Cyclists generally don’t spend much time thinking about protein.  That’s a mistake.  Adequate protein intake insures the maintenance of lean muscle mass, improves recovery through increased rates of glycogen synthesis, might improve cognition and sleep, and potentially helps to keep you from getting sick [1-3].

RDA Not Enough

Protein matters, and if you’re eating enough, in high quality, you’ll likely be able to train harder and ride faster.  How much exactly?  It’s widely recognized that athletes need more protein than their non-exercising peers [4].  From a practical standpoint, this means the RDA recommendation of .8 g/kg per day of protein doesn’t cut it for cyclists [5].

Quantity and Quality

While individual protein needs vary, current recommendations for cyclists are 1.0-1.6 g/kg per day [1, 6].  For a 160lb cyclist, this translates to 72 to 117 grams of protein a day.  In general, the more you ride, the higher in that range you should be [1].

Cyclists should not only focus on the quantity but also the quality of their protein.  Protein quality is typically defined by the capacity of a given protein to deliver essential amino acids (EAAs) to an individual [7].

More specifically, protein with high levels of the branch chained amino acid (BCAA) leucine, are at the top of the protein hierarchy [4].  In order of leucine density, the best sources are dairy, eggs, and meat [4].  In simple terms, if you want to maximize your performance on the bike, animal sources of protein are your surest bet [4, 8].

Practical Solutions

The easiest way to assess your protein intake is through an app like MyFitnessPal.  It’s simple, free, and gives a complete macro nutritional breakdown of your diet.  Apps like MyFitnessPal aren’t perfect, but they’ll get you close to determining where your protein intake fits within the current endurance athlete recommendations.

If you’re like many cyclists, you might find your protein intake below current recommendations.  If so, increase your intake by adding more dairy, eggs or lean meat to your diet.  If  you’re still at a deficit, your best bet is to supplement with whey.

Whey is dense with leucine, quickly digested, and widely available.  From a practical perspective it dissolves easily in water and prepares quickly in a cycling bottle after a ride or throughout the day.

Summary

  1. Cyclists should pay closer attention to their protein intake.
  2. Adequate protein intake maintains muscle, improves recovery, might improve cognition and sleep, and may keep you from getting sick.
  3. RDA recommendations (.8 g/kg/day) are not adequate for cyclists. Shoot for 1.0-1.6 g/kg/day.  Ride more, eat more protein.
  4. Focus on protein sources high in leucine. These are dairy, eggs, and meat.
  5. Use an app like MyFitnessPal to assess your current protein intake.
  6. If you’re not meeting the 1.0-1.6 protein recommendations, look to increase protein intake through whole foods in your diet.
  7. If whole foods are impractical, supplement with whey protein.

Looking for a great pre-built training plan to help you reach your goals in a minimal amount of time?  Check out one of our plans below

Be the first to know about new blog posts while getting inside training tips delivered to your inbox.  No spam, ever, I promise.

Learn more about my sports nutrition coaching by clicking here

For a complete archive of blog posts click here

Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1. Campbell, B., et al., International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2007. 4(1): p. 8.
2. Flakoll, P.J., et al., Postexercise protein supplementation improves health and muscle soreness during basic military training in marine recruits. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2004. 96(3): p. 951-956.
3. Markus, C.R., B. Olivier, and E.H. de Haan, Whey protein rich in alpha-lactalbumin increases the ratio of plasma tryptophan to the sum of the other large neutral amino acids and improves cognitive performance in stress-vulnerable subjects. Am J Clin Nutr, 2002. 75(6): p. 1051-6.
4. Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, P., Jose Antonio, Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. 2013, Ronkonkoma, NY: Linus Learning. 404.
5. Institute of Medicine (U.S.). Panel on Macronutrients. and Institute of Medicine (U.S.). Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes., Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids. 2005, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. xxv, 1331 p.
6. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2009. 41(3): p. 709-731.
7. Lemon, P.W., Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals. J Am Coll Nutr, 2000. 19(5 Suppl): p. 513S-521S.
8. Campbell, W.W., et al., Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Am J Clin Nutr, 1999. 70(6): p. 1032-9.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now full-time cycling coach, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.