- provide muscle with stimulus (resistance training),
- provide the building blocks (proteins / amino acids)
- provide energy (calories),
- give your body time to recover.
Athletes who focus on protein only, often do so in belief that the more protein they get, the more muscle they build. To build muscle mass effectively, strength athletes needs about 1.4-1.8g protein per kg. Endurance athletes require a little less, 1.2-1.6g [source].
An ordinary athlete can easily get in this range from their diet alone without supplementation. Higher intake is unnecessary and can be even counterproductive.
The average adult American’s diet contains more than 200% of the RDA, with many athletes consuming much more.
A research that focused on comparing satiety of food analyzed data of 9900 people and 587,187 food diary records from MyFitnessPal.
What they found was
we consume more food until we obtain the protein we need, and
once we get enough protein, our appetite reduces.
This effect was observed at about 20% calories coming from protein. The highest satiety was in diets containing 50% energy coming from protein, and the lowest satiety at 10% energy coming from protein.
If you consume more protein, it’s at the expense of carbohydrates and fats. Protein-rich foods are more satiating and can make you feel full at a lower caloric intake, thus indirectly preventing you from gaining muscle and weight – the athlete consumes fewer calories and as a result cannot build muscle effectively.
Higher protein intake was also associated with increased fatigue during calorie restricted state, although this has been contested elsewhere [source].
Spartan Race athlete example:
Recently, I had a consultation with a man training for Spartan Race. During our conversation, Simon mentioned that he felt constantly bloated and gassy.
When I asked him about his typical meal choices, he disclosed to me that in order to lose weight, he had been focusing on protein intake not only in his main meals but also in his snacks. His protein intake was close to 2.2g/kg, which is really high.
Here is the catch. Not only it is unnecessary to have that high protein intake, even during the weight loss phase, but it also displaces nutrients he would get from other foods. For example vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber contained in fruit, legumes and grains.
After reassuring him that he does not need that much protein and suggesting having carbohydrate focused snacks like fruit, Simon started feeling better.
“I switched protein foods for fruit. Now I eat at least 3-4 pieces of fruit like apples, bananas or mandarines and I stopped eating pastry except for the days when I have a long training.
I am not so tired and bloated, my digestion is better and I have more energy.”
If you want to gain muscle mass as an athlete, do not be afraid to increase your energy intake in form of carbohydrates, especially in the times around training. This energy will support your sports performance as well as your efforts to gain muscle mass. At the same time, it minimizes energy storage in the form of fats.
Summary: An ordinary athlete eats enough protein in his diet.
Athletes who have difficulty gaining weight can be taking in too much protein in their diet at the expense of carbohydrates, which prevents them from gaining muscle mass. Don’t be afraid to increase carbohydrates in your diet in the form of whole grains and fruits. They are necessary for sports performance and will allow you to achieve better body composition.