You’ve probably heard how important protein is for athletes. But how much do you really need, when do you need it, and how is it actually helping you?
Here, TrueSport Expert Stephanie Miezin, MS, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains the latest research around protein intake for young athletes, and offers some practical tips to make sure that you’re getting the protein you need, at the right time.
Why do athletes need protein?
Protein is the macronutrient most responsible for muscle recovery as well as muscle growth—both of which are critically important for any athlete, but especially young athletes who are still developing in terms of both bone and muscle growth.
Is protein the most important macronutrient for athletes?
It’s important—but so are carbohydrates and fat, says Miezin. “In recent years, people have talked about protein for athletes as though it’s the most important, or the only, macronutrient that an athlete needs,” she says. “But while it’s important, so are carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates are what fuels your workouts, so they should also be prioritized.”
How much protein do young athletes need?
For every pound of body weight, a young athlete should be eating about .7 grams of protein, says Miezin. So, if an athlete weighs 100 pounds, that means they should be eating 70 grams of protein per day, while a 150-pound athlete would need 105 grams per day. While there are many factors that influence protein needs for each athlete, this is a good guideline to start with.
Is protein intake the only metric that matters in sports nutrition?
Absolutely not, says Miezin. If you’re not meeting your energy needs overall by taking in enough calories in total, having plenty of protein still won’t help your body recover. Unfortunately, research has shown that low energy availability in adolescent athletes who are in the midst of heavy training is common. That low energy availability can lead to issues like delayed puberty, menstrual irregularities, poor bone health, the development of disordered eating behaviors, and an increased risk of injury. In the case of low energy availability, the protein will actually be converted for energy in the same way carbohydrates are used by the body, and that means you won’t be using protein for repair or muscle building, says Miezin.
When should an athlete take in protein?
Ideally, protein intake is spread throughout the day, says Miezin. “We know that overall daily protein is the most important thing, but the second most important thing is protein timing, which helps to optimize how the protein is used.” Split up protein as evenly as possible throughout the day: If you’re eating four to five meals and snacks throughout the day, it’s going to be easier to meet those protein needs.
What does a ‘good protein’ day look like?
If you’re aiming for 70 grams of protein per day, three meals with 20 grams of protein and a 10-gram protein snack will get you there. “If you have breakfast that includes a cup of Greek yogurt, that’s going to give you 20 grams of protein,” says Miezin. “Then, at lunch, a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread will give you roughly 20 grams. Three ounces of fish or red meat at dinner will give you another 20 grams. Whenever you need a snack, try to work in another 10 grams of protein, maybe with a cheese stick and some trail mix, or a bowl of cottage cheese.” (If you’re a vegan athlete, we have some advice for you regarding protein options here.)
What should a young athlete eat post-workout?
The ultimate post-workout snack is primarily made up of carbohydrates to restore your muscle glycogen, along with some protein to help with muscle repair and rebuilding, says Miezin. This could look like that turkey sandwich with whole wheat bread, or even a bottle of chocolate milk. (Need more snack ideas? We have a few here!)
Should a young athlete be using protein shakes?
As a rule, skip the powders and shakes and stick to whole food sources of protein—you’ll enjoy your food more and you’ll avoid potential contaminants or digestive issues. “Protein powders and shakes are supplements, and we know that these shouldn’t be used in place of whole foods,” says Miezin. “While a lot of the initial research on protein and recovery was done with protein powders, we now know that whole foods like yogurt, eggs, and milk are just as effective at promoting muscle recovery. So there is no reason to think that having an actual meal won’t be effective.”
What if I miss protein post-workout?
Skipping the occasional post-workout snack is OK, but try not to make it a habit, especially if you’re doing two-a-day practices. If you do miss it, though, don’t panic. “Many people think that the window to have your protein post-workout opens and then slams shut in terms of recovery, and if you miss it, you’re in trouble,” says Miezin. “But that’s not how it works. It’s just that muscles are most receptive to nutrients coming in right after your exercise, so it’s ideal to have a protein-packed snack then if possible. We can optimize recovery and refueling by having our protein and carbohydrate-based meal as close to the end of training as possible.”
I’m training more this year, so do I need more protein?
Actually, you don’t! As long as you’re eating that .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight, you’re likely getting plenty of protein, says Miezin. Any extra protein will simply be converted to fuel for your muscles, similar to how carbohydrates are used. “If we only focus on protein and try to get more and more, we’re missing the whole picture because total energy intake from a variety of macronutrients is so important,” Miezin says. “We have to be getting enough calories, aka energy, from our other foods in order to really maximize the effects of protein.”
While protein is extremely important for young athletes, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates and fats are equally important. Athletes generally need about .7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily, and this should be spread throughout the day. Make sure you’re taking in a post-workout protein source, like Greek yogurt or chicken, and focusing on whole food sources of protein versus supplements.