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Protein: How Much and What Source is best for the Athlete.

For years, the traditional pre-game meal was steak and potatoes. Not a bad idea, just horrible timing. Eating such a heavy meal several hours before a game left no time for digestion and may have been more deleterious to performance than helpful. The reason for the popularity of such a meal had more to do with tradition than anything else. It is doubtful that the coach, trainer or players understood anything about the importance of nitrogen balance and its relationship to performance and recovery.

Protein is absolutely essential for life, as we know it. For an athlete, it would be impossible to gain muscle, maintain muscle, recover or exhibit power and stamina without the ingestion of sufficient amounts of protein. Protein delivers nitrogen to the body and nitrogen balance is the means by which protein is measured.

There are three and perhaps four nitrogen states: positive (anabolic), negative (catabolic) and equilibrium (balance) and possibly - highly positive. The Table explains the four different nitrogen states. It is apparent that for an athlete to gain muscle, heal, repair or recover following a workout or game, it is critical that a positive nitrogen balance be established as quickly as possible. During the workout or game, a breakdown of protein synthesis will occur and this breakdown does not cease when the activity stops. Catabolism will continue until protein homeostasis is established. The recovery process will not begin until a positive nitrogen balance has been met. The importance of having a player in a positive nitrogen balance immediately prior to and after the workout or competition cannot be overstated.


How can a player achieve a positive nitrogen balance? To establish it a particular time, or for a specific event, then it is virtually impossible to achieve it through the diet. When would the steak, eggs, or other protein

source be eaten to ensure that a positive nitrogen balance was achieved? On the recovery side, forget it, there is no way that rapid and complete recovery can occur through the use of dietary protein.

Following a workout or competition, there are two hours of optimal recovery time. It is imperative that muscle glycogen is restored, and that catabolism and muscle breakdown are stopped and an anabolic condition reinstated.

Another problem area encountered by practically all athletes, regardless of sport and at any level, is the loss of weight, which is usually lean muscle mass, over the course of the season. Ironically, the injury rate seems to parallel this decrease in lean muscle. As muscle weight drops injuries increase. Why? A primary cause may be the inability of the athlete to completely recover following a training session or competition, which reduces the athletes power and stamina, impairs the immune system, and; reduces lean muscle weight, all of which make the athlete more vulnerable and susceptible to injury and illness.

As stated above, it is virtually impossible to establish a positive nitrogen balance with the diet. There is not sufficient time. Protein powders can be used, but again, the key times for protein ingestion are immediately prior to and after the activity and immediately prior to sleeping (healing and repair occur during the sleeping hours). Even protein powders take time to breakdown and be absorbed.


Fortunately, protein technology and sports nutrition have reached a point where today, the player can ingest a drink that is quickly absorbed and utilized and will meet the increased metabolic demands when most needed - protein hydrolysates are the answer.

All protein must be broken down, or reduced, through digestion to peptides (single amino acids) or di and tri-peptides (two and three amino acids) before it can be absorbed. Quality protein hydrolysates are predominantly di and tri-peptides and absorbed almost immediately, which make them ideal for the athlete.

Although slightly more expensive, hydrolysates are clearly superior to either dietary or intact proteins. The nitrogen retention is higher, plus they can be balanced to meet the body's specific requirements for particular amino acids. For example, we know that glutamine is critical to protein synthesis, so glutamine can be added to the hydrolysate to ensure that an adequate amount is available.

Also, because the hydrolysates are more metabolically efficient, less of the hydrolysate than either, dietary or intact protein is required. Whereas, the athlete normally consumes a 30-gram protein drink, 5 to 10 grams of hydrolysates will suffice and yield superior results in a shorter period of time! So efficient are hydrolysates that they can be taken during the muscular activity, regardless of whether it is a game of football, basketball or an endurance event. The hydrolysates are pre-digested, rapidly absorbed, have higher retention and can be taken without fear of gastric distress.


Using a hydrolysate with carbohydrate ensures the best of all possible worlds. The addition of carbohydrate ensures that the athlete's energy needs are met, which allows the ingested amino acids to be available for protein synthesis. Taken before the activity, hydrolysates are an efficient means for ensuring that the athlete is in a positive nitrogen balance and will maintain strength, power and stamina throughout the activity.

In addition, when hydrolysates are taken with carbohydrate following the activity, insulin can be released which will ensure the fastest and most complete recovery. This translates into a healthier athlete who will maintain lean body weight and sustain a superior level of performance throughout the season.

Convenience, timeliness and more importantly - effectiveness make the hydrolysates the superior source of protein when timing and a positive nitrogen balance are the concerns.

John Williams is a performance nutrition specialist who has been involved with numerous product innovations since the late 1970's. He also works extensively with athletes from across the sports spectrum.
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Article Details
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Author:Williams, John (American clergy)
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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