Protein is an essential macronutrient composed of amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids that your body cannot synthesize so you must get them from the diet in order to build the proteins that your body needs. For athletes, protein is critical for recovery after workouts and muscle synthesis.
Ideally, you should consume a mix of proteins and carbs within an hour of finishing a workout to maximize recovery. What are the consequences of not getting enough protein? Fatigue, illness and injury. Studies have found that athletes who do not consume enough protein are at higher risk for injury and protein consumption can boost your immune system. This is key since immunity has been shown to be impaired up to 24 hours post workout.
The USDA recommends .8g of protein/kg of body weight, aka not very much. We are talking about 50g of protein/day if you weight 130lbs. However, the studies used to set this recommendation were done with a sedentary population. Although fat and carbohydrates are the primary fuel for exercise, some proteins get broken down too. Consequently, athletes have a higher protein requirement.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) claims that endurance runners need 1.0 to 1.6g/kg protein, up to double the needs of sedentary runners! Good sources of protein include poultry, meat, dairy, eggs, fish and soy product. However, avoid eating high-fat foods since fat can impede the absorption of amino acids. Vegetarian sources of protein, such as legumes, nuts, and whole grains, are also good sources of proteins but do not contain a complete amino acid profile (with the exception of quinoa and soy) so it is important to eat a variety (beans and rice or almond butter on whole grain toast) to get a full complement of amino acids.
What is the bottom line? If you are feeling worn down, sick or find yourself constantly injured, you many need more protein. Although carbohydrates and fat should compose a majority of an athlete’s diet, you should be getting between 10-20% of your daily calories from protein to stay healthy and capitalize on performance.