The Perfect Protein For Triathletes
Protein is crucial for peak performance and recovery from intense training. But not all protein is created equal, and choosing the right source is essential for success. 
By Thomas Pachis
The Perfect Protein For Triathletes
Protein is crucial for peak performance and recovery from intense training. But not all protein is created equal, and choosing the right source is essential for success. 
By Thomas Pachis
Let's start with a refresher on why protein is a vital nutrient, and especially critical for the triathlete.

First, protein is a key regulator of the body and its many essential functions. It plays major roles in hormone and enzyme production, blood clotting, fluid balance and tissue repair, just to name a few.

In fact, nearly 20% of your body mass is protein (via lean tissue), and every cell in your body contains it.

Thus it's no surprise that protein consumption is a key part of adequate nutrition, and while sedentary folks need a healthy supply of it, endurance athletes require substantially more than the average Joe ... a lot more, in fact.

Why?

Well, for starters, intense and long-duration exercise (i.e. training or competition) place a great protein demand on your body, both in terms of the energy required to fuel the exercise, but also during the subsequent recovery period.

During endurance training characterized by large energy deficits - such as IRONMAN training, for example - large demands on certain amino acids (the building blocks of protein) require protein to contribute as much as 15% of total energy output.  

Also, the intensity and duration of this training causes "microtrauma" (physical separation and breakdown) to muscle fibers, a process called catabolism, which must be repaired during recovery in order to produce positive training outcomes.

By consuming sufficient quality protein at key times before and after training or competition, you can ensure the steady supply of critical amino acids to working muscles in order to support repetitive and optimal muscle contraction, as well as the repair and growth of muscle tissue during your subsequent recovery period.

Now, a quick word on what constitutes "critical amino acids."

Amino acids, the so-called "building blocks" of protein, are responsible for protein's benefits.  When protein is digested, it is broken down into these constituent amino acids, which then enter the bloodstream through your small intestine.

Then the magic happens ... the extent of which is predicated by the amino acid profile of the formerly ingested protein.

It has long been understood that the branched-chain amino acids ("BCAAs") leucine, isoleucine, and valine are crucial to protein synthesis, and thus the ability of protein to support muscle contraction, repair damaged tissue and support training adaptations.

More recently, research is not only affirming this understanding of BCAAs, but adding to their long list of benefits.  

Leucine, in particular, is believed to be the key amino acid responsible for virtually all of protein's affect on stimulating protein synthesis.  It does this by activating a biochemical sequence of events referred to as the "mTor pathway."  

The biochemistry is beyond our scope, but it's enough to say that proteins high in leucine concentration, and BCAAs more generally, are extremely important to endurance athletes.

BCAAs confer the following additional benefits to athletes:
  • they can increase your body's natural testosterone and growth hormone production, leading to improved performance, faster recovery and leaner, stronger physiques
  • reduce your perception of fatigue
  • improve focus and concentration
  • muscle repair and growth
Below, we will review protein quality in more detail, including what - exactly - you should look for as a serious triathlete.

But first ...
How Much Protein Is Optimal?
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends an intake of 1.2 - 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (per day) for endurance athletes.

Many professionals, however, suggest even more, advocating up to 2.0 grams/kg.

Generally, the longer and harder you train/compete, the more protein you will require for optimal performance and recovery.

The following guide should be considered when planning your protein intake:
  • Rest Days - 1.0 gram/kg/day
  • Train <1 hour - 1.2 grams/kg/day
  • Train 1-2 hours - 1.4 grams/kg/day
  • Train 2-4 hours - 1.7 grams/kg/day
  • Train 4+ hours - 2.0 grams/kg/day
(NOTE: The above is a guideline based on a growing body of research, and can serve as a solid foundation to start. However, you should strive to form your own conclusions over time, based on experiences logged in a training/nutrition log. )  
When Is The Best Time To Consume Protein?
As a triathlete, you should think of protein consumption as falling into two general categories:
1. Peri-workout protein
 
2. Daily protein meals
Peri-workout protein:
  • 1 hour before training - 20 grams of protein
  • During training - another 20 grams of protein, spaced throughout
  • Immediately after training - 20-25 grams of protein
Daily protein meals:
A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that protein synthesis (muscle growth and repair) was 25% higher when a given quantity of protein was ingested evenly over three meals, rather than during one large meal.

As such, it's best to consume 15-30 grams of protein every few hours throughout the day.  

