Many athletes “carbo load,” eating foods high in carbohydrates, before a big race. Although carbohydrates get top billing as a necessary nutrient to aid in exercise performance, all athletic pursuits—from running a marathon to lifting weights to water aerobics—require the power of protein to aid in workout recovery and maximize every sport’s health benefits.
Why is protein so important to workout recovery? Because when you work out, you cause microscopic damage in the proteins that make up your muscles. It’s when those muscles repair themselves following a workout—through the consumption of protein—that you become stronger, fitter and faster.
For example, according to a study published in The Physician and Sports Medicine, consuming a meal or snack containing both protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes after a workout can help reduce muscle fatigue and reduce the time it takes for muscles to repair themselves after being damaged during intense exercise. And one study of weightlifters published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming protein after a workout can help you lift more weight during your next workout session.
The current recommended daily allowance of protein for average adults is 0.36 grams/pound of body weight. However, according to Pamela Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, a sports nutritionist with Abbott, athletes should increase that amount to between 0.55 and 0.77 grams per pound of body weight. For an adult weighing about 150 pounds, that would mean aiming for 82 -115 grams of protein daily. For context, a 3-ounce steak contains about 21 grams of protein and one can of tuna contains about 25 grams.
Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, chief scientific officer specializing in sports nutrition at Abbott and a competing athlete, agrees on protein’s role in recovery. He recommends a few post-workout meal options to refuel muscles:
It may be tempting to skip recovery out of fear that recovery calories will offset those just burned during a workout. However, those calories are crucial to help your muscles rebuild so you can continue training.
“Getting protein and carbs to your muscles within 30 minutes of a workout is critical to jump-starting recovery and staying strong for the next workout,” explains Hertzler.