How Much Protein Do You Need? Experts Answer
Tires inflated? Check. Water bottle? Check. Brakes working? Check. Postride protein snack? If you didn’t check this off your list, then it’s time to pay attention to your re-fueling strategy.
Whether training for a race or simply going out for a casual ride, protein should be a part of every cyclist’s eating plan, Lauren Antonucci, RDN, a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition with Nutrition Energy tells Bicycling.
That’s because physical activity breaks down our muscles and in order to build them back up, we need protein. “Fitness is all about breakdown and rebuild,” says Chris Newport, RDN, a dietitian with The Endurance Edge in Cary, North Carolina.
You already know what breakdown and recovery feels like, too: soreness, aches, and fatigue. “Without enough protein after your ride, recovery will suffer,” says Antonucci, who is also the author of High Performance Nutrition for Masters Athletes.
While postride carbs replenish your body with energy, “protein helps our bodies to repair muscle damage and maximise what sports nutritionists call ‘muscle protein synthesis,’” she adds. That is, the way your body utilises the protein in food to build muscle.
Protein doesn’t only support muscle building either. You also need it for healthy bones, an efficient metabolism, reduced risk of high blood pressure, and it simply leaves you satisfied after a meal. In other words, this macronutrient doesn’t only support athletic performance, but your daily life and health.
So how much protein do you need to gain these benefits? Do you need more after your workouts to support recovery and performance? We asked the experts to break it down so you get enough of the macronutrient to build your muscles back up.
How much protein do you need as a cyclist?
According to the Institute of Medicine, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is approximately 0.8 grams per kilo of bodyweight. However, once you add in age and workouts, that recommendation is merely a minimum.
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for protein, according to the USDA, is 10 to 35 percent of total daily calories. Using a daily calorie count of 2 000 as its primary example, which means a person should aim for 200 to 700 protein calories per day or about 50 to 175 grams.Clearly, though, that is a wide range and, therefore, a rough estimate of what a cyclist needs to eat every day.
Those who are more active need more protein.
Also, those who are more active need more protein. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, athletes should consume 1.5 to 2.5g of protein per kilo of bodyweight to maintain muscle mass. This recommendation holds for both strength and endurance athletes. However, the upper range applies during times of more frequent and high-intensity training.
Athletes aren’t the only population that needs more of the muscle-supporting macronutrient—older adults may benefit from upping their intake, too. The average person begins to lose muscle mass around the age of 30. So, even non-active individuals should consider increasing their protein intake as they get older, as studies have shown that eating more protein, along with strength training, can fight age-related muscle loss.
In fact, a 2022 Nutrients article suggested that older adults focus on a total daily protein intake of 0.7 to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight (or 1.6 to 1.8 per kilogram) per day for muscle mass maintenance. Again, though, this is a wide variation and depends on how active you are each day.
“It used to be as you got older, you lose power, you lose muscle,” says Antonucci. “Well, that’s all wrong. [Now we know], if we continue to train, and if we eat enough protein, which as it turns out is more than previously thought, we have the potential to maintain a high percentage of muscle mass and power and strength.” Fortunately, the USDA has an easy-to-use, online Dietary Reference Intake Calculator to help you figure out your specific protein (and other nutrient) needs. To this point, the calculator will ask about your age and exercise habits.
How should you time your protein intake for max benefits?
The longer and more intense a ride, the more protein you need afterward to optimise recovery—and you should aim to get that protein about 30 minutes to two hours after you’re done pedalling, Newport says. In that time frame, aim for about 30 grams of protein (along with carbs!). While it’s important to get protein soon after a workout to help boost recovery and rebuild muscles, getting protein throughout the day is still important. According to the USDA, we should aim for about 25 to 30 grams at each meal.
One more thing: You might want to up your protein intake in the morning. A 2021 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that eating protein in the morning was more beneficial for muscle mass in older adults, compared to eating protein later in the day or evening. The researchers theorised that metabolism may make better use of the protein throughout the day. Also, prioritising protein early in the day helps to ensure that you’ll reach your overall daily goals.
What are the best sources of protein to meet your needs?
All those numbers about protein are only useful if we can translate them into meals we want to eat. While you can turn to animal products like turkey, chicken, beef, pork, or fish to get your fill, there are also vegetarian and vegan protein options, such as beans, legumes, and combinations of plant-based foods and grains (like rice and beans, which provides all the essential amino acids you need to make a complete protein).
These days, many experts say it is possible to get enough protein without having to eat animal products. In fact, a 2019 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine study published in the journal Nutrients found that plant-based proteins may be better for athletes because they also contain fiber and complex carbohydrates that help to restock glycogen, which gives your muscles energy for riding.
If you’re aiming for about 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal, Newport suggests having a protein smoothie with Greek yogurt (16 grams protein per container) and protein powder (about 25 grams protein per scoop), plus your favourite flavourful ingredients like bananas, greens, berries, and/or nut butters.
Overnight oats are another option, Antonucci says. One cup of oats has about 11 grams of protein, plus adding nuts like almonds (5 grams of protein per ¼-cup sliced) or peanut butter(7 grams of protein per two tablespoons), chia seeds (5 grams of protein per ounce), and milk (4 grams of protein per ½ cup) can help you get enough of the macronutrient, too.
To count your daily protein intake, you can use apps such as MyMacros. However, Antonucci says don’t obsess over this. Instead, look at the big picture of making sure you have a serving of protein in every meal and snack.