Protein Needs for Athletes
Nutrition for Injury - Stephen Gurr

In all my years working with athletes, I’m yet to come across anyone who likes being injured. While incredibly frustrating, it’s important that you do all you can to “return to play” in the best shape possible.

The primary goal of rehabilitation from injury is to limit the loss of functional muscle mass, while also limiting gains in fat mass. While the work you do with your athletic therapist and strength and conditioning coach will be the “key ingredient” for this, your nutrition during this period is also a key component in achieving these goals. 

Goal 1: Limit loss in functional muscle mass – pass the protein!

When an injury limits your ability to use your muscle, it will atrophy, or essentially reduce in size. While this atrophy is mostly due to muscle disuse, it’s also due in part to the injured muscle (s) becoming less responsive to protein feeding, which means your requirement for protein when injured is greater than when you are fit and healthy. Therefore, it’s vital that when you are injured you include a source of high-quality protein e.g. milk, fish, lentils, at each main meal, as well as incorporate a protein rich snack during the day e.g. Greek yoghurt, to offset some of this disuse atrophy. A co-benefit of having an adequate source of high-quality protein at each meal is that it will increase your level of satiety (i.e. feeling of fullness), making it less likely that you will reach for ice cream and cookies after supper, which leads me to the second key dietary strategy when injured… 

Goal 2: Reduce gains in fat mass – hide the cookies!

Aside from the acute phase of an injury, your overall energy requirements are less. Therefore, it’s important to look for ways to reduce your overall energy intake, without compromising intake all the nutrients needed for health. A useful way to do this is to reduce your intake of “empty calories” i.e. foods and fluids that provide an abundance of energy, but no nutrients that our bodies need. Relevant examples include foods rich in saturated/trans fats e.g. cookies, pastries, crisps and fast food, highly processed carbohydrate rich foods such as soft drink, packaged juice, candy, sugary cereals, as well as alcohol.  In addition to your high-quality lean protein sources, it’s also important to increase intake of nutrient dense, low energy foods - which is just a sneaky way of telling you to eat more fruit and non-starchy vegetables ☺.  These foods provide an abundance of vitamins and minerals your body needs at a low energy “cost”.   

Being injured is never fun. However, being proactive with your rehab program and making subtle changes to your diet will increase the likelihood that you will return to play that little bit sooner, and in the best shape possible.  

For individualized treatment and advice for your injury, contact the team at Premier Athletic Therapy & Sports Medicine. 


Why do we need protein?

Proteins play a hugely important and varied role in the body, from providing the structure for things such as bone, to helping regulate key bodily processes e.g. insulin to help regulate blood sugar levels, as well as playing a key role in supporting our immune system. Of more relevance or interest to athletes, skeletal muscle is mainly made up of protein, while mitochondria, the “energy currency” of our cells, is also made up of many different types of proteins.

In the context of athletic performance, when you train, whether it be on the pitch, rink, road or in the gym, you are trying to force your body to adapt or change in a way that will allow to perform your sport at a higher level e.g. make your muscles stronger, give you greater speed or endurance. While this exercise stress alone will help you achieve these training goals, eating the right type and amount of protein will ensure you achieve them must faster! 

Where can you find protein in the diet?

All proteins are made up of different combinations of 20 different amino acids, or “building blocks”, nine of which are considered “essential”, in that they cannot be produced by the body and must be provided in the diet. Animal-based proteins such as dairy, meat and eggs provide a full complement of Essential Amino Acids (EAA), while plant-based proteins e.g. legumes, nuts, are usually low in one or more of these. However, when you combine two different types of plant-based proteins e.g. beans with rice, grain bread with peanut butter, you will be giving your body all the EAA it needs.

How much and when? 

Having 0.3-0.5g/protein/per kilogram of body mass every 4-5 hours is seen as the best way to promote optimal adaptation and recovery from your training program, with the biggest “hits” soon after your main training session and 60-90 minutes before going to bed. For a 70 kg (154 pound) athlete, this equates to ~21 – 35g (or 0.75 – 1.2 ounces) of protein per meal. 

Can I just take a supplement?

It’s always preferable to try to meet your protein targets by choosing “real food” options e.g. eggs, Greek style yoghurt, that provide not only protein, but also other nutrients important for health and performance e.g. iron from red meat, calcium from yoghurt, healthy fats from nuts. That said, protein supplements such as whey can be beneficial when trying to meet your protein targets while also trying to reduce the total amount of energy in your diet, as may be the case if you are injured or when trying to reduce body mass. For example, while one scoop of whey protein and 250g of Greek style yoghurt will provide a similar amount of protein, the caloric density of the yoghurt is far greater, making the whey a more suitable option in this context.

​For individualized advice on how best to meet your protein requirements or for other dietary advice tailored to your needs, book an appointment with our Sports Nutritionist Stephen Gurr today.