When athletes think about food, they most often think about carbs. Carbs are (usually) an athlete’s primary fuel source and compose 50% or more of the calories in the diet, so we cannot fault you for thinking this way. We’re not really going to argue this point, but here’s a different line of thought. If you’re not eating enough protein, the amount of carbohydrates you’re consuming won’t make a tiny bit of difference for your performance. You might ask question like, “how many carbs should I eat in my pre competition meal,” or, “how many carbohydrates should I have post-workout?” The answers don’t matter if you’re not, at least peripherally, conscious of your protein intake (but you can find them in the links!). It doesn’t matter how full the gas tank is if your tires are slashed. Some of you reading are like me and thinking, “you could just drive it on the rims.” True. You could. But, it would take a lot longer and cause a lot more damage, and that matches the analogy perfectly!
Protein's most crucial roles in the body are to form enzymes (such as those involved in energy and carbohydrate metabolism), cells (like immune cells and muscle cells), and hormones (for instance, insulin, which helps cells absorb carbohydrates). As you can see, carbohydrates are inextricably linked to proteins. Without proteins as enzymes, carbohydrates would not be metabolized. Without proteins to form muscles and help repair muscles damaged during training, carbohydrates would not have them to fuel, and without hormones like insulin, carbohydrates ingested in athletes’ quantities would pool up in the blood for days instead of a few hours.
That’s enough ragging on carbohydrates. They’re important! But protein can’t be forgotten!
Here is another interesting point. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Personally, I think this should be considered a minimum, but it is typically regarded as a maximum due to association with the carbohydrate and fat RDA and the usual “eat less” motto of national dietary recommendations. Of course, we know athletes need more. More calories. More carbohydrate. More protein. And yes, even more fat. For endurance athletes, protein should be consumed at an amount equal to 1.0 – 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (NOT gospel, though. You’ll see in the next paragraph!).
Less than that amount can lead to some unwanted consequences. These are not effects of malnutrition levels of protein restriction, such as kwashiorkor, but rather not enough protein to meet the needs of athletes. First, feeling like you don’t have enough energy or enough strength. This can stem from enzymes, as discussed earlier, and it could also be due to muscle wasting. Second, not recovering from exercise. Protein is not only a major signal to the body to begin recovery processes, but proteins and amino acids are also the building blocks used to rebuild and repair tissue. Continuing to train without consuming enough protein between training sessions can lead to overreaching or overtraining. This may be even more protein than you think can help your performance. A study in trained cyclists consuming either 1.5 or 3.0 grams protein per kilogram bodyweight per day during a period of increased exercise volume found that consuming 1.5 g/kg/d was not enough to benefit cycling performance or resist upper respiratory tract infections (1, 2).
You might be surprised to read that most of the claims around a high protein diet are fictitious. They’re myths. They are not true. Is there such a thing as too much protein? Yes. It can be dangerous to consume only protein, especially for athletes. Some ludicrous dietary advice sometimes recommends very low calorie, very high protein diets for weight loss. Don’t do that! So, protein can be dangerous when it is one of the only nutrients being consumed. As an absolute amount, it is also theoretically possible to eat so much protein that you can overwhelm the digestive systems capacity to metabolize it. However, doing this in practice is basically impossible (don’t accept the challenge, Barney). Eating a high protein diet for extended periods of time does not disrupt kidney, liver, or bone function (3, 4). Eating a high protein diet is also NOT bad for endurance performance. There are studies that say otherwise, but they have a major flaw. The flaw is that they also reduced carbohydrate intake, but placed the blame on the protein. It wasn’t the protein, it was insufficient carbohydrate intake! In other observations, performance is at least maintained when protein is added to the diet but not replacing carbohydrate.
