How much protein do cyclists need?

Confused about how much protein you need, where to get it from and when to take it? Here are the answers...

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Protein has endured a patchy reputation over the course of the last decade. Less than ten years ago, carbohydrate was king and protein was regarded as an energy source that could result in unnecessary bulk, yet more recently it’s become nutritionally fashionable to up protein intake in order to lower carbohydrates and thus lose weight.

In all of this talk of the role of protein in weight gain and weight loss, it seems the most important function has been lost: protein is essential to the process of muscle protein synthesis – the “driving force behind adaptive responses to exercise,” as described by scientists who looked into the link between the process, nutrition and exercise.

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Protein is an essential building block to include within your diet. It’s crucial to recovery and without it you may not reap the benefits of the hard work put in. But how much do cyclists need?

How much protein should you include in your diet?

In the UK, the recommended protein intake for adults is 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day.

However, for athletes – who break down muscle and need to rebuild it for training adaptation – nutritionists often recommend anywhere from 1.2g to 2.2g per kg of body weight, per day.

If you’re in an intensive training stage, it will be worth looking at the higher end of the scale, to ensure you’re getting the protein your body needs to repair itself before the next session.

If you’re aiming to lose weight, you can use recovery days – when your carbohydrate needs are lower – to decrease carb intake and up protein. This approach, often called ‘periodised nutrition’, will allow you to satiate yourself and ensure adequate recovery, with a lower overall calorie intake.

Regardless how much protein you decide to inject into your diet, remember to spread it out. Your body can’t use more than 0.3kg – or 20g (whichever comes first) – of protein at a time.

It’s a good idea to get a dose of 0.3g/kg of body weight or 20g of protein in as quickly as possible after training, but the rest can be spaced out throughout the day among meals and snacks.

Where should your protein come from?

Protein can come from a range of sources. Meat is the most common, 125g of chicken contains around 30g. However, vegetarians and vegans can find plenty of great sources – there’s 19g within 100g of chickpeas and 18g in three eggs.

It all gets a bit more complicated when we look at the quality of protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids, of which there are 22 in total. Nine are ‘essential’ – these are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

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Essential amino acids gain their name because your body cannot create them on its own, it must find them in food.

All proteins from meat, dairy and eggs are ‘complete’ proteins, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids that your body needs. Vegans and vegetarians have to try a little harder. However, there are plenty of great sources. The soybean, as an example, contains all of the essential amino acids as does quinoa.

>>> Supplements for cyclists

Protein supplements are another option, and they’ll be loaded with a wide range of amino acids to ensure quick and efficient delivery. Plus, the powders can be mixed up with water or milk after a hard ride or race with minimal fuss.

Other benefits of protein:

Protein reduces 
calorie intake

Adding a little more protein to a meal or snack can lead to fewer calories being consumed over the day. Having a handful of unsalted nuts with a piece of fruit could stop you reaching for snacks later.

Adding protein to a snack takes the edge your appetite, because it  increases the release of hormones that signal feelings of fullness so that you’re not thinking about what’s next in line to eat.

An apple doesn’t become an apple-plus-an-orange-plus-a-biscuit as you’ve achieved a feeling of contented fullness with the simple food combination of protein and carbohydrate.

Studies to back up this effect show that a higher protein snack can even be lower in calories than a carbohydrate-dominant one and still lead to a greater feeling of fullness. Data also indicates that for each gram of protein in a snack or meal, just under six calories less will be eaten in the next meal.

This may sound like a small number, but with a 10-20g portion of protein you can effectively reduce intake in a subsequent meal by 60-120 calories.

If you carried that effect across the whole day, eating 10-20g of protein in each meal then you could find it easy to cancel out between 300 and 600 calories without feeling hungry. This appears to be a new, exciting direction in nutrition science that has placed protein a step higher on the priority list when thinking about how to plan your meals.

Protein reduces cravings

Including protein in an otherwise high carbohydrate dish will reduce the impact this meal has on your blood sugar. High carbohydrate meals supplying more sugars can lead to a spike in blood sugar followed by a subsequent dip, which can leave you feeling lethargic and trigger cravings for sugary foods.

