How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

How much protein do athletes need for strength and endurance sports

Protein for Athletes
How much protein does an athlete need?. Brian Macdonald/Photodisc/Getty Images

You hear a lot about athletes and protein. And while it's true that some athletes engage who participate in strenuous exercise may have a slightly increased need to get some quality protein in their diet, it may not be as much as you think. All the energy we need to maintain our body and mind, as well as the fuel to help us exercise comes from the foods we eat and the fluids we drink,. To determine the right amount of calories, and nutrients to consume, it's helpful to consider how we use our energy stores on a daily basis and replace energy accordingly.

 It's also helpful to understand the main groupings of nutrients in the typical diet. The macronutrients our bodies need the most are broken into three main categories:

Each category of food is important for health and everyone needs to consume foods from each food group. The ratios in which we need to consume these foods, however, is often the topic of a debate, especially when it comes to athletes.

Sports Nutrition - Protein

Proteins are often called the building blocks of the body. Protein consists of combinations of structures called amino acids that combine in various ways to make muscles, bone, tendons, skin, hair, and other tissues. They serve other functions as well including nutrient transportation and enzyme production. In fact, over 10,000 different proteins are in the body.

Adequate, regular protein intake for athletes and non-athletes alike are essential because it isn’t easily stored by the body.

Various foods supply protein in varying amounts with complete proteins (those containing 8 essential amino acids) coming mostly from animal products such as meat, fish, and eggs and incomplete protein (lacking one or more essential amino acid) coming from sources like vegetables, fruit and nuts. Vegetarian athletes may have trouble getting adequate protein if they aren’t aware of how to combine foods.

Protein Needs for Athletes

Athletes fall into a slightly different category than the typical non-exerciser. An athlete uses  protein primarily to repair and rebuild muscle that is broken down during exercise and to help optimizes carbohydrate storage in the form of glycogen. Protein isn’t an ideal source of fuel for exercise, but can be used when the diet lacks adequate carbohydrate. This is detrimental, though, because if used for fuel, there isn’t enough available to repair and rebuild body tissues, including muscle.

Recommended Daily Protein Intake

  • The average adult needs 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight per day.
  • Strength training athletes need about 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight per day
  • Endurance athletes need about 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight per day

The Importance of Carbohydrates for Athletes

Strength athletes believe more protein is important to build muscle. It turns out that strength athletes actually require a slightly higher carbohydrate intake to build adequate glycogen stores to fuel their workouts.

It is the strength training workout that leads to increased muscle mass and strength. This is because all high intensity, powerful muscle contractions (such as weight lifting) are fueled with carbohydrate. Neither fat nor protein can be oxidized rapidly enough to meet the demands of high-intensity exercise. Adequate dietary carbohydrate must be consumed daily to restore glycogen levels.

Suggested High Protein Foods for Athletes

Fish, 3 oz, 21 grams
Chicken, 3 oz, 21 grams
Turkey, 3 oz, 21 grams
Beef, 3 oz, 21 grams
Milk, 8 oz, 8 grams
Tofu, 3 oz, 15 grams
Yogurt, 8 oz, 8 grams
Cheese, 3 oz, 21 grams
Peanut butter, 2 tbsp, 8 grams
Eggs, 2 large, 13 grams


The Position Statement from the Dietitians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine, Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research in the Winter of 2000, 61(4):176-192.

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