Protein- Packed Performance for Endurance Sports

Article by Sue Ellis
Wednesday 2nd July 2008

Protein- Packed Performance for Endurance Sports

All the tissues in our body, from muscles to tendons, from heart to hormones, from liver to lungs, are all made from basic building blocks of protein.  Protein is a vital macro-nutrient, acquired from both animal and vegetable sources in our diet.  The recommended daily amount of protein that is required by individuals for optimum health, has had a pendulum-like history, swinging from relatively large quantities in the 70's and 80's, to relatively low quantities in the 90's.  Currently, the pendulum has settled at a generally recommended level of 1-1.2g/kg of body weight/day, for moderately active people and between 1.5 - 2g/kg of body weight/day, for high performance activity.  This equates to 140g per day for a 70kg athlete.

Yet endurance athletes typically pay nearly all their attention to their carbohydrate needs, possibly missing out on optimum protein nutrition.  Recent research has produced information about use of protein, which could be very useful to long distance runners, cyclists, triathletes etc..

A typical Bob Graham food stop.  Having laid out a choice of nourishment, supporters look up expectantly at the flanks of Seat Sandle, for their runner to appear.

(Pete Taylor, May 2008)

For endurance athletes, there are a number of issues affecting the ongoing process of protein degradation (break down) and synthesis (build-up), which are especially important. e.g. :

FACT: During prolonged exercise, proteins can be broken down to provide between 3 & 5% of your total energy expenditure.  This rises to up to 10% if glycogen stores (the carbs stored in your muscles & liver), are low.  In other words, hard earned muscle is ‘eaten' away to provide fuel.  Imagine the cumulative consequences of this over a prolonged training the time you line up for a competition, you'd be a shadow of your former self!

Supplying food at the right time, often requires team work! - two 'amigos' carry food & fluid for the third amigo, and ensure that he actually eats it.

Tattenhall runners on Green Gable 2008)

FACT: During exercise, especially in activities like running down hill, there is microscopic break down of muscle cell membranes.  This damage needs to be repaired during recovery periods, or else over-use injuries are sure to develop.  Getting to the start line injury- free is often a feat in itself, when undergoing heavy training loads.  In addition, restoration of glycogen stores in these damaged cells is severely impaired, hampering training even further.  

ANSWER ?   Adopt an approach to protein consumption that provides your body enough essential amino-acids, and at the right time, for it to repair and restore itself effectively.


  • Consume 10g protein 1 hour before you exercise.
  • This will slow down muscle degradation during training.


  •  For exercise lasting more than 4 hours, take in carbohydrate and protein during exercise. Generally, this would be in a ratio of 5:1 e.g. 50g of carbohydrate & 10g protein per hour.
  • How this is done, will depend on type of event and individual taste.  It could be in the form of a sports drink, or in transportable snacks or at transition stations, or by a combination of these.  For events lasting 24hrs or more, bear in mind the 2g/kg/day formula, and check that you have enough protein spread across the 24 hrs to meet that target. It seems that the improved performance seen when combining carbs & protein, may be due to the fact that glycogen stores are saved and so last longer over all.  Secondly, mitochondrial proteins, involved in aerobic energy production, are recycled at a rate approximately two thirds higher than the rate for muscle proteins, and thirdly, breakdown of muscle for fuel is minimised.


  • Together with your carbs, also take on some protein as soon as possible after finishing exercise. 20g - 30g of good quality protein, within an hour of exercise is the goal.
  • This has been shown to enhance glycogen re-synthesis, by as much as 50%, compared to a carbohydrate-only meal, preparing your muscles all the better for the next onslaught.  It will also ensure that there are enough circulating amino-acids to perform the repair work necessary after a tough session.  Studies show that this post exercise eating strategy tends to be associated with a modest increase in release of growth hormone, and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Both good news for athletes.
  • Formulated recovery drinks are quick & easy, or make your own with 1 cup semi-skimmed milk & 1 heaped tablespoon (25g) of whey powder.

Biking the Tour de Mont Blanc takes a lot of energy - good food planning is an essential.

(A Ride the Alps group approaching the Grand Col  Ferret  2006)

Finally, make an effort to read food labels for a while, and get to know some of the sources and quantities of protein that you typically eat, particularly those that are not accompanied by much fat. e.g.

  • 100g tuna - 27g protein
  • 100g quorn - 13g protein
  • 100g kidney beans - 7.2g protein
  • 100g prawns - 15g protein
  • 100g cod -17g protein
  • 100g cottage cheese - 15g protein
  • 100g roast chicken -  25g protein   (similar for beef & pork)
  • 100g egg - 12g protein

Here are a few examples of snacks containing approx. 50g carb & 10g protein, to get you started:


  • 3 savoury rice cakes with 50g mixed nuts.
  • 2 slices wholemeal bread with 50g (about 1 T) cottage cheese or lean chicken or tuna
  • 50g cheddar cheese with 4 oat cakes / crackers.
  • Baked potato with 200g (1/2 a tin) baked beans.
  • 400g ( 1can ) Baxters ‘healthy choice' soup.


  • About ¾ of a tin of rice pudding.
  • 75g dried apricots with 50g mixed nuts.
  • mug of Horlicks made with 250ml skimmed/semi skimmed milk & a slice of malt loaf.
  • Bowl of porridge.
  • 2 bananas & a carton of yoghurt

Jean Ashley - powering her way to silver medal in the British National  QuadrathonChampionships

 Brigg - 2008

By Sue Ellis MSc 

Sue Ellis provides one on one advice on nutrition analysis and specialises in preparation and planning for endurance and ultra-endurance events.

Bookmark: Add to Favourites Add to Google Bookamrks Add to Delicious Digg this Add to Myspace Add to Facebook Add to furl Add to Yahoo Review on StumbeUpon Add to reddit Add to Newsvine Add to Windows Live Favourites
Subscribe to RSS Feed Add to Technorati Add to Twitter Add to Yahoo Bookmarks Add to Aol Favourites Add to Ask Add to FARK Add to Slashdot Add to Mixx Add to Multiply Add to Simpy Add to Blogmarks


There are currently no comments on this article.

Add a Comment

Security Code:

Please enter the security code in the text box below.