6 Tips on Protein Intake for Athletes: Clearing Up the Confusion

Protein intake is important to build and repair muscle – and ultimately aids an improvement in sporting performance. However, as I am sure many of you athletes have found, the information out there on how protein can be consumed effectively is pretty confusing. So, here are 6 tips to consider with regards to your protein consumption:

  1. Consumption before sessions: if protein is eaten before a short session (less than 1 hour), this will help muscle synthesis after the session.

The protein consumed before a session may contribute to increasing the amino acid pool for muscle synthesis after the session, as the digestion time for the proteins will release the amino acids in the body post-session[1].

If the training session is longer than an hour, protein ingested is more likely to be used as a fuel rather than for muscle synthesis. 

  1. Consumption during sessions: in endurance sessions, muscle breakdown without synthesis will be limited if protein is consumed during continuous exercise (above 1.5hrs). With regards to resistance sessions, protein synthesis may be aided by protein eaten during the session (if longer than 2 hours).

Endurance athletes training for longer periods of time – 1.5+ hours – may benefit from protein consumption to limit amino acids from being used as a fuel[2]. It is debated as to whether this protein enhances synthesis4, or just maintains protein balance[3], but it is clear that this consumption doesn’t cause a negative protein balance and may prime the amino acid pool for post-exercise muscle synthesis.

In reference to resistance exercise (comprising of reps and sets) the rest periods may be used for muscle synthesis in sessions lasting longer than 2 hours[4]. If the sessions are shorter, there is limited opportunity for skeletal muscle remodelling as it usually occurs in the hours after the session, not in the minutes between reps.

  1. Consumption after sessions: if athletes are training every day, they should focus more on regular protein consumption rather than an increase in intake ONLY after a session.

Recent research suggests that protein ingestion directly after exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis for up to 4 hours after the session[5]. However, most sources suggest that consumption up to 24 hours after a session can contribute to synthesis[6].

  1. Amount and timing of consumption: for optimal consumption, 0.25g/kg body weight every 3 hours is most effective in allowing muscle synthesis[7]. Athletes training in the evening may consider increasing this to 0.5g/kg of body weight in pre-bedtime snacks due to the protein deficiency occurring in the night[8].

THERE IS NO POINT IN EATING LARGE AMOUNTS OF PROTEIN ALL AT ONCE… in fact new research says that eating more than 20g of protein at once (for an 80kg person) results in the amino acids being used as a fuel rather than contributing to muscle synthesis[9]

So, optimal doses should be at around 0.25g/kg of body weight to stimulate muscle synthesis and induce a positive protein balance. Intakes of 10-16g (lower) can also stimulate synthesis even though body protein balance is negative[10].

General daily requirements for athletes differ from regular individuals who want to offset deficiency. General requirements are around 0.8kg/kg body weight/day[11]– it is important to ignore this figure as athletes consume protein to better performance rather than to stop deficiency.

  1. Type of protein to consume: both wholefood and isolated protein options aid muscle synthesis, however isolated sources may be best to consume post-session for athletes wanting to make muscle gains. Good wholefood options include eggs, milk, beef, fish, soy and beans; and the best isolated protein options are leucine-rich, including whey for initial muscle synthesis and casein for prolonged synthesis.

The best protein sources are impacted by two things:

  • Good amino acid composition – this can be worked out by looking at the biological valueof proteins (the higher the BV, the better the amino acid composition).
    • Egg has the highest BV of any wholefood, with most animal proteins like beef, milk and fish following suit[12].
    • Vegetarian options like soy protein and beans are also high12.
  • High rate of digestion – as this means the amino acids appear in the blood faster.
    • Casein has the slowest digestibility and is found in soy proteins. Animal products however have high digestibility [12].

Sources with both a high biological value and high rate of digestion increase muscle synthesis post-exercise[13].

Mixed protein sources vs isolated protein sources:

Mixed protein sources consist of wholefoods (not supplements) and they have a different amino acid composition compared to isolated sources[14]. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING… wholefoods still cause a positive protein balance. Actually, it has been found that milk, or sources containing large amounts of dairy (high in whey and casein protein), enhance protein synthesis and improve lean body mass10.

