There is no question that we need protein in our diets. It is key to almost everything we are and do. Without protein hair, skin and bone health would be compromised, we’d have no muscle to move, no hormones, our brains couldn’t send neurological signals and the code in DNA that makes us who were are would be largely unable to replicate.
The starting point for ensuring we eat sufficient protein is a good, balanced diet, but is there a case to be made for increasing our protein intake beyond that through supplements?
For athletes, proteins are extra important because our body cleverly uses them to adapt to the type of training we’ve done, whether that’s for endurance or strength, and research shows nearly three times greater recovery with taking protein immediately after exercise compared to taking nothing at all. And greater recovery means greater gains from training.
Does research like this mean that swimmers should load our plates with slabs of steak?
No. It doesn’t.
Aside from the ethical considerations of excessive meat consumption, good quality meat is expensive while processed meats have been linked to increased cancer risks. On top of that there’s also the logistical problem of consuming and absorbing enough protein.
Endurance sports people such as swimmers are advised to consume between 1.2 and 1.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. For a 70kg man, this is between 84 and 126g of protein per day. It sounds quite low and with around 38g of protein in a grilled chicken breast, you’d think that this would be easy to achieve but there’s a catch. How much you eat is not the issue, rather how much you absorb is the factor that is key for maximising recovery, and you can’t absorb protein very quickly.
When we consume proteins they are first digested in the stomach and then pass on to the small intestine where they are absorbed. But as it takes around 1.5-2hrs for food to pass through this bit of the gut the time for absorption is limited.
While there is very little scientific data to compare exact rates of absorption (there are too many factors at play), what seems clear is that the supplement Whey Protein Isolate (WPI), derived from cow’s milk, absorbs faster than anything else, at a rate of about 10g per hour.
This, in essence, is the argument for supplementing your regular, healthy diet with good quality WPI.
If someone is aiming to consume 120g of protein each day to maximise recovery, you can see that to actually absorb this they would have to consume small amounts of protein at regular intervals through the day. Even if whole food sources absorbed as quickly as WPI, relying on your food for protein might not be the easiest option.
Protein supplementation has long been associated with the body building industry but it’s just as relevant to endurance athletes. A review of recent (since 2009) research suggests the following benefits of WPI:
- Reduced muscle loss during dieting or hard periods of training
- Improved time to full recovery
- Improved adaptation to endurance training
- Better muscle gain from strength training
- Reduced muscle soreness
While in endurance sport eating lots of carbohydrate is emphasised, getting enough, good quality protein is in fact more important for our general health. In addition, regularly using protein supplements potentially holds greater long term performance benefits for almost all athletes.
Case studies – Could you benefit from protein supplements?
I’m a 60 something female swimmer and I like to challenge myself with cold water swims, although I’m not particularly fast. I swim all winter outside, and training time depends on the water temperature.
After the age of about 60 the picture becomes a little more complicated. Complex changes in our physiology result in a decline in muscle mass. Protein supplementation along with resistance exercise has been proposed as a good way of slowing this loss. However, research also tells us that muscle wastage in later life might result partly from an increase in acidity levels in the body caused by animal derived foods, including WPI. More research is needed to establish whether the positives outweigh the negatives. However, it might be that supplementation with Soy Protein Isolate may benefit older swimmers. I would therefore suggest that you use soy and WPI to supplement your daily diet. It doesn’t matter too much when you take this, but adding flavourless protein to soups, smoothies or cereal as well as taking soy or whey protein somewhere else in the day will help maintain muscle mass and function.
I’m a 50 something male swimmer training for the English Channel. Every weekend I swim for three to five hours at a time and I do a couple of masters swimming sessions during the week.
Particularly after your long Sunday swims there will be a 48hr adaptation period where the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and recovery optimising properties of WPI would be hugely beneficial. Get protein in each meal, but use WPI to make sure that you get 20g of protein in every two to three hours for 48 hours after you exit the water – starting the moment you get out.
I am a young swimmer (teenager) competing at club and county level. I train about 10-12 hours per week.
The protein needs of teenagers are higher than at any other time of life and even more so for active youngsters. I would suggest taking 15-20g of WPI after training with water and maybe another 20g with milk just before bed. Milk slows the release allowing adaptation over a longer period during sleep.
I’m a competitive ‘Type-A’ 40-something male that still thinks I should win everything. I train hard five or six times per week and I’m planning some long distance swims for next year.
Full recovery and adaptation from a training session takes anywhere between 24-48 hours, so with the amount you train you’re recovering all the time and could help this with WPI supplementation similar to the young swimmer in the case study above.
I am a woman in my 30s. I swim two to three times per week and do maybe four or five open water races (up to 3km) in the summer, mainly for my own pleasure. I’m not too bothered where I place but it’s always nice to see improvement.
To improve you will have to push yourself in new ways in training, forcing your body to adapt. When you do this type of training protein becomes important. Make sure you consume protein in all three main meals and eat snacks of nuts for extra. With the amount you swim, I would advise 10-15g of WPI after longer/harder sessions if you aren’t going to be able to have a ‘real’ meal for an hour or so after training.
I’ve just taken up swimming after years of playing rugby. It’s a new sport for me and my primary focus is improving my technique. I’m 27 and heavily built.
See how you react to your new training. Assuming that you are working on technique in fairly easy sessions initially you won’t need additional protein, but listen to your body. Come competition time when the intensity goes up you may wish to add in small servings of WPI after training sessions, adding more through the day if you feel you’re not recovering well (muscle soreness). The additional WPI shouldn’t mean you gain muscle, but it might make it harder to lose if this is an aim.
What are proteins and where do we find them?
Proteins are made out of 21 smaller building blocks called amino acids (AAs) and we can make (or synthesise) some of these in the body. However, to make whole proteins we need 10 building blocks which we can only get through the foods we eat. These are called ‘essential amino acids’. We need all of these as each has its own specific job in recovery.
Animal protein sources usually contain all the essential amino acids and are therefore referred to as complete proteins. Plant sources such as beans, nuts, seeds and pulses may not contain all of the amino acids, so they are often referred to as incomplete proteins. However, by combining grains like rice or quinoa with plant foods such as beans all 21 AAs are provided. This may sound complex, but it’s as simple as a meal of beans on toast (granary) or couscous and mixed veg. An even simpler option is
eating or drinking products made from soy protein as this unique plant based food offers all the AAs making it a ‘complete’ protein.
A diet based around mixing plants and grains or drinking soy milk is a great foundation for health, and the more science tells us the more we see that natural/whole food diets high in greens, beans and nuts (in addition to berries) should be the cornerstone of what we eat every day. But for athletes it’s not the full story.
A significant amount of research in the last few years has shown that one particular AA called Leucine is effectively the accelerator pedal for recovery. Foods of animal origin (including Whey Protein Isolate) not only give us give us all of these 21 amino acids, but also offer more leucine. While the difference is small (1-2%), animal foods have consistently been shown to speed up markers of recovery after training when compared to plant proteins.