How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

Think you need 100 grams of protein after you workout to build muscle? Think again.

One of the most common client questions I get is, “Just how much protein should I actually be getting if I want to build muscle?” Unfortunately the answer, because it depends mostly on one’s level of activity, is a little more complicated than you’d expect. Before getting to an answer though, it’s important to understand that protein helps to repair the muscle tissue broken down through weight training and endurance work, like HIIT. This recovery process is where the strength and size of your muscle tissue is increased, which means having enough protein in your system ensures the best possible recovery. With that little science lesson out of the way, let’s then discuss how much protein is enough, given your training goals, and how much is too much.

The Average Person and Their Protein Needs

The average person probably doesn't need much more protein than they’re already getting in their diet, unless of course they’re really throwing around the steel. That means one gram per kg of body weight is typically enough, but if you weight train more than the average person, you should be consuming roughly 1.2-1.4 grams per kg of body weight, especially if you're trying to gain weight.

If you’re scratching your head wondering how the heck to convert kg to lbs let me do the math for you. On average, a 180 lb guy should get about 120 grams of protein if they’re moderately active. Having more in your diet won’t necessarily hurt you (as studies show that excess protein is simply excreted out of your system) but if you’re sitting at a desk all day, there’s no reason to go overboard. It won’t magically create muscle on its own.

Losing Weight on a High Protein Diet

Armed with a baseline level understanding of how much protein you need, let’s get into your individual goals.

Research done at the University of Washington found high protein diets result in better weight management. This isn't rocket science, as it doesn’t take a genius to realize that protein is very filling and thus leaves you satisfied longer (a lot longer than all of those empty carbohydrates you’re getting from processed foods). But, the biggest benefit of adding protein to your diet is that it doesn’t get converted into fat and isn’t stored in the body. Granted if you went COMPLETELY OVERBOARD (we’re talking like 1000 grams a day) too much protein could cause ketones in the liver, which can be dangerous, but you’d have try pretty hard for that to happen. Point is, if you’re trying to lose a little excess baggage, load up on the lean protein!

Get Bigger with Protein

Getting bigger is a very simple equation. Train hard, eat more calories than you burn (called a calorie surplus), and you’ll put on some lean muscle mass. How many more calories? Studies show to really pack on the mass you have to eat about 50% more calories than you currently are! Now I’m not talking Mcdonald's and Taco Bell here. I’m talking quality calories from complex carbs, healthy fats, and of course lean protein to ensure you don’t pack on excess fat in addition to more muscle. For goodness sake, and I repeat for emphasis, don’t cut the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, especially around your workout, help shuttle the proteins and amino acids to your muscles tissue. As for protein intake, some studies suggest that in order to build muscle, you need 1.5-2x more protein than an average person. Taking our 180 lb guy as an example, you would need at least 170-230 grams of protein to see the results you’re looking for.

Endurance Athletes and Protein

Because endurance sports like marathon running can actually deplete more muscle than they put on, it's very important to increase your protein intake post-workout and cross train. That said, if your intake sits at the 1.2-1.4 grams per kg of body weight, that should actually be sufficient in preventing muscle mass loss.

The Bottom Line

Unless you’re a hard gainer, body builder, or competitive athlete, you’re more than likely getting enough protein in your regular diet. But if you’re training hard, trying to lose weight, or even looking to put on a few solid pounds, it wouldn’t hurt to increase your intake slightly.

The best proteins are complete proteins found in meats, eggs, fish and dairy (like whey protein), as they’ve the highest bioavailability (body digests it more efficiently). But if you’re a vegetarian, quinoa and amaranth are complete protein grains worth a shot. Regardless of how you get your protein in, be sure to get it in, as it’s hands down the most important macronutrient for those looking to push their training, and results, to the next level.

Of course, if you're looking for some tried and true protein options to ensure you're getting the proper quantities needed for muscle preservation and growth, we here at 1R recommend the following supplements:

  1. Optimum Nutrition 2:1:1 Recovery - The carbs and protein will help you recover and build lean muscle faster after tough workouts
  2. BSN True Mass - A post workout recovery product with 6 different protein sources will ensure that you’re maximizing your workouts
  3. Gaspari IntraPro - Pure whey isolate digests quickly to aid new muscle growth and faster recovery
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About the Author

Hannah Davis holds a Personal Training diploma from New York City’s Academy of Personal Training where she graduated at the top of her class. Her many other certifications enable her to work with clients who are pre/post natal, train for weight loss, kettlebell, TRX, and for specific sport. Her background in nutrition also adds a strong component to creating a more complete training program. She is a regular contributor to Women’s Health Magazine, and also many other fitness and beauty blogs like FitGloss.com. Hannah has worked with the young and the elderly, male and female, effectively for weight loss, muscle gain (and reduction!), as well as to correct exercise technique. She is comfortable working with a variety of limitations that clients may experience. To learn more about Hannah, visit her website at BodyByHannah.com and follow her fitness tweets @bodybyhannah.