2 g/kg of protein/day.

Lastly, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! 1.2-1.7 is a fairly wide range. If you estimate that 1.2g/kg is best for you and you consistently hit that goal for a few weeks and you are not seeing progress, start to gradually increase the amount of protein you consume each day. Jump to 1.4g/kg and see where that takes you after 3-4 weeks. The same can be said for the reverse.

If you are an eager beaver and you start with 1.7 g/kg for the day but find yourself extremely full, sluggish, stomach upset etc. it’s time to bring down your dosage a few notches to see if you notice an improvement.

High Protein Intake

During specific periods of an athlete’s season, like for example where he or she has been asked to cut weight for a certain situation, (think of the wrestler trying to make weight before a big match or the body builder looking to perfect his or her physique right before competition), a dietitian may recommend 2.0g/kg of body weight for a period of time. This helps the athlete maintain lean muscle mass while also feeling full during a time when carbohydrate intake and overall calories are severely restricted. When referencing the 140 lb athlete, this amounts to 127 g protein/day.

Pro Tip #1: If you are eating a lot of fresh food (which I hope is the case!) you will not have a food label to read in order to find grams of protein. To get around this obstacle, use this quick calculation: for every ounce of animal protein, that equals approximately 7 grams of protein towards your daily goals. So, if you cook and eat a 4 oz chicken breast (weigh the protein AFTER it is cooked) 4×7= 28, and you just consumed 28g protein out of your daily total.

Pro Tip #2: It is always best to consume protein in divided doses throughout the day. This allows your body a change to take the food, digest it, and then utilize it throughout your system. The math doesn’t have to be perfect, all I am saying is that if your goal is 90g protein/day, 70g should not be consumed at one sitting for dinner! Instead, Aim for three meals containing roughly 30g of protein or consider three meals of 25g protein and a snack or two to total 15g.

What are some examples of the best protein sources?

Ok, you just calculated your estimated protein goal for the day. This is a big accomplishment. Great work! Now, let’s figure out how to obtain the best sources of protein.

On the whole, animal protein tends to have a more inclusive amino acid profile vs. plant protein sources. This is a major reason that most athletes choose to incorporate some form of animal protein into their daily or weekly routine.

Plants can absolutely provide us with protein as well, however, in many situations, animal protein contains more grams of protein per ounce this making it easier to reach your daily goal eating a smaller volume of food. The best sources of protein include the following:

Animal-based:

Egg
Organic Chicken
Organic Turkey
Grass-Fed Beef
Wild Caught Fish (Aim for cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, trout)
Organic Greek Yogurt
Protein powder: Organic Grass-Fed (try Garden of Life Sport Certified Grass Fed Whey), Pure Paleo Protein by Designs for Health (A pure beef collagen peptides protein powder.  I promise, it tastes better than it sounds!)

Plant-Based:

Tofu
Tempeh
Edamame
Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, black beans, black eyed peas, cannellini beans etc.)
Seeds (Sunflower, flax, chia)
Nuts /Nut Butters
Quinoa
Protein powder: pea, rice, hemp. Organic soy protein may be a nice option, however, due to its high allergenicity, processed soy is often not my first recommendation.

What would a typical menu look like for a protein conscious athlete?

Time to put all of the pieces together. Let’s say that this 140 lb athlete decided to aim for 1.5g/kg of protein each day. This amounts to approximately 95 g protein/day and translates to 13-14 oz/day. Here is what a typical day might look like:

Normal Meals

Breakfast: 2 eggs + cup of oatmeal with apple slices and 1 TBSP chia seeds (15g protein)
Snack: apple + 1.5 TBSP almond butter (5g protein)
Lunch: 3 oz grilled chicken + side salad + baked potato (21g protein)
Snack: Granola Bar ( 3-5g protein)
Dinner: 4 oz baked fish + 1 cup brown rice + 1-2 cups roasted broccoli in olive oil ( 30g protein)

Practice: Recovery Shake: 20g scoop protein powder + 1 frozen banana + 1 cup unsweetened almond milk (22g protein)

While we prefer to get our protein mostly from food sources, unfortunately, this isn’t always possible.  In these situations, a high-quality grass-fed protein powder is essential.  We do have a few favorite protein powders that we like such as Garden of Life Sport Certified Grass Fed Whey.  To read more about the benefits of grass-fed protein powders over traditional whey protein as well an amazing budget pick sourced from Ireland, check out our post on The Best Grass Fed Whey Proteins.

Regardless of what you choose, be sure to check the label and read the ingredients carefully.  There is a high variance in quality. Lower quality products will lead to less than optimal recovery and performance so choose wisely.

So, there we have if folks! Hopefully, after reading this article you not only understand the reasoning behind the recommended protein intake for athletes but you also understand how to turn this number into something tangible.

Are you an athlete looking to gain weight and looking for the best ways to gain pure, solid, healthy weight without the flab? Check out our handout Gain Weight Like a Champion.

Is your estimated protein intake higher, lower or exactly what you had estimated for yourself? Share your comments below!

About The Author

Kylene Bogden

Kylene Bogden is one of the most well respected Functional Sports Dietitians in the United States. As a high school and collegiate sprinter, she experienced recurrent injury and fatigue. After years of constant struggle, she eventually learned that an abundance of processed foods and poor fueling strategies were the root of her performance issues. Kylene's personal journey as an athlete fueled her passion for finding a more progressive approach to sports nutrition. Since then, she has helped thousands of individuals dramatically improve overall health and athletic performance by taking a whole food approach. To learn more about Kylene's story and how a functional nutrition approach can help you to achieve your goals, simply click on the contact us link in the upper right-hand corner today!

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