By Laurel-Lea Shannon
Carbohydrates used to be considered the powerhouse in an athlete’s nutritional arsenal. Not anymore. Now protein is the new rising star. “Physical activity like cycling breaks down muscle,” says Christine Gerbstadt, an MD and sports dietitian. “And studies show that in the immediate post-exercise period (within 15 minutes is ideal), eating protein helps speed repair and recovery of muscle tissue.”
What does protein do?
Unlike carbohydrates, which deliver a quick energy boost to the muscles, protein is digested more slowly, lowering the total glycemic index of a meal. Glycemic index, or GI, is a scale that measures a food’s effect on your blood sugar. For optimum health, you need to eat foods that cause only slight variations in your blood sugar and insulin levels. Eating protein with meals helps keep those levels balanced. That steady-release energy is especially important if you spend long hours in the saddle.
But protein does more than that. It helps speed up the recovery of muscle tissue that’s broken down through exercise. That protects your lean muscle mass, and insures that your batteries are topped up for the next ride.
How much protein does a cyclist need?
Women are generally good about eating their vegetables and greens because they believe it helps keep them slim, but getting enough protein can be more challenging. “For an active female cyclist, protein intake should range from 1.2 g to 1.7 g per kg of weight (.55 to .75 g per pound)” says Gerbstadt. For example, a 5’ 5’’ woman weighing 117 pounds (53 kg) requires:
Minimum 1.2 grams x (53 kg) = 63 grams protein/day
Maximum 1.7 grams x (53 kg) = 90 grams protein/day
Not all proteins are created equal
Many foods contain protein but high-quality proteins contain more power-boosting amino acids. “Lean proteins such as chicken or turkey without skin, lean cuts of red meat, fish, low-fat dairy, eggs, beans, tofu, edamame, and whey or soy protein powder are the best sources of protein,” says Gerbstadt.
To get enough protein at each meal, mix it up. For example, whole grains are not a complete protein source, but when mixed with beans, vegetables and a little chicken, you’ve got a protein-packed meal. Look at the chart below for protein amounts in different foods.
|Food||Quantity||Protein in Grams|
|Cheese, firm||1 ounce||6-10|
|Cheese, soft||1 ounce||2-4|
|Cottage cheese||1 cup||30|
|Fruits||1 (apple, banana, orange)||1|
|Meats, poultry, fish||3- 3 1/2 ounces (not including fat, skin or bones) the size of the palm of your hand||17-27|
|Oatmeal, cooked||1 cup||6|
|Rice, cooked||1 cup||6|
[If you’re having trouble viewing this chart in your browser you can download it here.]
Putting it all together
Before heading out for a muscle-busting ride, eat a well-balanced meal of protein, carbohydrate and fats. “The range depends on the individual,” says Christine Gerbstadt. “But think of 20-30% protein, 30-35% fat, and 45-55% carbohydrates. Equally important is to eat breakfast, a small pre-workout and post-workout meal, regular meals during the day and mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grain, lean protein and skim dairy or alternate.”
After a grueling ride, jump-start your recovery and muscle-building with 20-30 grams of protein. Whey powder smoothies, hard-cooked eggs, peanut butter on whole grain bread, yogurt with nuts, or a chicken breast are good choices.
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