One practical way to accomplish this is to consume 25-30 grams per meal for each of 3 "main" meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), and 15-25 grams for each of 3 "snacks" (mid-morning, mid-afternoon and bedtime).
OK ... Finally, What Protein Is BEST For Performance?
If the below is too "science-y," or you simply don't have the time or desire to read it, scroll down to the "Recommendation" section to get down to brass tacks.
Proteins are not created equal, and what we haven't yet addressed is the critical concept of a protein's effectiveness.

Protein effectiveness is a function of 2 things:
1. Quality
 
2. Digestibility
The first, quality, refers to the availability of amino acids that it supplies, while the second, digestibility, considers how the protein is best utilized.
 
Thus, the protein type (or types) that will be most effective for endurance athletes (both as a daily meal supplement and for workout nutrition) is that which efficiently and sustainably delivers an amino acid profile high in BCAAs, supplying the building blocks (and triggers) for protein synthesis rapidly, and then steadily over a period of hours.

Let's review various popular protein types and their relative merits for endurance athletes. (I'm ignoring whole foods [e.g. animal and vegetable sources] because for practical purposes, we should focus our attention on the best proteins to supplement your whole-food diet.)
Whey:
Whey is the translucent liquid part of milk that remains after the coagulation and curd removal process of cheese manufacturing. It is from this liquid that whey proteins are separated and purified using various techniques to produce the following 3 main forms of whey protein:
1. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) -- Typically 29 - 89% protein by weight, WPC results after the nearly-complete removal of water, lactose, ash, and some minerals from whey liquid.
 
2. Whey protein isolate (WPI) -- The purest form of whey protein, composed of at least 90% protein by weight. This form of whey is virtually lactose- and fat-free.

3. Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) -- These are whey proteins that have been partially hydrolyzed (digested) for better absorption
Whey protein is an attractive protein for endurance athletes, due to the following benefits:
  • Whey is a complete protein (i.e. contains all the essential amino acids) with an excellent amino acid profile for athletes, and contains a high concentration of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) 
  • Whey contains biologically active components that provide additional benefits to enhance function and athletic performance. For example, it contains an ample supply of the amino acid cysteine, which is believed to increase glutathione levels. Glutathione has been shown to have powerful antioxidant properties that can aid the body in fighting various diseases [Counous, 2000]. (Staying healthy enables an athlete to consistently train hard, in addition to providing a metabolic environment primed for enhancements in performance.)
  • Whey consists of a number of other proteins that improve immune function through antimicrobial activity [Ha et al. 2003].
Casein:
Casein is the major protein component of cow's milk, accounting for nearly 70-80% of its total protein (whey constitutes the other 20-30%), and gives milk its characteristic white color.
Casein is also an excellent quality protein for endurance athletes. Its benefits for athletic performance are summarized below:
  • Casein, like whey, consists of an impressive amino acid profile. Although not as rich in BCAAs as whey, it still contains a hefty dose, particularly of the BCAA leucine (which triggers protein synthesis). Casein is approx. 8% leucine, while whey is roughly 10%.
  • Casein exists in milk in the form of a micelle. A major benefit of the casein micelle is its ability to form a gel or clot in the stomach, which makes it very efficient in nutrient supply. The clot provides a sustained, slow release of amino acids into the blood stream, often lasting for several hours [Boirie et al. 1997]. Of particular importance to endurance athletes, this slow and steady supply of amino acids provides better nitrogen retention and utilization by the body, and accounts for casein's notorious and unique anti-catabolic (i.e. muscle-sparing) properties. 
  • Note that casein, like whey, exists in various forms in commercial applications. The best and purest form is micellar casein, which is characterized by the preservation of the casein micelles described above. Remember that it's the micelle form that gives casein its critical anti-catabolic action by slowing protein metabolism.
  • Whey consists of a number of other proteins that improve immune function through antimicrobial activity [Ha et al. 2003].
Soy:
Soy protein is derived from the soybean, and is the most widely available vegetable protein.
Frankly, soy isn't the best choice for athletes (which I'll address below), but does contain a number of health benefits, including:
  • It is a complete protein with a high concentration of BCAA’s
  • Potentially reduces plasma lipid profiles, increases LDL-cholesterol oxidation and reduced blood pressure, although these claims are considered inconclusive.
Why isn't this such an attractive protein for athletes?
Well, soy contains certain isoflavones that are considered phytoestrogens (i.e. plant-derived compounds that exhibit estrogen-like effects). It is for this reason that many women who are at higher risk for breast cancer (due to familial incidence and such) are often instructed by their doctors to avoid soy-containing foods, for the estrogenic action of soy can increase the cancer risks.
It goes without saying that for athletes interested in lean muscle and strength, especially male athletes, avoiding supplements with potential estrogenic properties is a wise decision in support of healthy testosterone production.
Pea Protein:
Pea protein has become increasingly popular within the health community.  As with most plant-based proteins, it is hypoallergenic and commercial sources are relatively clean, with a water-based extraction process that produces a very natural protein isolate. 

