Protein, well it’s the bees knees (not literally). A macro-nutrient that is the major structural component of muscle tissue and many other structures in the body. Used to produce enzymes, hormones and hemoglobin, protein is formed by amino acids, there are 22 standard in total, 9 of which are essential which means you need to get them from the plate and into your mouth!
Regardless of your sport you need all essential amino acids in the diet, in adequate quantities to promote health and well-being, to keep all the normal processes in the body working and obviously to maintain or create new muscle mass! It’s the fact that our muscle mass is solely maintained by the ingestion of amino acids (read Protein) that make it so important for all athletes to get enough of the right types of protein at the right time! Our muscles are the movement creators. Getting from A to B on your bike only happens by the contraction and relaxation of muscle fibre. Simple!
Exercise or training (strength or endurance) of any kind causes the breakdown of muscle but also signals your body to create or synthesis new muscle. The positive balance of amino acids in the body is what will result in the creation of new muscle and a positive adaptation to training. So basically if you train you need to eat enough protein to ensure you’ll create new muscle, adapt to the training, feel recovered and fresh the next day and make PROGRESS!
The challenges that Enduro produces, especially during extended training sessions and competitions is that it’s an acute mix of aerobic endurance, strength endurance and power repeatability. You are riding all day and then pushing the body and all it’s systems to the max for 3-15 mins at a time 3-8 times a day for the timed stages! Hard stuff that requires plenty of quality carbohydrate but also plenty of decent protein to ensure full recovery from racing and increases in strength, power and endurance from training!
The first step to making sure you get enough protein to maintain a positive protein balance in the muscles is eating protein with each meal! Animal or plant sources, it doesn’t matter, but make sure you are combining plenty of sources if getting your protein from plants as most plants lack a few key essential amino acids (remember those from above?). Quinoa, buckwheat and sprouted lentils are some plant sources of protein that get you all the essential amino acids. Animal sources are usually “complete”. So, simply, 20-30g of protein per meal (a chicken breast has about 25-32g).
And here-in lies the challenge for the Enduro athlete! If you are racing for 5 – 6 hrs in a day how do you make sure you get adequate protein in your diet?
1. Eat 20-30g of Protein with your final meal before racing/training. This will frequently be breakfast and having protein at breakfast is always important, not only does it make sure you have enough protein for muscle synthesis it also leaves you feeling fuller for longer, adds taste and texture to your meal and lows down the absorption of your carbohydrate meaning you have a nice steady release of energy throughout the morning. This final meal should be about 1h 30min before you start your pre-race warm-up and can contain whatever you want, meat, eggs, fish, milk, yogurt, beans, pulses etc.. all contain protein!
2. Protein during the day? The most challenging one. Trying to get enough protein on the bike? Is it even necessary? Well like I mentioned above ingesting protein with your carbohydrate can actually slow down your digestion of that carb (but speed up the protein absorption!) and for some people this can also cause bowel/stomach cramps and problems. Not what you want when racing. But there is some evidence to show that having a source of protein during prolonged exercise can help maintain protein balance in the muscles and in theory speed up recovery and adaptation. The bottom line is experiment, maybe a half a homemade or bought protein bar in the bag or some chicken? It’s personal but keep in mind that normally at the 3hr mark of exercise you should be thinking about having some solid food, so a natural energy bar home-made or like a Clif-bar will have around 9-10g of protein in it anyway.
3.After training or racing! It seems going to the gym and slamming a protein shake ASAP afterwards is ubiquitous nowadays and rightly so. Getting quality easily absorbed protein into the body ASAP after training is the best way to make sure you keep or make your muscle mass and recovery well. So pre-planning is key here. Make sure you can get a good protein source into you ASAP after racing or training, a whey type powder or recovery formula of whey and sugars mixed is the most popular and convenient, but real food is also an option as is milk and yogurt. Research shows that having s source of carbohydrate and protein together is the quickest way to get protein to digest. Also Whey protein is the most quickly absorbed of the powders but milk also has it’s benefits because of a high Leucine content (an amino acid) which allows for longer periods of positive protein balance in the muscle! So never underestimate the power of Chocolate milk. Some other guidelines to follow are limit fat intake with the post exercise meal and make sure you are again getting 25-30g of protein in this meal/snack. A simple tip I always give my athletes is to start the recovery process early and have a protein and sugar source about 20 min before they stop their training session, so that’s usually just a few minutes before cool-down. That way protein intake becomes a subconscious “process” over time!
4. The aftermath. So racing finished at 5 p.m. but you are not going to eat dinner until 8.30 p.m.! Will you have enough protein in your post training snack to bridge that gap? I hope so, but if you aren’t sure then snack again near 7 p.m., Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, whatever you want! Dinner? Yep simple, yet again 20-30g of protein (regardless of body mass/size). Lean meat, fish, plant sources, dairy or eggs, the choice is yours based on diet, religion and wants! Just make sure to keep it interesting with plenty of colour and texture.
The final clever bit though is the next gap in time. So you finish eating at 9.15 p.m. go to bed at 10.30 and won’t have any protein or food for 11hrs until you wake at 8 a.m. – that’s a big gap – what if you are racing the next day or going to work and have a gym session planned the next evening. Total recovery and muscle growth is what you need and there is some new research showing that having a simple protein source just before bed can have a very positive effect on curbing muscle breakdown and promoting muscle growth and recovery. Yet again aim for 20-30 g of protein. The type of protein is up to you, but a complete protein (all essential amino-acids) maybe best and something that release slowly in digestion like the Casein protein found in milk could be a good strategy. But yet again find what works best for you.
The Enduro racer faces some new and unique challenges with their nutrition and recovery from training. Experiment, note changes and be diligent. Make sure you have a protein source with each meal, experiment with protein during, just before and after training and competition and on heavy training or racing days have some protein about 20-30 minutes before sleep.
It’s not rocket science, just sports science.
The inspiration for this article came from the great resource on sports nutrition that is the GSSI. Check out there article on the topic here – https://secure.footprint.net/gatorade/prd/gssiweb/pdf/117_SSE_Van_Loon.pdf
Any questions? Feel free to comment.