Athletes across the spectrum of sports know protein is important. But not all know why protein is important. Dr. Jeff Zachwieja, principal scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, explains the importance of protein and how consuming it at the right time can improve your athletic performance.
Why Is Protein Important?
"Protein is important for the active body," says Zachwieja. "We need to get protein in our daily diet." Common sources include meats, fish, grains and vegetables. What your body does with the protein is where benefits for athletes show up. "The reason [protein] is important is because it provides the amino acids that our muscles need to continually rebuild themselves," explains Zachwieja. Without fuel to rebuild, you will be taking your training in the wrong direction and risking an injury to your muscles.
When to Consume
Like most things in life, there's a time and place for protein. "Consumption of protein shortly after an exercise training session or a competition is a very efficient way to provide the body the amino acids it needs in order to help the muscles recover and rebuild themselves," says Zachwieja. Most athletes should consume a protein bar or shake within 15 minutes of exercise or competition. At the least, try to consume protein within an hour of performance. (Learn more about how to refuel after a workout or game.)
When Not to Consume Protein
Zachwieja addresses the idea that consuming protein during a workout will give you a boost in the gym: "It's been suggested that if you consume protein during exercise, you might get a jump start" on the process of building amino acids. But Zachwieja and his team of experts have found no evidence to support that theory. He continues, "We don't see any particular advantage of [consuming protein during a workout] for jump-starting the recovery process or actually improving the athlete's ability to perform during that active occasion."
What an athlete really needs during a workout or game are water, electrolytes and carbohydrate energy—the main fueling source for physical activity. "Protein is not a preferred fuel source" for exercise, asserts Zachwieja. Instead, try a sports drink like Gatorade, which hydrates, replenishes lost electrolytes and provides carbs for energy.
Learn more about fueling right with protein.
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