Protein, Protein, Protein

What are the best protein supplements on the market? Do we need to take in protein directly after exercise to start recovery? Do we really need lots of protein?

These 3 questions something I hear a lot. Due to so much conflicting information out there, it is quite easy to get confused about the topic. So I thought I would cover it to give a clear idea of what  the current science is saying on the topic. True, protein is the building block of many things in the body, not just muscles, but too much of a good thing may turn out to not be a good thing.

Protein is made up of amino acids and it’s generally recognised that there are 20 different amino acids. There are actually more, but these tend to be quite rare and not really essential to our health. So the focus will be on the 20. The best way I like to think of amino acids is that the aminos are like letters and the proteins are like words. So the letters (aminos) make the words (proteins) and there are an infinite amount of words that can be made depending upon your needs.

There are so many things in the body that rely on proteins such as the obvious, muscle repair, there’s skin repair, hair production, nail growth, hormones, cell production, enzymes, bone repair etc. It’s a huge list and the body uses the amino acids to create the exact right protein for your needs at the time. Which means having the right amino acids on hand at the time it needs it. So we should be eating heaps of the stuff, right?

Well not exactly, because there is only so much protein our digestive system can handle, so out of the 3 macro nutrients (carbs, fats, proteins), protein should not be the highest on the list. To get a good idea of how many grams of protein per day you need per day, it’s quite easy. Take your lean body mass (weight minus the percentage of fat you carry, near enough is good enough) and multiply it by 1.2 and 1.5. This gives the range, in grams, that you should aim for with the upper and lower limits of protein consumption. If your goal is massive muscles and are a serious body builder, maybe this can be pushed up to 1.7-1.8.

So for someone like me who is 70kg, about 8-10% body fat, lets say I have 63kg of lean body mass, I should be between 76 grams and 95 grams per day. An egg contains around 7 grams of protein depending on size and a steak contains around 20-25 grams of protein depending on fat content when raw which increases when cooked due to the loss of fluids. So it really doesn’t take too much effort to hit your needs. For this reason, if you are eating a diet that has an adequate amount of protein, supplements are generally not necessary and should only be used to supplement a diet that is lacking.

Do we need to take in protein directly after exercise to start the recovery process? Well to answer that, all I will say is that the liver is very good at storing things. It stores fat (which isn’t always a good thing), it stores carbohydrate very well and it can also store amino acids providing there is adequate supply in the diet. So if there is a sudden need for the body to create proteins for something like exercise recovery, there should be a good supply on hand to do the job. I’m not saying that there is no need for protein at all, but just don’t rush to find the nearest supply. It can wait a couple of hours if need be.

So back to the supplements. I did say that protein supplements aren’t overly necessary. But here’s where I’m going to contradict myself a little bit. If you’re running an ultra or even a marathon, your body may become deficient in some amino acids. So taking them has been shown to reduce perceived effort and reduce muscle catabolism as a source of energy. The main ones to focus on are the BCAA’s or Branch Chain Amino Acids (3 of the aminos) and glutamine which can help with energy production. For recovery, if you really want to, I would steer more towards the essential amino acids of which there are 9, including the BCAA’s.

After all, recovering from a marathon or an ultra is tough. Any help is always appreciated!

Run Well

Chris O’Driscoll

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