It’s not only the type of carbohydrate that results in this response, but the size of the portion too. Therefore, switching from white to wholegrain pasta for example will not make a huge difference on blood sugar response if the portion is not modified. Ideally, eat a smaller portion of carbohydrate leaving more room for protein in your meal to benefit from reduced cravings after you’ve eaten as well as an increased feeling of fullness.

Protein increases 
energy expenditure

You may have heard sports nutritionists talking about how protein increases calorie burn and the research suggests it does this through a couple of different mechanisms.

Firstly, your body expends more calories digesting proteins than carbohydrates, so if you are maintaining weight on your current diet, simply reducing carbohydrate 
by 10 per cent and increasing 
protein by 10 per cent while keeping calories constant should result in weight loss without eating less!

The second mechanism by which protein increases calorie burn is by supporting lean muscle tissue. A slightly higher protein diet (25 per cent rather than 15 per cent protein) will support the retention of lean tissue far better than a protein poor diet. As each gram of muscle we have needs energy to survive, you will burn more calories each day if you have a good lean mass.

We’re not talking huge numbers here, but when you consider just half an apple worth of calories could lead to gradual weight gain, even burning a few more calories each day will make weight loss much easier to achieve and maintain.

Protein increases sleeping metabolic rate

Getting more sleep can reduce your cravings for high-carb snacks

Protein not only increases the amount of calories you burn across the day, but has also been shown to increase your sleeping metabolic rate. The idea of burning more calories while you’re asleep seems crazy, but the evidence is clear.

Again, this is gained with an increase in protein as a percentage in the total diet and has been illustrated at intakes between 25 and 30 per cent of total calorie intake and definitely does not require a commitment to a ‘high’ protein diet that would compromise the intake of other nutrients.

Protein improves body composition

Many cyclists looking to climb a hill faster will be aware that shifting a few pounds is often more effective and less expensive than trading in bike parts for lighter options. Protein can give you a head start here too.

Increasing the percentage of calories from protein while reducing calories slightly (with a 500 calorie maximum reduction from maintenance need) has been shown to lead to a greater loss of fat compared to cutting calories on a carbohydrate-dominant diet, retaining more of your muscle to help power you up those climbs.

Protein will not lead 
to an increase in size unless accompanied with many more calories

Cyclists have been likened to supermodels in their pursuit of a super-slim body, with a fear of anything that might make them heavier.

Often cyclists will avoid weight training, in the belief that it will add pounds of heavy muscle that they don’t want to be carrying over a sportive, but smart weight training could improve their power and stability and help them avoid injury.

The same is true for protein and with high protein meals being more often associated with the musclebound body of a weight-lifting gym goer, I can see where the fear of bulging muscles comes from.

Those that are looking to gain muscle do indeed require more protein, but this needs to be accompanied with a weights routine that includes heavy weights over short sets (the opposite of what’s likely to be recommended to cyclists) and the vitally important ingredient is more calories.
A cyclist, ideally, should be eating 1.2-1.5g of protein per kilogram they weigh per day while meeting their calories for weight maintenance (or a slight reduction if looking to lose weight).

A gym goer looking to gain muscle should be eating at least 500 calories more than they need per day to gain extra muscle, and it will still take some time to add.

The reality for cyclists is that if you eat too many calories while eating adequate protein you could gain muscle. If your calories are balanced, however, you maximise muscle retention while maintaining or losing fat mass dependent on your intake of calories. Protein is filling, so if you up this, you are more likely to lose weight rather than gain it, as you become satisfied with fewer calories. It’s all about balance.

Protein can’t work magic

Of course, if you want to include a beneficial amount of protein in your diet, you do still need to pay attention to the rest of your food choices. Although protein will fill you up and help to control cravings, if you pair up a chocolate bar and some nuts, the negative effect of the sugar from your chocolate treat is likely to negate the beneficial effect of your protein.

A study comparing the effectiveness of different diets for maintaining weight loss after a group had already lost a substantial amount of weight found that a moderate protein/moderate carbohydrate diet was more effective than a high carbohydrate/low protein diet, however both of these groups were restricted to low glycaemic carbohydrates in their diets.

A third group was tested with the same protein as the moderate group, but with the carbohydrate coming from simple sugars. This was the least effective diet for maintaining weight loss. So, if you want to take advantage of healthy proteins, then stick to healthy carbohydrates too, selecting smaller portions of starch-based carbohydrates and complimenting your meals or snacks with vegetables, salad or fruit.