Protein plays an important role in the diet of bike riders, though it can prove a confusing topic with the rise in popularity of high protein-low fat, paleo, keto and vegan diets.
Read on to find out the essential facts cyclists need to know about protein, including why you need it, how much you need, and where to get it from!
Here’s PRO BIKE TOOL’s protein 101:
MUSCLE REPAIR AND GROWTH
Protein provides our muscles with the building blocks for growth, playing a key role in recovery and repair. These ‘amino acids’ within protein are key for everyone, but especially for cyclists. Particularly long, hard rides break down muscle fibers. Re-stocking the muscles with plenty of amino acids from protein helps your body to regrow and repair, making you stronger and faster on the bike!
If you’re looking to shed a few pounds to boost your cycling performance, a protein-rich diet can help. Hormones that are released when eating protein promotes a feeling of fullness, which serves to keep you from over-eating through the day.
The way in which protein is digested actually boosts your metabolism, helping you burn more calories through the day. This increased ‘thermic effect of food’ is not so apparent when the gut processes carbohydrates and fats.
Lastly, a higher protein meal can also prevent spikes in blood sugar that come with overly carbohydrate heavy meals.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN?
The recommended protein intake for the average adult is around 0.02 ounce / per lb body weight per day. However, protein requirements for highly active people such as cyclists can increase up to around 0.07 ounce / per lb body weight per day.
How much protein you choose to take on board should be tailored to your activity level. If you only cycle on a very recreational basis, around 0.03 ounce / per lb body weight per day would likely be sufficient, but if you commute long distances every day or are training hard for bike races and events, closer to 0.07 ounce/ per lb body weight would be advised.
Where possible, distribute your protein hits throughout the day to best allow the body to synthesise the amino acids. Around 0.7-1.05 ounce of protein per ‘dose’ is advised, so high-protein snacks outside of meal times such as nuts or yogurt can be a great way to help you hit your target.
If you are trying to trim down a little in a bid to reach racing weight or get ready for the beach, it’s advised to keep protein intake high even if you are lowering your total caloric intake.
While it is best to spread your protein intake relatively equally through the day, there can be a benefit to paying attention to your protein portions at the following times, particularly if you are stressing your body with a lot of time on the bike:
Many of us are guilty of taking in too little protein in the morning and then having a huge portion at night. With cereals and toast offering relatively little protein content, it can be worth considering upgrading your breakfast a little!
The ideal morning protein option is eggs, but if you’re short on time, consider adding yogurt or nut butters to cereal or oatmeal, and likewise – a good layer of nut butter on your toast is a great quick protein hit.
AFTER A HARD RIDE
After a particularly long or hard bike ride, it’s generally advised to take on 0.7-1.05oz protein within the first 30 minutes of getting off the bike. Cycling breaks down muscle fibers, and by providing them an instant hit of protein soon after training, you get the recovery process kick started as soon as possible.
The best option for this rapid replenishment is a whey protein shake, but chocolate milk can be a great stand-in too.
It can be worth considering a portion of protein before bed if you’ve had a hard day of cycling. Taking a slow release (‘casein’) protein in the hour before you go to sleep serves to drip-feed your muscles with fuel to help them repair and regrow through the night.
Taking protein before bed isn’t an essential, but can reap rewards. Casein protein is available in special powders from sports nutrition brands, but milk and cottage cheese are also rich in this nutrient.
Protein is available in a huge range of foods, with the richest sources being meat, fish, dairy and pulses.
A few of the best protein sources include:
3.5oz chicken breast (0.7oz protein)
3.5oz beef steak (0.7oz protein)
3.5oz tuna – tinned or fresh (0.7oz protein)
1 Whole Egg (0.2oz protein)
1 Tablespoon (0.8oz) Peanut Butter (0.24oz protein)
3.5oz Tofu (0.45oz protein)
3.5oz Chickpeas (0.63oz protein)
3.5oz Setian (2.64oz protein)
BUT DON’T FORGET THE CARBS AND FATS!
Modern diet trends and marketing spiel put a lot of emphasis on protein in your diet, but remember, carbohydrate and fat are essential too. Although both of these nutrients are sometimes demonized, they’re essential for every day health and your performance as a cyclist!
Carbohydrates are the key source of energy for our body, and should not be left out of your daily intake – particularly if you are cycling a lot. Carbs should form approximately 50% of your diet.
For the healthiest sources, go for whole grains such as brown rice, oats, quinoa, or sweet potato. These are low GI and will give you a steady and stable release of fuel.
Fats are also absolutely essential – just make sure you have the correct type!
Unsaturated fats are full of vitamins and minerals and should form staples of your diet – oily fish, nuts, avocado are examples of these ‘good’ fats. The bad fats are those that are found in processed and fried food, so dodge these where possible.
You can find out more about carbohydrates and fats, and their role in cycling performance, in our full guide.
Eat up and ride on!