Protein is an essential nutrient, responsible for multiple functions in your body, including building tissue, cells and muscle. Everyone needs protein in their diet, but if you do endurance sports or weight training you’ll need to increase your protein intake, and to factor it into your training routine at specific times to reap its muscle-boosting benefits.
For sporty individuals a daily dose of around 1g of protein per 1kg of body weight is recommended. After exercise, protein is particularly important since muscles need it to recover and grow. A portion of protein (15-25g) is recommended within 30 minutes of exercise, when your muscles are particularly receptive to protein synthesis.
What to eat
Proteins are made up of a collection of 20 amino acids. Of these, eight are classed as ‘essential’ and need to be sourced from food, while the other 12 are classed as ‘non-essential’ and can be produced inside your body. ‘High-quality proteins’ such as eggs and meat offer more muscle-building amino acids than other protein foods, so are considered more valuable sources of protein, particularly if you do lots of exercise.
Like simple and complex carbohydrates, proteins are absorbed at different rates in the body. Whey protein is digested quickly so is a good option just before and after exercise. Casein, the primary protein in milk, releases its amino acids slowly, so is particularly useful in the morning, between meals and at bedtime. Protein shakes and powders contain these proteins and are helpful before and after sports, but you can get the protein you need from natural sources too. Here are some foods to get your protein fix:
Good protein sources
King of food protein is the humble egg. A medium egg has around 6g of protein of the highest biological value, meaning it comes complete with all 20 amino acids in the most digestible form. An omelette is a good way to start the day and is a good recovery snack too.
Take a look at our favourite egg recipes for inspiration
Read more about the health benefits of eggs
Dairy foods are packed with protein and contain bone-building calcium, too. Chocolate milk is the age-old recovery food after exercise, since it contains energy-replenishing carbohydrates and a blend of both slow and fast release whey and casein proteins. You can get the same recovery-boosting effects from a milk-based fruit smoothie - such as this cranberry & raspberry smoothie recipe.
A combination of casein and whey protein, yogurt is a great protein-rich food. Since most of the lactose is removed, it can work for most people who are lactose intolerant.
Try this creamy yogurt porridge for breakfast to see you through the day or fuel up after exercise with simple Greek yogurt and fruit or this instant frozen berry yogurt.
Fish and seafood
Fish and seafood are good sources of protein and are typically low in fat. While slightly higher in fat than other varieties, salmon packs in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
If you’re dairy intolerant, eating soya protein foods such as tofu and soya-based drinks will help post-recovery, plus they can help to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
This dairy-free cherry soya yogurt is a great option
Read more about the helth benefits of soya
Nuts such as pistachios are a practical protein choice if you’re on the move. Around 50 pistachio nuts will provide 6g of protein, plus sodium and potassium, the electrolytes lost in sweat during exercise.
This clementine & honey couscous recipe with pistachios makes for a great breakfast or speedy snack.
High quality proteins also contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are key in supporting muscle recovery. Leucine, in particular, makes up one third of muscle protein and helps to stimulate repair after exercise. Pork is one of the richest sources of leucine and therefore a great addition to a post-exercise meal or snack. Eggs, chicken and lean beef also provide good amounts of leucine.