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As a cyclist are you eating enough protein?

Protein bars
Sam Challis
6 Apr 2016

For many years, cycling nutrition has focused on carbs but now attention is turning to the vital role played by protein in proper recovery.

Pasta, porridge, bananas, Jelly Babies – these are the foods that cyclists are known for. Packed with carbohydrates, they would seem to provide everything a rider needs to fuel long days in the saddle, and the nutrition industry has helped out by providing easy-to-consume carb supplements in the form of gels, bars and drinks. But something is happening. In recent months, those same nutrition companies have started to promote protein-based products to cyclists as the latest must-have nutritional supplement. So is this just a ploy to get us to buy more stuff, or is the accepted wisdom about what cyclists should eat undergoing a rethink?

Emma Barraclough, senior nutritionist at sports nutrition company SiS, suggests it may simply be a reflection of food trends in general. ‘More and more in supermarkets now you see high-protein products, which are helping increase awareness and understanding around the benefits of protein as a nutrient. This filters through to guys riding their bikes at weekends and is reinforced by the knowledge that pro riders are using it much more readily now.’

Torq nutrition’s research specialist, Ben Price, explains further: ‘Protein has always been an essential nutrient for an athlete and nothing has changed. However there is a current trend to demonise carbohydrate in the media, so this has left a lot of people confused and is fuelling the growth in the use of protein by the general population.’

This is about more than just trend, however. Dr James Morton, head nutritionist at Team Sky and researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, explains that there has been a lot more research into protein’s effect on the body over the last decade so more is known now about the role protein plays when it is eaten. 

Role play

Let’s look at the science. Protein is one of the three main ‘macronutrients’ – essentially the types of food that we require a lot of. While the other two macronutrients, fat and carbohydrate, function primarily as sources of energy, protein’s main role is the repair and creation of body tissue – our cells. You can’t build cells with carbohydrate and fat because neither contains nitrogen atoms, which are required to build complex, stable structures within our cells. Protein is made of chains of amino acids, which are small molecules with a carboxyl (carbohydrate-like) group and that all-important nitrogen atom. Ingested protein is broken down by the body into amino acids, which are then assembled into new proteins that form the action molecules of cells. 

‘Generally this whole process is known as protein synthesis and is the basis of keeping cells in good working order,’ says Morton.

It is also the foundation of training adaptation. ‘We are making and losing muscle mass – processes called anabolism and catabolism respectively – all the time so we are in a constant state of regeneration,’ says Barraclough. Correct protein supplementation promotes anabolism and minimises catabolism. 

‘Active people have a higher demand for protein purely because their turnover is higher. Exercise will always stimulate the rate of muscle protein synthesis – which is basically muscular recovery – because during activity your muscles are contracting and trying to produce force so they have to stop making new tissue in that time. So the idea with consuming more protein is that it actually kick-starts that protein synthesis again so you can recover more quickly.’

The role protein plays in recovery is well established in the muscle-building world – no rugby player would miss his post-training protein shake – however its benefits for athletes in the endurance world are less well researched. Dr Abdullah Alghannam of Loughborough University says, ‘Acute exercise creates an adaptive environment so providing nutrition in close proximity to any exercise session is likely to take full advantage of that environment. However, very few studies have looked at post-exercise protein and training adaptation in endurance exercise.’ 

Although understanding has developed considerably over the past 10 years, there are aspects of this research area that remain understudied. This potential has excited the experts and is adding to protein’s rise in popularity.

What, when, where

Protein requirements vary massively depending on individual needs. ‘The World Health Organisation sets a recommendation of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day [g/kg/d], but this amount is set to avoid deficiency in the population, with no interest in optimal adaptation to training or performance,’ says Torq’s Ben Price.

As mentioned earlier, exercise stimulates higher cell turnover so requirements increase dramatically for exercising individuals. ‘1.5-2g/kg/d allows sufficient recovery for active individuals, but this can go all the way up to 3g/kg/d for the elite guys at races like the Tour, because the demands are so high,’ says Barraclough. 

Alghannam agrees there is good evidence to suggest that hard training individuals could require more protein than previously thought: ‘Although it wasn’t conducted in a competitive environment, a recent study of intensified training periods showed that increasing daily intakes of protein to 3g/kg/d reduced the decrements associated with repeated training. Cycling performance was better maintained than a diet with a lower protein content.’

It isn’t as simple as eating three steaks for dinner, however. Protein can’t be ‘back-loaded’ – stored in advance – in the same way as the other macronutrients, and your body can only effectively use small amounts at a time. 

‘The best approach is to evenly space feeding over the course of the day, rather than take the same approach as much of the population, which is to load it more towards the evening meal,’ says Price. ‘An upper ceiling seems to exist in terms of maximum efficiency of use, so consuming 20-30g of protein every three hours or so over the course of the day will help maximise muscle protein synthesis.’

Know your sources

As well as timing, the type of protein you consume is equally important. ‘Animal sources such as dairy and meat tend to provide more of the essential amino acids, in particular leucine,’ says Price. Essential amino acids are ones that your body can’t assimilate itself so they have to be consumed as part of your diet. ‘Typically vegan sources of protein such as pulses and grains still provide these essential amino acids, but you need to consume much greater quantities to achieve similar intakes of the essential amino acids compared to dairy, for example.’ 

