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How much protein do endurance athletes need?

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Protein intake is one of the most hotly debated topics related to sports nutrition. Most athletes probably ingest more protein than they really require and there is a flourishing market for protein supplements, amino acid mixes and all kinds of protein-based 'power drinks' that promise athletes top performance and massive gains of lean muscle mass. The consensus of most sports scientists is that while the protein needs of strength training athletes are increased, such high levels are not necessary and may become harmful.

Meat, fish, chicken, milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, nuts and legumes are all a source of various amino acids, the building blocks for protein.

Protein requirements for the various groups of athletes are as follows:

General sports activity

0.8-1g protein for every kg you weigh


Strength training athletes

1.2-1.7g protein for every kg you weigh


Endurance athletes

1.2-1.7g protein for every kg you weigh


These protein intakes should be easy to achieve without the need for protein supplements – the extra kilojoules from a high energy, nutritious diet will allow you to eat more protein without having to consciously emphasize protein foods.

  • Sports nutritionists believe that ingesting up to 2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day should not cause any negative effects in healthy athletes. Intakes exceeding this amount can, however, be potentially dangerous for the following reasons:
  • High protein intakes are often associated with high intakes of animal fat (saturated fat and cholesterol), which can raise blood lipid levels and increase the risk for developing heart disease.
  • High-protein diets can increase calcium excretion via the kidneys which can in turn lead to kidney stones and osteoporosis, particularly in female athletes who restrict their energy intake.
  • Susceptible athletes may develop kidney disease if their protein intake is too high.
  • Purified amino acids (from supplements) may be cancer causing.
  • High intakes may promote amino-acid catabolism and protein oxidation.

Keep in mind:

Timing, amounts and quality of protein maybe more important for muscle tissue reconditioning and hence sports performance, than trying to achieve large daily amount of protein.

Before and during exercise, recent evidence suggest that the addition of protein to carbohydrate (in a ratio of 3-4:1) may be beneficial in terms of improving endurance performance, increasing muscle glycogen stores, reducing muscle damage and promoting better training adaptions.

After exercise, new research has shown that the benefits of protein on muscle are maximized when ingested in amounts of 20g (not more) together with carbohydrate, preferably in the form of high quality proteins and ingested within 30-60min post exercise. This can easily be achieved through dietary sources such as flavored low-fat milk.

Griddled pork chops with sultana and herb salad


For any further information, please contact the Pick n Pay Health Hotline dietitian, Teresa Harris on 0800 11 22 88 or e-mail her on healthhotline@pnp.co.za.

For details of a registered sports dietitian in your area, go to the ADSA (Association of Dietetics in SA) website at www.adsa.org.za

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