Most cyclists don’t think a lot about protein; that oversight is a mistake. Consuming adequate protein ensures the maintenance of lean muscle mass, might improve cognition and sleep, and potentially helps to keep you from getting sick [1-3].

Protein matters, and if you’re eating enough, in high quality, you’ll likely be able to train harder, ride faster and enjoy cycling later in life than your protein deficient riding mates [1, 4].  

So how much protein should you eat? To start with, recommendations are listed in grams per kilogram of your body weight per day (g/kg) [1].

RDA Not Enough

It’s widely recognized that athletes need more protein than their non-exercising peers [5].  

From a practical standpoint, this means the RDA minimum recommendation of .8 g/kg doesn’t cut it for cyclists [6].

While individual protein needs vary, current recommendations for athletes are around 1.4-2.0 g/kg [1].  Let’s dig into that range a bit further:

  • If you’re riding a ton, or with a lot of intensity, you’ll generally need more protein.
  • If you’re looking to build muscle mass, you’ll generally need more protein.
  • If you’re a more muscular cyclist looking to maintain muscle mass, you’ll generally need more protein.
  • If you’re getting older, you’ll generally need more protein (in addition to strength training) than your younger self in order to maintain or build muscle mass.
  • If you’re a vegan or vegetarian you’ll generally need more protein than your omnivorous/morally inferior peers.

For a phenomenal/free resource offering customized protein recommendations click on the image.

Quantity and Quality

When discussing protein, it’s important to examine both quantity and quality.

Protein quality is defined by the capacity of a given food to deliver essential amino acids (EAAs) to the body [1].

In general, the highest “quality” protein comes from animal sources like dairy, eggs, and meat. You can see a list of foods and their protein quality in the table below.

Protein
per 100 g
Protein
Quality
Beef32 .92
Pork32 .90
Chicken31 .91
Tuna30 .90
White Fish23 1.00
Salmon27 1.00
Cheddar Cheese27 1.00
Yogurt6 .95
Cow’s Milk3.5 1.00
Soybeans17.91
Peas8.50
Whey Isolate801.00
Tofu16.93
Egg12.93
Rice7.47
Soy Milk6.94
Adapted from Jeukendrup, A.E. and M. Gleeson, Sport Nutrition. 2019

The Leucine Threshold

The EAA with the most influence over protein quality seems to be leucine [7].

To maximize muscle recovery, it might be advantageous to aim for a threshold (aptly named the “leucine threshold”) of at least 3 g of leucine per meal [5, 8].

You can view a list of foods alongside their leucine content in the table below.

Ammount to hit
3 g of leucine
Leucine content
[100 kcal]
Whey Isolate25 g2.9
Soy Isolate37 g2.00
Greek Yogurt300 g1.75
Chicken Breast170 g1.70
Egg4 large eggs0.94
Skim Milk900 ml0.93
Kidney beans525 g0.65
Tofu600 g0.44
Raw peanuts180 g0.29
Bread14 slices0.07
Adapted from Jeukendrup, A.E. and M. Gleeson, Sport Nutrition. 2019

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References

  1. Campbell, B., et al., International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the Int
  2. Jager, R., et al., International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2017. 14: p. 20.
  3. Flakoll, P.J., et al., Postexercise protein supplementation improves health and muscle soreness during basic military training in Marine recruits. J Appl Physiol (1985), 2004. 96(3): p. 951-6.
  4. 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.
  5. Burd, N.A., S.H. Gorissen, and L.J.C. van Loon, Anabolic Resistance of Muscle Protein Synthesis with Aging. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 2013. 41(3): p. 169-173.
  6. Jeukendrup, A.E. and M. Gleeson, Sport Nutrition. 2019.
  7. Institute of Medicine, P.o.M.I.o.M.S.C.o.t.S.E.o.D.R.I., Dietary reference intakes : for energy carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids. 2006, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
  8. Tipton, K.D., et al., Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1999. 276(4): p. E628-E634.
  9. Churchward-Venne, T.A., et al., Leucine supplementation of a low-protein mixed macronutrient beverage enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis in young men: a double-blind, randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr, 2014. 99(2): p. 276-86.
  10. Rogerson, D., Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2017. 14.
  11. Pinckaers, P.J.M., et al., The Anabolic Response to Plant-Based Protein Ingestion. Sports Med, 2021.
  12. Pasiakos, S.M., H.R. Lieberman, and T.M. McLellan, Effects of protein supplements on muscle damage, soreness and recovery of muscle function and physical performance: a systematic review. Sports Med, 2014. 44(5): p. 655-70.