Obtaining protein from a variety of sources is best to balance the amount of other macronutrients inevitably consumed alongside protein. For example, eating a lot of red meat, while high in protein, is also high in saturated fat that could be more detrimental to your health than a less-than-perfect protein intake. This is where supplements have their place in a rider’s nutritional strategy. 

‘Despite being nutritionally inferior to whole foods, as they may lack vitamins and minerals, supplements such as protein shakes or gels are an almost pure form of protein so are great for hitting protein goals without affecting other macronutrient intakes,’ says Barraclough. Supplements are also convenient – a shake can easily be drunk straight after exercise, meaning the protein synthesis that stalled during activity can be restarted quickly.

Whey protein is the most popular source of protein for post-exercise nutrition supplements. This is because different protein sources are digested at different rates, in much the same way as complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly than simple sugars. 

‘Whey is a favourite because it is the most rapidly digesting – around 8-10g can be used per hour,’ says Barraclough. ‘Branched-chain amino acids [BCAAs] are also popular as these are the amino acids your muscles can use most readily, but vegetable sources such as pea protein can be as slow as 2-3g per hour, and egg whites are also digested over a long period of time.’ 

This doesn’t mean that one protein source is more valuable than another, just that different sources are best used in different situations. For example, a slow-digesting protein such as casein is useful to consume in the evening because it creates a drip-feed of protein overnight. This maintains protein synthesis better than if you consumed whey. A comparative study of whey and casein from 1997 showed that although whey stimulated a greater initial rate of protein synthesis post-exercise, casein resulted in a greater protein accumulation over time, which demonstrates the importance of varying your protein sources.

Protein on the go

Followers of Team Sky will have heard the rumours… they have been experimenting with taking protein on the bike as well as off it, consuming precisely timed amounts of both carbohydrate and protein during training rides. 

Team Sky’s Morton explains the thinking: ‘It depends on the duration of the ride – protein isn’t going to make you perform better on that ride, but if you went for a six-hour ride and didn’t have any protein during that time, you’d be likely to start breaking down muscle tissue.’ He suggests that, on or off the bike, you need to take protein every three hours. This is because when carbohydrate stores are used up, fat stores cannot be oxidised quickly enough to supply energy, so muscle proteins are catabolised – broken down – and used instead. 

‘I think there is good research behind consuming protein alongside carbohydrate mid-ride,’ says Morton. ‘With carbohydrate providing energy, the protein is there to insure against catabolism during the exercise and stimulate anabolism once the activity is finished.

Torq’s Price is less convinced by the need to take protein on the bike: ‘Serious endurance athletes need to consider their protein intake, certainly, but carbohydrate still remains the primary fuel for optimal performance and if it’s neglected in favour of protein it will spell disaster for the athlete concerned. Consumption of protein during exercise makes little sense at all, because through a process called gluconeogenesis, it’s converted to carbohydrate anyway at an energy cost to the body.’

Alghannam takes a similar stance to Price on prioritising carbohydrate during the ride, but recommends combining protein and carbohydrate after exercise to enhance recovery. ‘The restoration of glycogen stores is central to recovery, but adding protein to a carbohydrate recovery beverage has been shown to be beneficial under certain circumstances,’ he says. ‘Where the amount of carbohydrate in the beverage is not sufficient to maximise glycogen stores during short-term recovery, the addition of protein may provide means of increasing muscle glycogen resynthesis, as well as stimulating protein synthesis.’ 

So have some peanut butter on your post-ride bagel.

Other reasons to eat protein

Protein, as we’ve discovered, is excellent as a recovery nutrient, though pretty poor as a fuel source. It could, however, be very helpful in an area close to any serious cyclist’s heart – helping to keep weight off.

‘In terms of achieving optimal body composition there is a lot more understanding of the advantages of protein now,’ says SiS’s Barraclough. ‘Being low GI and physically dense, most types of protein aren’t that easy to consume and are digested really slowly compared to carbohydrates. This increases satiety – the feeling of fullness – so you’re hungry less often.’ 

Further, contemporary research is almost unanimous regarding protein’s ability to preserve lean muscle mass and promote fat loss when in a calorie-restricted state, as pro cyclists often are to make race weight. Although the mechanisms behind these effects aren’t especially clear, a literature review from 2006 explained that because protein stimulates the highest thermogenic response – how much energy it costs the body to digest food – this may be responsible for higher levels of fat loss. The more protein you eat, the more fat your body uses as energy to digest it. But can you have too much of a good thing?

The fact that your body prefers to waste additional protein as opposed to store it as fat has lead to suggestions that the process of removal puts a lot of strain on your kidneys. It’s an argument for restricting the amount of protein you eat, but all the experts that Cyclist spoke to agree that in the sort of quantities consumed by everyone except bodybuilders, high protein consumption poses no health threat. 

That said, Price has some sage advice to those thinking protein is a wonder-nutrient. ‘While protein has numerous benefits, it’s important not to consume it at the expense of too many other foods. Fat and carbohydrate are vitally important to a cyclist for fuelling optimal performance and contain concentrations of vitamins, minerals and fibre not present in most sources of protein.’ 

As ever, the key to good nutrition is balance: enough of everything, not too much of anything. But at least now the dedicated cyclist can, with a clear conscience, occasionally forgo the giant bowl of pasta, and opt for a juicy steak instead.

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