It’s generally accepted that the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)—-the standard nutritionists use to assess adequacy of a diet—-for protein is too low for athletes. Athletes need more protein than the general population. Still, it’s possible for athletes to get enough protein by eating a balanced diet. Protein supplements may not be necessary, but they can be a convenient way to increase protein intake, especially for vegans (those who do not eat any animal flesh or animal byproducts).
It’s fair to say a college football player has different nutritional needs from those of a high school football player; a long-distance runner will eat a diet different from that of a hockey player; a swimmer requires a protein intake different from what a diver needs. While these seem like obvious differences because of the sizes of the athletes and the sports they are playing, other factors also influence the amount of protein an athlete needs.
- Condition of the athlete. Early in a training program, the body is less efficient in converting protein to muscle. After the initial training phase, muscles get better at converting amino acids in the body into protein. Thus, the protein intake in the initial phase should be higher and then adjusted as necessary. Coaches and parents should pay attention to what their athletes eat during the preseason. Keeping protein levels high and attending to fluid and calorie intake help athletes feel better and perform better.
- Total diet and timing. Protein is a source of fuel, yielding four calories per gram (the same yield as carbohydrates), but being spent as calories is not protein’s intended job. As mentioned earlier, protein is an expensive fuel source. If an athlete consumes adequate calories, protein can be saved for the important jobs unique to protein. Protein requirements may be much higher for wrestlers, gymnasts, divers, and other athletes who eat a minimum number of calories. Because these athletes are often trying to maintain a low weight and eating a low-calorie diet, protein may be diverted from muscle building and repairing and used for energy instead. Recovery foods—-those foods eaten immediately after exercise—-should include protein. Eating protein and carbohydrates within 15 minutes of completing a training or practice session allows muscles to rebuild and recover properly.
- Sport played. Athletes involved in strength and power sports look to increase their muscle size and strength. To build muscles, the body needs extra protein and a training program. Protein without proper training does not build muscles. Athletes should appreciate how training and diet complement each other. One without the other is bound to fail.
- Athlete’s age. Protein needed by the growing athlete adds another layer to the protein requirement. Young athletes are building muscle, burning calories, and growing. They need to eat enough calories to first meet their growth needs.
Young athletes trying to bulk up often increase their protein intake because they think more protein means bigger muscles. Yes, protein is important for bulking up, but only when enough calories are ingested. High intakes of protein with inadequate calories means the protein will be diverted to other jobs, such as fueling the body.