Whey. What if I’m vegan? Whey. I’m sorry, but being vegan doesn’t excuse you from reality. Being allergic to milk proteins, however, that can excuse you. In that case, egg protein. If you need a hypoallergenic protein, you’re probably able to consume either whey or egg, but if not, chicken, beef, or even fish (yup, it’s a real thing) are best. Okay okay, if you’re not going to have any animal sources, soy is best. If you’re allergic to soy, I actually recommend looking for pumpkin seed protein. They’re one of the only other plant-based proteins that are a complete source of protein. Getting back to whey, whey protein consistently and repeatedly outperforms all other proteins when evaluated head-to-head for athletic performance, body composition, and even health (5, 6, 7, 8). What’s wrong with food protein? Nothing. Eat food protein all of the times that you don’t want to drink protein (hopefully, that is most of the time).
There is one thing that food protein cannot be, however. That thing is hydrolyzed. (Technically, they can be hydrolyzed, but only after turning them into a protein powder and exposing them to an enzymatic process, but I digress.) Hydrolyzed proteins are proteins that are partially broken down before you eat them. This makes the protein easier and faster to digest (9). Hydrolyzed proteins also give rise to certain bioactive peptides that are associated with improved metabolic function (10, 11), which includes a trait hugely important for endurance athletes - enhancing skeletal muscle absorption of glucose (12). In part, this may be one of the reasons that whey protein hydrolysate is more capable of promoting body fat loss than intact whey protein (13).
Most importantly, hydrolyzed proteins are best for exercise recovery! In a study comparing whey protein isolate to whey protein hydrolysate, participants performed 100 maximal eccentric muscle contractions (muscle damaging exercise) then consumed either water or 25g of the hydrolyzed or regular protein. Their muscle force production capacity was then determined 1, 2, 6, and 24 hours after the muscle damaging bout ended. By 6 hours, only those that received the whey protein hydrolysate recovered, and they recovered completely (14)! Other investigations indicate that whey protein hydrolysate is more than the sum of its parts. Whey protein hydrolysate, versus a drink containing its exact amino acid profile as free amino acids, had a significantly greater effect for increasing muscle protein recovery processes, aka muscle protein synthesis (15). The icing on the cake, whey protein hydrolysate may even offer protection against mammary tumors (16). Save the ta-tas!
One drawback is the nomenclature. The laws concerning whey protein supplements state that whey isolates must be 90% protein, and whey concentrates must be 80% protein. Whey hydrolysates can be made from any type of whey – isolate or concentrate. Although, the percent of the powder that is protein is not as big of a deal as the percent of the protein that is hydrolyzed. The difference between 80% and 90% may be of interest, but it’s not going to break the camel’s back. On the other hand, there is currently NO stipulation for how much of a whey protein hydrolysate must actually be hydrolyzed. Any hydrolysis of the protein can earn it the title, “whey protein hydrolysate,” and I think that’s a little messed up. Sly companies have taken advantage of this. As a result, most of the whey protein “hydrolysate” in supplements is actually NOT hydrolyzed. Most, not all, “hydrolyzed” proteins are only 3-5% hydrolyzed.
If 3-5% hydrolyzed proteins were the ones being used in research, this wouldn’t be a big deal, as we, the consumer, would still get the benefits. Unfortunately, the research typically uses proteins that are at least 10% hydrolyzed. While 10% doesn’t sound like much, the limit of commercially-available protein hydrolysates is ~30%. Some of the “controversy” over hydrolyzed protein can sometimes be explained by looking at how much of the protein was hydrolyzed. In many investigations, 3-5% hydrolyzed proteins (or the degree of hydrolysis is not mentioned) are no different from intact proteins. …BECAUSE THEY’RE THE SAME THING. They were never going to have different effects because they were always the same protein. Duh.
It’s worth it. Just keep an eye out for the “degree of hydrolysis.” If the product is not forthcoming with that information, it is probably only 3-5% hydrolyzed. EndurElite’s post exercise recovery product, RecoverElite, uses just one source of extensively (23-29%) hydrolyzed whey protein. The same protein used by national level runners, Lacprodan® Hydro.365 by Arla Food Ingredients (17). That is our commitment to you. Only the best.