Protein Part II: How much and when to eat it

Welcome back to another protein-focused edition of Training & Performance! My last article looked at the evidence in support of avoiding protein while you run. Today, I will discuss one of the more common questions I hear at my practice: does protein timing and distribution matter? And should you be consuming protein directly after a workout?

Muscle/Protein Physiology

training-and-performanceOur muscles are in a constant state of breakdown and renewal. For the average person (depending on factors such as age and level of activity), muscles are broken down and rebuilt at a rate of 1-2%/ day. To help support this renewal, the building blocks of muscle (amino acids) need to be taken in on a regular basis.

While the amino acids we ingest provide the raw material to support that 1-2% renewal rate, that is not all they do. The act of ingesting amino acids also triggers a physiological cascade that signals more muscle growth. So, when the body is being fed amino acids, not only does it have the material for muscle growth, but an anabolic muscle-building state is also put into action!

So it’s no surprise that ingesting protein is important to muscle growth. Now the question is, how much and how frequently do we need to ingest protein to optimize both of these benefits and maximize our gains?

Protein Intake:

In general, it has been shown that the amount of dietary protein you require depends on how active you are. Here is a general guideline of how much you should be ingesting:

  • Review the descriptions and values of the following five activity levels and determine which type most accurately reflects your current activity level.
    • Sedentary: No exercise, no heavy manual labour, work or job. : Value: 0.4
    • Mildly Active: 30 minutes of fat burning aerobic exercise 5 to 7 times per week and no heavy manual labour, work or resistance training : Value: 0.5
    • Moderately Active: 30 minutes of fat burning aerobic exercise program 5 to 7 times per week and weight training program 3 or more times per week or heavy manual labour job : Value: 0.6
    • More Advanced: Activity Level Minimum of 30 minutes of fat burning aerobic exercise 5 to 7 timer per week and 1 hour of high intensity weight training 5 or more times per week : Value: 0.7
    • Heavy Training: More than 90 minutes of weight training 5 or more times per week with additional aerobic participation : Value: 0.8

Once you have decided which of the above categories you fit in, simply multiply that number by your weight in pounds, and you now know how much protein you should ingest per day! Unsure of how much you are actually taking in? Here are some common dietary sources and their associated protein contents:

Protein Foods with Little Saturated Fat Food Portion Gms of Protein Food Portion Gms of Protein
Chicken 3 oz. 27 Oysters 6 medium 15.1
Turkey 3 slices: 3 1/2 x2 3/4 x 1 1/4 28 Egg white – one 7
Chicken 1/4 broiled 22.4 Dairy Cottage Cheese 5-6 tbsp. 19.5
Most fish 3 oz. 20 1% Yogurt or 1% milk 8 oz. 8.5
Tuna 1/2 cup 15.9 Soy milk low-fat 8 oz. 4
Tuna 3 oz. 24 Soy cheese low-fat 1 oz. 7
Kidney Beans 1/2 cup 7.5 Rice 1/2 cup cooked 2.0
Corn 1/2 cup 2.5 Green beans 1/2 cup 1.0
Green peas 1/2 cup 4.0 Baked Potato 1 medium 3.0
White bread 1 slice 2.0 Whole Wheat bread 3.0


Protein Timing

Now that you have a general idea of how much total protein you need per day and what to eat to achieve this, the question now becomes: how do you distribute that ingestion throughout the day to optimize muscle growth and recovery? Do you consume your protein all at once? Throughout a few larger feedings? Through many small snacks?

This study published in 2014 explores that issue. What they basically showed is that to maximize that muscle building signal that amino acid ingestion triggers, an average adult should aim for ~0.11g of protein per pound of body weight in one sitting. What do these numbers actually mean? Let’s explore an example:

Take, for instance, a very active 150lbs runner. This runner decides that given how active they are, they should consume 0.7g of protein/ pound of body weight.

150 lbs x 0.7g/lbs= 105g/day

So, this individual is going to aim for 105 g of protein/day. Given the above relationship to maximize the protein building signal, this runner then calculates:

150lbs x 0.11g/lbs= 16.5g/meal

So, for this individual, the optimal amount of protein they ingest/meal sits at about 16.5g.

For this 150lbs runner, the best way to achieve the desired 105g of protein/day is to consume multiple meals that contain 16.5g of protein. Of course, more than 16.5g is not a mistake. In fact, one will probably have to ingest more than that 16.5g to actually hit that 105g. However, attempting to ingest the vast majority of the 105g across only one or two meals would be robbing this athlete of the valuable anabolic signal that can be stimulated with a consistent flow of 16.5g/feeding. This runner would be much better off with 3 meals and 1-2 snacks that contain at least 16.5g each!

How can you apply this concept? Take a look at your diet and see where you fall short. Personally, the major area where I can fall into trouble is if I skip sufficient protein at breakfast. It’s not uncommon for me to have some toast, fruit and coffee to get my day started. This gives me the calories I need to last the morning and also helps satisfy other dietary requirements like carbohydrate and fibre intake. However, this type of meal definitely does not contain close to the 16.5g required to maximize protein synthesis- something I should definitely correct!

Mealtime and Exercise

A common  misunderstood practice among runners is to ingest some protein right away to enhance recovery.

Contrary to what is often preached, researchers have shown that for the average, healthy adult, this “window” is not really as important as one would think.  In fact, it is an absolutely massive window (more to come in my next article). Protein synthesis in the body is an ongoing process, and the need for a healthy, regular protein load should be the priority (i.e. that 3-5 feedings of 0.11g/ lbs of body weight).

That being said, if one is planning mealtimes and exercise, from a practical standpoint, it still makes sense to keep up those post-run protein intake habits. As I discussed in my previous article, protein intake directly before or during a run is not a good idea. Given our busy lives, sticking to a system where you ingest at least 0.11g/meal plus an additional 0.11g/lbs of body weight post-run is an excellent habit to maintain (as long as it’s not at the expense of re-hydration and carb intake).  However, this research also helps to ease your anxiety if you do happen to miss that frequently preached 30min post-run rule.

Acute vs. Chronic Adaptation

Finally, it is also important to not confuse acute recovery with long-term adaptation. Yes, we see a renewal rate of 1-2% of our muscle/day. However, compared to other fuel sources and substrates required for performance (carbohydrates, fluid balance, electrolytes), this rate is extremely slow- carb and hydration status is much more transient! So, just how important is acute protein intake for acute recovery?  Not very!  Carbs and fluid intake reign supreme. I will be discussing this in my next article.