By Nick Kleban, elite cyclist // Team Skyline & President of Mcgill cycling
Protein is an essential part of the diet, but I find there still are a lot of misconceptions about its role in sports nutrition. How many times have you heard you need to get your protein in immediately after a workout? To learn more about that myth and other common ones, here are 5 protein myths for athletes.
This one stems from the notion that protein can only exclusively be found in “protein-rich” foods like chicken breast, eggs or dairy. That is not the case, as in actuality, nearly every food has some protein in it (albeit maybe not a lot), just as they nearly all have some carbs or fat too. If you have ever tracked your macronutrients throughout your day, you’ll see that you eat more protein than you think even from “non-protein rich foods”. This can add up over the course of a day.
Protein does so much more in the body than just building big biceps. The amino acids of which protein is made from are part of your bone tissue, tendons, hair, nails, enzymes, hormones, antibodies and even neurotransmitters.
This myth I believe stems from the terms “complete” and “incomplete” proteins which can get misconstrued from what they actually mean.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Different combinations of these amino acids make different proteins. There are 20 amino acids in total and the body needs a balance of all twenty to function correctly. Of these twenty, nine of these are called “essential amino acids” which means the body is unable to synthesize them itself, therefore, we must obtain them from food. A complete protein source refers to a type of food that contains all nine. Generally, these sources come from animals while most plant-based protein sources tend to be incomplete, meaning they do not contain all nine essential amino acids.
While this happens to be the case, it does not make one source of protein superior to the other. Eating a wide variety and smart combinations of vegan / vegetarian foods that are “protein-rich” such as beans, legumes, soy, rice, tofu, etc will ensure that all the necessary amino acids have been consumed. Furthermore, we do not need to eat the entire range of essential amino acids in one meal, in fact, the next myth may change your mind on how you are eating your protein.
While there is conflicting research as to what exact amount of protein we can effectively absorb at once (many sources state 30 grams or so in a sitting, but some believe it is a little more) what is agreed upon is that ingesting large quantities of protein in one sitting is still not optimal for absorption. Instead, experts recommend trying to space out your daily protein intake goal throughout your entire day and not just at dinner time.
Saving the biggest, and maybe most controversial for last, is the famous “30-minute” recovery window. The myth goes that we need to get a serving of protein within thirty minutes of exercising in order to maximize muscle growth and recovery.
To understand why this thought is so widespread, we need some background information. The basis of this myth is the idea that within the first 30 minutes after the conclusion of a workout, your body is in what is called an anabolic state. Anabolism is a set of metabolic pathways that construct molecules from smaller units. It is the opposite of catabolism, which breaks down molecules into smaller units. Thus, this myth is based on old research that your body switches from an anabolic to catabolic state within 30 minutes of exercising, hence protein intake during this time can more effectively aid muscle growth.What we now know is that while there is compelling evidence showing muscle is sensitized to protein after a workout, the anabolic window does not appear to be as short as we once thought. Rather, research points to the interval of consumption to be 5-6 hours post exercise, depending on the timing of your pre-workout meal. This isn’t to say I don’t finish a workout andnot immediately eat an XACT Protein bar, but it also means on those days you don’t have any food nearby, you don’t need to be anxious about losing your hard earned gains you just made!