High protein diets have long been associated with strength based sports like rugby and power lifting, but recent studies reveal protein could play a bigger role in a swimmer’s training, nutrition and recovery than first thought, says Ross Edgley, a sports scientist at The Protein Works.
Protein is often called the building block of the body since it consists of combinations of structures called amino acids that combine in various ways to make muscles, bone, tendons and other tissues. Swimmers need protein primarily to repair and rebuild muscle that is broken down during exercise and to help optimize carbohydrate storage in the form of glycogen. But whilst The International Olympic Committee Consensus on Sports Nutrition states ‘the importance of protein for athletes has long been recognized’ (Ron. J.M. et al, 2004) until recently it wasn’t exactly known how much.
Firstly as a means of comparison, let’s examine the daily-suggested protein consumption for strength athletes. Again The International Olympic Committee Consensus on Sports Nutrition states ‘strength or speed athletes were recommended to consume 1.7grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day.’ For a 100kg rugby player this equates to 170 grams of protein per day (usually broken down into 6 meals spaced roughly 2 hours apart throughout the day, each containing 28.33 grams of protein.)
Interestingly though, some experts are claiming endurance athletes (including swimmers) need more. In a study conducted at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada it was suggested ‘that endurance athletes require a greater intake of protein than either strength athletes or sedentary individuals to meet the needs of protein catabolism during exercise.’ (M. A. Tarnopolsky et al, 1999.) Put simply, this means because swimming training itself is so hard the body requires more protein to prevent it from entering into a catabolic state i.e. muscles begin to breakdown, the immune system is badly affected and injuries are more likely to occur. But if you ensure you have an adequate supply of protein and amino acids in your body, your muscles and tendons will have the essential nutrients they need to repair and recover, therefore ensuring you are fully able to continue training at a high intensity during your next training session.
So to make it more specific to swimming, based on Olympic Nutritional guidelines (1.7grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day) an 80kg male swimmer, training 60-90 minutes per day, should be consuming 136 grams of protein (broken down into 6 meals spaced roughly 2 hours apart throughout the day, each containing 22.67grams of protein) to ensure his elevated nutritional needs are met due to intense training.
While consuming these levels of protein can be achieved through a balanced, healthy diet, some athletes find it more convenient to use protein supplements such as whey isolate.
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