However, it is recommended that athletes wanting to initiate rapid post-exercise muscle synthesis should consume leucine-rich rapidly digested isolated protein[15].

  1. MOST IMPORTANTLY… how does this help you?

As an athlete wanting to maintain muscle mass – eating protein regularly whilst making sure that the calories you eat equal the calories that you burn will ensure that protein synthesis and breakdown is equal… it will reduce chance of injury and helps to make your body leaner and stronger.

As an athlete wanting to increase muscle mass – eating protein regularly whilst making sure that the calories you eat exceed the calories that you burn will ensure that protein synthesis is larger than breakdown… it means that the weight that you put on will most likely be muscle, making you fitter, stronger and faster.

Read more on why athletes need protein in one of my previous posts:


I hope that this post has been useful… please comment your thoughts and questions underneath and I will try to get back to you!

Continue reading 6 Tips on Protein Intake for Athletes: Clearing Up the Confusion

The science – why do athletes need protein?

Dietary protein provides amino acids, which are components of muscle. The specific muscles that ingested protein progresses are:

  • Contractile – cause muscle contractionsby converting chemical energy to mechanical work.
  • Structural proteins – provide support for muscles to move bone levers and therefore limbs.
  • Regulatory enzymes – to speed up reactions, specifically metabolism of dietary macronutrients to convert them to energy accessible for the body.

As you can see from their functions, strengthening and building these muscles will improve performance.

To maintain muscle mass, its breakdown and synthesis must be balanced.

To gain muscle, its synthesis must be larger than its breakdown – resulting in a positive protein balance[1].

Different muscle masses are gained in different proportions depending on the type of training that is done:

  • Endurance training –
    • Gains mitochondrial mass– increases mitochondria which converts unusable energy to useable energy when oxygen is present.
  • Resistance training –
    • Gains myofibrillar mass– enhances strength and lean body mass.

Both of these types of training increase protein synthesis AND breakdown after exercise; however, to make muscle, amino acids must be present. Without a large pool of amino acids, muscle breakdown occurs without synthesis[2]. Amino acids are ingested from dietary proteins.

Continue reading The science – why do athletes need protein?

Prawn Pesto Pasta

Tasty, tasty, tasty… and providing a whopping 3 OF YOUR 5 A DAY, a solid 32 grams of protein, and plenty of vitamins and minerals to improve your health.

Serves 1


  • 75g wholewheat spaghetti
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 5 spears of asparagus
  • 70g frozen peas
  • 1 tbsp basil pesto
  • 2 tbsp fat-free creme fraiche
  • 60g king prawns
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp olive oil


  1. Boil water in a pan and add the pasta, set a timer for 10 minutes – with 4 minutes to go, you will need to add the asparagus tips and the frozen peas.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan, add the tomatoes and prawns (you can use either cooked or raw prawns – if cooking from raw just make sure they are pink all the way through when fully cooked) and heat for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic to the prawn pan and cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
  4. Drain the pasta, asparagus and peas.
  5. Arrange the asparagus on a plate.
  6. Mix in the pesto and creme fraiche into the pasta and peas, and serve on the asparagus. Top with the garlic prawns and tomatoes.
  7. Enjoy!


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Prawns – high in protein for muscle repair and growth, and low in fat.

Wholewheat pasta – high in starchy carbs for energy which will keep you going, and fibre to improve digestion.

Asparagus – high in vitamin A for vision, vitamin B6 for energy release, and folate for DNA synthesis.

Tomatoes – massively high in vitamin C for protein and neurotransmitter synthesis; it also has functions in detoxification and as an antioxidant. It also gives you vitamin A for vision and immune function, and potassium for fluid balance and muscle contraction.

Peas – providing potassium, vitamin B6 for energy and dietary fibre for bowel moment.

Creme Fraiche – no fat (as fat-free version is bought), and high in calcium for bone strength.


