When we think about improving strength through nutrition as athletes, we usually think of protein. As one of the three macronutrients important for athletic performance, protein is the building block for muscles, but sometimes we aren’t confident with how much we should be consuming and what types. Protein is important for any athlete, and fuels many functions within the body such as body tissue growth and maintenance; hormone and enzyme synthesis; balanced fluids and electrolyte levels; and exercise-associated muscle damage repair.
It plays a key role in the transportation and storage of nutrients and makes up about twenty percent of our bodies. Protein sources go beyond animal-based products and protein powders, but are both top quality sources to get your gains.
Complete versus incomplete proteins
During the digestion process of protein, amino acids are formed under two categories:
- Essential amino acids: required by the body to meet psychological needs; cannot be produced by the body and must be derived from dietary intake; includes: isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, histidine and valine.
- Non-essential amino acids: produced by the body; still important for healthy body function
Getting in all the aminos can play a role in overall muscle growth. Complete proteins are those in which all essential amino acids are present, which can be found most commonly in animal sources. This includes products like milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs.
You can also obtain a complete protein source from a high-quality soy protein. Some grains contain complete proteins such as quinoa and amaranth, which is why they’re often dubbed as superfoods.
Incomplete proteins are mostly plant-based sources such as nuts, grains, seeds, nut butters and legumes. You can pair together incomplete proteins to obtain a full amino profile, but that can often be challenging and time-consuming.
For example, you can combine peanut butter with whole-grain bread, or brown rice with black beans.
Think: you can make $10 with one bill, or with a combination of smaller change. Choose which method is easier for you.
How much protein do you need?
Protein needs are going to vary on what type of athlete you are and your goals.
For argument’s sake, let’s say you’re a powerlifter and looking to get stronger and therefore increase your muscle mass. You should, at the very least, have enough protein to be fuelling your lean mass. If you’re not sure of true body composition (fat mass versus lean/muscle mass), then getting tested through sources like BodPod, DEXA scan or a water dunk tank, would really help you to measure your progress. If we were to make an educated guesstimate on where your protein intake should be at if you’re tracking your macronutrients and looking to increase your amount of lean mass, then probably around your body weight in grams (example: a 140lb female should be getting around 140g of protein per day.) Again, this is if you are a strength athlete looking to get stronger and build your lean mass. A common reference you can find almost anywhere online (and I can – for the most part – agree with) is:
Light to moderate activity: 1.2-1.7g/KG of bodyweight (or 0.5-0.8g/LB)
Building muscle: 1.4-1.8g/KG of bodyweight (or 0.6-0.8g/LB)
High-intensity endurance training: 1.4-2.5g/KG of bodyweight (or 0.7-1.2g/LB)
These numbers are not definite and can vary per athlete. It’s smart to have educated resources like a coach to help set up your nutrition intake that can compliment both your current lifestyle and your performance goals. Remember factors such as training session length, specific goals, genetic makeup and lifestyle can all play a role in protein intake and optimal absorption.
About the author
Courtney Ustrzycki is an entrepreneur (owner of Courtney For Life) where she educates and guides clients with balanced nutrition and strength training. She's a competitive powerlifter with a passion for wholehearted living. Her purpose is to elevate your way of life, and to guide you to eat with balance, lift with passion, and live with intent.