Macronutrients. #1, Protein

Carbohydrate, fat and protein, are known as macronutrients and a healthy balanced diet consists of all of these.  Proper nutrition is essential to provide us with the energy to train, to help us recover, and to keep our immune system healthy.  But how much of each macro do we need? What type of each? And, when should we consume them?  


We’ll be looking at each macronutrient in turn, first up – protein.


So, first the sciencey bit. What is protein?

Proteins are the building blocks of your body.  Our organs, muscles, bones, skin and hair are made of proteins; and hormones, enzymes, antibodies and haemoglobin (which carries oxygen in your blood) are protein molecules. So you can see that protein is not just for muscle repair and growth, it is also needed for the correct functioning of our immune, hormonal, circulatory and digestive systems.

A protein is made from a chain of amino acids (AAs),  of which 9 AAs are essential, which means that we must get them from our diet as they cannot be made by the body. 3 of these essential AAs are branched chain (these are your BCAAs you often hear about as a supplement) which are metabolised primarily in the muscle rather than the liver like other amino acids.

How much do we need?

For endurance athletes, the general advice nowadays is to take in 1-1.5g per kg bodyweight per day, and of that to have 15-25g of your daily amount as high quality protein within 1hr of finishing exercise to optimise recovery, and then spread the rest of your intake out over the course of the day.  The exact amount you need varies depending on your size, how much training you are doing and the intensity of your training. So if you’re smaller/training less start at the lower end of the recommended amount. During heavy training you will need more to help you recover in time for your next session, but usually your increased calorie consumption when in heavy training will cover your protein requirements.

When should we have it to maximise recovery?

Within the first 60mins after exercise you should consume protein to assist in the repair of damaged muscle tissue and help with synthesis of new muscle proteins.  In a following article we’ll discuss carbohydrates, but the importance in relation to protein is that the effect of post-exercise protein intake is enhanced when protein is combined with carbohydrate, so your post-exercise nutrition should include a mix of protein and carbohydrate for optimum recovery.

If it is not convenient to have a full meal within 30-60mins of finishing a session have a recovery drink such as a whey protein shake (or just chocolate milk) or yoghurt, which contain high quality and also adequate carbohydrate.

What are good sources?

Lean meats (chicken, white fish), eggs and milk. Also, red meat (but it obviously has a higher fat content), and if you are vegetarian natural/greek yoghurt, quinoa, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds.

Animal foods nearly always contain all the essential AAs in sufficient quantity, and are known as a complete protein source. Other protein sources such as grains and seeds may lack one or more essential AA, or not contain very much of them, so if you don’t eat animal proteins just make to sure to eat a variety of protein-containing foods each day in order to get all the AAs you require.

It is not necessary to take extra supplements such as BCAAs or protein powders. As long as you’re eating a balanced diet you will likely be getting enough protein from normal dietary intake.  Exceptions to this might be during very intense periods of training. In general, look to maximise your protein intake from your diet before adding in supplements (which can also be quite costly!). Although, as mentioned above, protein shakes can be a practical way to take on protein when sufficient food cannot be found.

Finally, some suggestions for high protein snacks that you can use to up your daily protein intake – apple and peanut butter, carrots and hummus, greek yoghurt, handful of nuts (just be wary of fat content).

 In following articles we’ll look at the importance of carbohydrates and fats.  Any questions on any of the macronutrients or how to include them in your diet please message us on facebook or twitter and we’ll get right back to you.

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