Super FLUFFY Omelette

Lazy mornings are times of chilled out breakfasts… enjoy with this fluffy omelette and a cup of coffee to keep you fuller for longer.

Serves 1


  • 3 eggs
  • 1tsp olive oil


  1. Separate the egg yolks and egg whites.
  2. Use a fork to whisk the egg yolks until combined.
  3. Using an electronic whisk, or a hand whisk, stir the egg whites until peaks have formed (like you are making meringue).
  4. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan (with a lid).
  5. Fold in the egg yolks to the whisked whites.
  6. Add the mixture to the hot pan, reduce the heat to low-medium, and cover for 10minutes until crispy at the bottom and hot all the way through.
  7. Serve and season (add any fillers if needed).
  8. Enjoy!


Eggs – Eggs are the most useful protein source as they provide essential amino acids (the building molecules of protein), which are also absorbed most efficiently by the body.

Clam Chorizo Linguine

Spanish food fever has hit; being in Barcelona inspired this meat and fish combo. Easy to make but super impressive.

Serves 2


  • 300g clams, washed (tap on hard surface before cooking, if they remain un-open they are safe to eat)
  • 70g chorizo, chopped
  • 4 sprigs parsley, chopped
  • 150g dried linguine
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 glass rosé wine


  1. Boil the pasta in a pot of salted water for 1minute less than the packet states.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large pan on a medium-high heat.
  3. Add the chorizo and cook for 3minutes until slightly crispy.
  4. Add the parsley, clams and red wine, stir once, and then cover and simmer for 3-4minutes – the clams are cooked when they ping open.
  5. Uncover, mix in the linguine, and simmer for a further 1 minute so it can absorb all the juices.
  6. Season and serve.
  7. Enjoy!


Clams – high in protein, low in calorie, and high in the B vitamins for energy release, iron for protein and neurotransmitter synthesis, and magnesium for nerve function

Chorizo – Although relatively high in fat and salt, this meat is good for adding texture and flavour to meals.

Pasta – High in carbohydrates for a filling base, and high in fibre if a wholewheat spaghetti is picked.

Sausage and Bean Filling

Perfect to pair with a jacket potato or to top pasta with…. or just eat on its own for the ultimate protein hit!

Serves 4


  • 8 reduced-fat sausages, cut in half
  • 400g tomato passata
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, diced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 8 sliced prosciutto ham
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 cans black eye beans, drained
  • 1 tsp olive oil


  1. Heat the olive oil in a pan on a high heat.
  2. Add the sausages and brown for 2-3minutes, or until there is no pink showing on the outside of the sausage.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions and sauté for 3 minutes until soft.
  4. Add the garlic, beans and prosciutto ham, and cook for a further 3minutes.
  5. Add the tomato purée, ketchup, smoked paprika and vinegar and stir to cook for 2minutes.
  6. Add the tomato passata and heat for 5-7minutes.
  7. Serve with pasta or jacket potato.
  8. Enjoy!


Sausages and prosciutto ham – High in protein and the B vitamins for carbohydrate and energy utilisation, and mineral phosphorus for bone and protein function.

Tomatoes – massively high in vitamin C for protein and neurotransmitter synthesis; it also has functions in detoxification and as an antioxidant. It also gives you vitamin A for vision and immune function, and potassium for fluid balance and muscle contraction.

Beans – high in plant-based protein and fibre for digestion, as well as folate for DNA synthesis and vitamin A for vision

Pesto Bread Roll-Ups

Yummy yummy yummy – a picnic tear-off bread roll bunch for enjoying those sunny park lunches!