Further, while the plant-based proteins are rarely complete proteins (meaning that they lack certain essential amino acids), pea protein is a notable exception, with a relatively strong amino acid profile.   

It contains a respectable concentration of BCAAs, though less than the dairy proteins.

Overall, this is a solid protein for athletes, particularly for folks with dairy allergies or those who suffer from significant digestive challenges.
Conclusion: Whey Plus Casein Blend
If well-tolerated, dairy proteins offer the greatest return on your training.  Whey protein is considered the gold standard of proteins due to its high concentration of BCAAs ... but frankly, micellar casein, also derived from milk (minus the processing), is a very underrated star performer, especially for endurance athletes.

Why?

Because micellar casein delivers amino acids to working muscles for up to 7 hours after ingestion (2-3X longer than other proteins, on average)!  

That quality makes it very unique, and also extremely useful to the triathlete, whose training and races often last hours.  Micellar casein would provide the benefit of intra-workout (or race) fuel without having to be consumed during training (or racing).  

It is also superior at preventing catabolism (muscle tissue breakdown).

So why not just use micellar casein alone?

Combining micellar casein with a high-quality whey protein isolate provides the best of both worlds for athletes: fast-acting whey delivers immediate benefit to the athlete, while slow-acting micellar casein delivers a timed-release benefit over a period of many hours.

This combo simply cannot be achieved with any single protein type, and you will see and feel the difference of this blend almost immediately.  Your training capacity will improve, as will performance and training adaptations.
Recommendation: SYNERGY-XP
Research conclusively shows that whey and casein blends outperform standalone whey or casein supplements, in virtually all categories key to athletes ... yet, the vast majority of commercial protein powders are either standalone whey (isolate or concentrate), or casein (typically in the form of inferior caseinates, which are denatured during processing).

The reason for this is simple: in the vast majority of cases, these products are white label supplements that a sports nutrition company simply buys wholesale, slaps a branded label on, and sells as their own. 

White labeling, which is the model underlying all the "store brand" products in your local supermarket, is very advantageous to supplement companies because it dramatically lowers product costs.

Custom formulas, on the other hand, are very expensive to manufacture.  

These products are often composed of expensive ingredients, typically from different suppliers, require expensive R&D to develop, and are much slower to bring to market.

So, guess what a specialized whey/casein blend would constitute? 

Yep, a costly custom formula.

And, given that protein powders notoriously garner low profit margins to begin with, a function of discount department store competition (Target and Walmart sell dozens of different protein powders), custom protein supplements are almost impossible to turn a profit on.

Unless they're sold direct.

Using a direct-to-consumer business model (versus the usual retail model), it's more feasible to profitably sell custom protein products.  

Since this model is unconventional, these products are in relatively short supply, but if you can spot these diamonds in the rough, and can afford to spend a bit more, you'll end up with a vastly superior protein, and therefore better results from your workouts (and in your races).

One such protein powder is called SYNERGY-XP, manufactured for the sports nutrition company, Emergent Nutrition.

I am close to this product because I was part of the research team that developed it, although I've since taken a different career direction and am no longer associated with the company (nor do I have a financial interest in it).

Nevertheless, I can speak to the quality, and ultimately the benefits, of this remarkable protein, even if not with complete impartiality.

Here are a few highlights:
  • It consists of the highest-quality protein isolates available anywhere: whey protein isolate and micellar casein, in a very precise ratio to maximize performance (cool triva: the "xp" superscript in the product name refers to "Extreme Performance," something that started out as simply a code name for the formula during development)
  • It's high in BCAAs and was exhaustively designed to achieve the ideal amino acid profile (through a precise combination of whey and casein -- NOT by adding free-form amino acids ... a key distinction)
  • The formula contains a high concentration of the digestive enzyme mixture bromelain, derived from pineapple, which not only dramatically improves absorption (and bioavailability), but has been researched extensively with very positive results as a natural anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, and even a fat loss agent.
  • It uses only natural ingredients ... no artificial colors, sweeteners or additives
  • It isn't "spiked" with other supplements (such as creatine, one-off amino acids or gimmicky "proprietary blends")
  • It tastes absolutely fantastic, and has a smooth, creamy texture ... this is truly gourmet protein!
Click here to learn more and find out how you can try it risk-free for a full year.
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