Protein is one of the three macronutrients the human body requires along with carbohydrates and fats. Consisting of amino acids, proteins are responsible for many functions in the human body and account for approximately 20% of a person's bodyweight. These functions cover everything from movement to metabolic regulation to coordination and control.
Humans are required to consume protein on a daily basis to ensure optimal execution on these functions as well as to repair and recover from the day's events, especially after exercise.
Since this article will be dealing with applying nutrition to cycling I won't bore you with too much theory and background regarding proteins. If you are interested in learning more there are plenty of good resources in books and online, especially Athletes.com and Bodybuilding.com's articles pages.
As a cyclist you may or may not pay great attention to your diet, if you are there is a good chance you are overlooking protein. Protein is vital for recovery and essential in helping one improve their performance from one ride to the next.
On to the facts ...
How Much Do I Need?
It is important to understand that cyclists and most athletes for that matter are not bodybuilders.
Bodybuilders consume large amounts of protein to maximize muscle mass while bulking and limit muscle loss when cutting or leaning down.
Cyclists simply do not want that mass. Their main aim is to develop a high power-to-weight ratio and gaining 5 kilograms of muscle would certainly not help that. This aside, it is important for cyclists to consume adequate protein for the reasons listed above, but how much is enough?
- The recommended daily intake for an average adult is 0.8g of protein/kg. This figure is basically for your average sedimentary person who goes to work and watches television.
- For a cyclist, or any other hard training athlete, this figure would be too low. For a person who is undertaking strength training that daily intake level rises to 1.6-1.8g/kg.
- The Sports Dieticians of Australia confirm this number and include the category of endurance athletes, suggesting the need 1.2-1.4g/kg.
For reference most bodybuilders consume 2.2g/kg+, this trend has caused many athletes to follow suit with higher protein intakes especially when trying to add muscle mass.
Strength Training For Cyclists
While road cyclists certainly are not 'strength athletes' they can perform strength training in two main ways.
The first option is conventional strength training with resistance.
Although not popular among road cyclists, conventional resistance training can be used in particular by amateur riders who may not have the option of spending a lot of time on the bike due to other commitments (work etc). Two sessions per week focusing to the whole body can be an excellent addition to a cyclist's training program.
Bike Training ///
The second and arguably more popular method of strength training among cyclists is performed on the bike. This method is often more popular as it can be performed on a ride which is already in your schedule (ex: no extra sessions) and is much more specific to the sport than training performed in the gym.
From this we can conclude that a road cyclist needs to consume between 1.2-1.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. This figure is confirmed by a study conducted where the energy expenditure comparable to that of the Tour de France was used.
For this study 1.7g/kg of protein was consumed and nitrogen losses were close to intake. The conclusion was drawn that an increased protein intake was required (possible around 1.8g/kg+). It is important however to remember this study was conducted over 7 days under conditions similar to the Tour de France.
For the average rider, the mentioned values should provide enough proteins for your needs.
When To Consume Protein?
Like the amount of protein consumed, the timing of your consumption of protein as a cyclist will differ greatly to that as a bodybuilder.
Bodybuilders not only strive to consume a large amount of protein but at also constantly to ensure an elevated level of amino acids in the blood and promote anabolism.
For example if a bodybuilder was to eat six meals in a day, they was include a protein source at each meal. By protein source I am referring to a food that is predominately eaten for its protein benefits (see 'What are good protein sources? below).
As a cyclist you will probably similarly eat six meals a day, 3 meal and 3 snacks or another combination. However, you might not eat a protein source at each meal.
This does not mean you won't be getting any protein but they will be 'incidental proteins.' For example you might have 2 honey sandwiches as a snack. While this is predominately a carbohydrate-based meal, you will still consume 12-20 grams of protein from the bread.
The most important time to consume proteins is around your workout or in this case ride. Post workout is without a doubt the most important time.
Immediately following every training session, either on the bike or in the gym, you should aim to consume 20-30g of protein along with adequate carbohydrates (this will be discussed in part 2).
While there are many good sources of protein at this time it is best to consume a fast absorbing source to aid in recovery.
Protein supplements such as whey protein are excellent for this purpose. You can check out a whole range of these supplements at the Athletes.com store. All products in this store have been cross referenced with World Anti-Doping Agency lists and this provides more peace of mind for those being drug tested.
Wider ranges of protein supplements are available at Athletes.com brother site, Bodybuilding.com. It must be said also that if a product is at Bodybuilding.com but not Athletes.com DOES NOT mean it contains a banned substance, in many cases it is just not listed on both sites. Both sites are run by the same people and therefore have fast shipping and the lowest prices on the Internet.
In addition to consuming protein after a ride another prime time to do so is during a ride. One study compares consuming a carbohydrate-only drink and a carbohydrate and protein drink during endurance cycling.
The concentrations for both drinks were 7.3% CHO (similar to commercial sports drinks ex: Gatorade), while the drink with protein contained 1.8% protein. The results were interesting.
While riding the first day the CHO+P group rode 29% further before exhaustion than the straight CHO group. In a second ride 12-15 hours later; the CHO+P group rode a whopping 40% farther than the CHO only group. Another finding from the study was peak post-exercise plasma CPK levels were 83% lower in the CHO+P group than the straight CHO group.
Plasma CPK levels are an indication of muscle damage. This shows that, by consuming protein and carbohydrates on your rides, not only will you be able to ride longer but you will do less damage to you muscles and be able to recover much sooner to get riding again.
To get these benefits for your rides simply add 10g of BCAA's to your commercial bought sports drink (assuming the drink is 600ml) and sip throughout your workout. BCAA stands for Brach Chain Amino Acids and consist of three amino acids namely leucine, isoleucine and valine.
All three are essential amino acids and in BCAA form (as opposed to a whole protein) are absorbed more quickly, which is perfect while riding. Any BCAA supplement will do the job; nowadays some have other ingredients, which improve their formula, and I will discuss these in more detail in part four of this series.
The final time I suggest it be vital to get a complete protein source would be at dinner or your evening meal and possibly before bed. Most of your recovery will take place during your sleep so it is important to ensure you have adequate amino levels in your system for recovery.
What Are Good Protein Sources?
There are several good sources for proteins. Dairy products such as milk and cheese, meat, high quality supplements, fish, eggs and vegetable sources such as nuts, seeds, grains and legumes.
Some sources (such as some vegetarian sources) are 'incomplete' which means they don't contain all the essential amino acids and need to combine with other proteins to cover the amino spectrum.
- Get enough protein each day, 1.2-1.8g/kg of bodyweight.
- Consume 20-30g of high quality protein immediately after a ride
- Add a concentration approximately 1.8% (10g/600ml) to your fluid while you ride.
- Consume a protein source at dinner and 20g at bedtime.
- Ensure proteins you consume are complete or combine two or more proteins to get the full spectrum of essential amino acids.
There you have it, part one of this series on nutrition and supplementation for cyclists. Next time I will delve into the world of carbohydrates, the most important macronutrient for cyclists.