  • 2 tbsp green or red pesto
  • 1 tsp dried yeast
  • 500g bread/ spelt flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 50g oil
  • 300ml tepid water


  1. Sieve flour into a large bowl. Add yeast and salt, and mix with fingers.
  2. Make a deep well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
  3. Put the oil in the well.
  4. Add most of the water to the well.
  5. To combine, mix the flour which is around the oil/water mix into the well – you are combining the ingredients outside in. Add the rest of the water until a firm dough has formed.
  6. On a floured surface, knead the dough for 15 minutes – until it becomes less sticky and more resilient (stretchy not breaking).
  7. Leave somewhere warm in a bowl (covered by greaseproof paper and then a tea towel on top) for 1-2 hours until it doubles in size.
  8. Once proved, roll out into a large thin rectangle – a similar thickness to an Italian pizza base, and spread on the pesto. Other ingredients can be added at this stage – cheese or parma ham is a tasty addition to roll in.
  9. Now it is time to roll – this is done by rolling the longest edge towards the other longest edge so that we get a longer rolled sausage shape at the end (so we have even more rolls!). Start by curling the edge around to start the roll, and slowly tease the dough so it is curling in on itself.IMG_2268.jpg
  10. Cut into 12 equal pieces, and place in a greased tin with space for them to grow.IMG_2277.jpg
  11. Leave somewhere warm (covered by greaseproof paper and then a tea towel on top) for 1-2 hours until the rolls fill the tin.
  12. Heat oven to 180/4, and bake the rolls for 25-30 minutes.
  13. Enjoy!


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Cauliflower-Base Pizza

A lighter meal but still AMAZINGLY yummy and, I would argue, is an even better alternative to regular pizza.


  • 300g cauliflower couscous
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 60g 30% lighter cheese, grated or sliced
  • 2 sprigs fresh basil
  • 2 tsp green pesto
  • 100g cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Seasoning


  1. Preheat the oven to 220/8.
  2. Combine the cauliflower couscous, eggs and oregano to make a ‘dough’.
  3. Spread the olive oil onto baking parchment – this is important as the dough will stick if not (I found this out the hard way!).
  4. Create a ball with the cauliflower and mould into pizza-base form.
  5. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until hard and browning on the outside like a normal pizza base.
  6. Spread the tomato puree on, and add the toppings.
  7. Cook for a further 10 minutes, until the cheese has melted.
  8. Top with more fresh basil.
  9. Enjoy!


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Only contributing 11.89g of carbohydrate per serving, this low-calorie meal provides 21g of protein and is good for a lighter dinner.

Cauliflower – High in vitamin C for protein and neurotransmitter synthesis; and vitamin K for bone construction and cell signalling.

Eggs – Eggs are the most useful protein source as they provide essential amino acids (the building molecules of protein), which are also absorbed most efficiently by the body.

Cheese – Despite the high fat content, cheese is high in calcium for bone strength and stability.


Beef Teriyaki

This meal, adapted from Japanese recipes, brings Wagamama’s straight to your plate and home, and is much lower in fat.

Serves 2.


  • 200g lean beef steak, diced
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 300g mangetout or sugar-snap peas
  • 150g dry rice
  • Sesame seeds to top (optional)
  • Teriyaki sauce

Homemade teriyaki sauce:

  • 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • 60ml reduced-salt soy sauce
  • 120ml water
  • 60ml cold water
  • 5 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp ginger powder


  1. Heat the rice with boiling water and bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a wok and cook the onion on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the diced beef and increase the heat; cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the pepper and mange tout, cook for a further 4 minutes, until the vegetables are heated through.
  5. Add the teriyaki sauce and heat for a further minute.
  6. Serve with the rice and top with sesame seeds.
  7. Enjoy!

Method for homemade teriyaki sauce:

  1. Mix the soy sauce, 120ml of water, brown sugar, honey, garlic and ginger powder in a sauce pan, heat until simmering.
  2. Mix the cornstarch and 60ml of water, and add to the simmering soy sauce mix.
  3. Keep stirring until thick, add water or more cornstarch until desired thickness.


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PLEASE NOTE: this recipe is high in salt and sugar due to the teriyaki sauce. It  should be only eaten in moderation; and if wanting to reduce the sugar and salt, leave out the teriyaki sauce.


Beef – High in protein and low in fat, when the lean version is bought. It is also high in vitamin B3, B6 and B12 for energy release in respiration, and iron for protein and neurotransmitter synthesis and immune function.

This recipe also provides 3 of your 5-a-day, so supplying even more vitamins and minerals.

written by a student dietitian