Many athletes have a one track mind in their dietary approach to fueling for endurance and that is carbohydrates and plenty of it. Although it is known that carbohydrates are essential to life and endurance they are not the only star player on the team. Athletes and active people interested in maximizing power and strength as well as building endurance also need adequate protein intake.
Protein is derived from the Greek term protos, which means "taking first place." This is an interesting origin because proteins are responsible for building and maintaining structural tissue: bone and connective tissues. Without a strong adequate structure the rest of the body would not properly function. Proteins help build a “brick house.”
Enzymes are also a form of proteins and are responsible for building new tissues, breaking down old tissue, provide openings in the cells' membrane to let in nutrients. Imagine protein as the key that unlocks the “brick house” door to let in all the micronutrients and phytonutrients from the food eaten. Protein removes the wastes and toxins from the body and breaks them down allowing the liver and kidneys to do their detox, cleansing jobs.
The body is constantly making new proteins to replenish those lost from tissue damage, to fight invaders, protect the body and to support growth. However, adequate protein must be consumed daily to keep up with the high turnover rate, especially for athletes in training.
Proteins are particularly important for marathon runners and endurance athletes because protein is needed for the formation of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the substance that carries oxygen to the exercising muscles, and can even serve as a fuel source during endurance exercise if the body’s carbohydrates stores run low. Protein also helps control fluid volume in the body and maintains water balance. Proteins are also an excellent dietary source of iron and zinc. Both micronutrients are vital to an athlete’s performance and health in their own right.
What are proteins?
Proteins are made up of smaller molecules called amino acids. Single amino acids are linked together to build larger protein chains. The body breaks proteins eaten down to amino acids during digestion, absorbing the single amino acid.
There are 20 different amino acids but an endless number of combinations. The human body is able to create 11 of the 20 amino acids without dependence on dietary consumption. They are referred to as the non-essential amino acids. Do not let the term non-essential be misleading to the idea they are “non-important”. The term implies that regardless of what is eaten the body automatically creates them. The other 9 amino acids are considered essential and must be consumed through the daily diet for survival.
The essential amino acids are not stored in the body for later use. All 9 essential amino acids must be consumed on a daily bases. The body will begin to break down muscle tissue to receive the necessary amount which is counterproductive and will cause long term consequences.
How much protein is needed on a daily bases?
For many Americans, daily protein intake exceeds protein requirements. The American culture encourages meat based meals and in large portion. However, vegetarian and vegan diets are growing more popular daily. Vegetarians and vegan can most certainly meet their protein needs; it just requires more effort to be conscious of food choices and combinations.
A healthy adult athlete requires 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
[Weight in pounds (lbs) / 2.2 = Kilograms of body weight (kg)]
Example: 150lb / 2.2 = 68 grams of protein daily
For athletes, protein requirements will change depending on current training cycle. More protein is required during training periods compared to off season or maintenance phase. Protein requirements are also unique to the daily training schedule. The length and intensity of the exercise needs to be considered. But even on the most demanding training days it should not be difficult to obtain adequate protein through diet.
Overconsumption of protein like any other macronutrient (carbohydrates and fats) will either be stored as excess in adipose cells (fat cells) or burned for energy, which is not ideal and counterproductive. By now it should be sinking in that over consumption of any one macronutrient is to be avoided and considered a poor dietary habit.
How to ensure all 20 amino acids are consumed daily:
You can consume adequate amounts of all 20 amino acids from plant and animal foods. Vegetables and grains are a good source of several amino acids; however, the majority comes from nuts, legumes, eggs, fish, meats and dairy products.
There are two major categories for protein sources: complete and incomplete. Complete proteins contain all 20 amino acids and incomplete proteins are lacking one or more than one amino acid. Consuming only incomplete proteins will not yield a diet rich in all 20 amino acids and can hinder performance and health!
Grains and nuts (lysine absent)
Beans, Peas, and lentils
( Methionine absent)
Green Leafy Vegetables
Grains or Nuts combined with Rice
Red Beans and Rice
Peanut Butter Sandwich (100% Wheat Bread)
Combining Incomplete Proteins to Create Complete Proteins
By combining foods from two or more incomplete proteins, a complete protein can be created. The amino acids that may be missing from one type of food can be compensated by adding a protein that contains that missing amino acid. When eaten in combination at the same meal, you are providing your body with all the essential amino acids it requires. These are considered complementary proteins when they are combined to compensate for each other's lack of amino acids.
Samples of Complementary Proteins
Examples of combined complementary proteins to create a complete protein in one meal include:
Grains with Legumes - sample meal: lentils and rice with yellow peppers.
Nuts with Legumes - sample meal: black bean and peanut salad.
Grains with Dairy - sample meal: white cheddar and whole wheat pasta.
Dairy with Seeds - sample meal: yogurt mixed with sesame and flax seeds.
Legumes with Seeds - sample meal: spinach salad with sesame seed and almond salad dressing.
By learning what foods complement each other, it is possible to create a perfectly balanced meal with the proper proportions of proteins. This will ensure that the body is getting all the essential amino acids it requires for optimal bodily functions.