Protein is THE most reliable nutrient to reduce soreness, promote muscle repair and optimize your workout recovery. By consuming protein at each meal, and spreading out protein intake throughout the day, studies show serious athletes can perform stronger, faster and longer. In this 4-week series, we interview expert RDs and dietitians to bring you our EXTREME PROTEIN POWER-UP: top Spartan-approved strategies to more efficiently consume protein so you can max your OCR training regimen.
Whether you’re training for a Spartan Race, lifting heavy, or just flipping tires, your muscles are constantly being pushed to the limit. Every time you exercise, you break down muscle tissue, which then needs to be repaired and strengthened ASAP so you can test your grit all over again. This is where protein comes in.
This powerful macronutrient not only drives muscle repair in your metabolic process but also, according to a recent study in the journal Nutrients, contributes to muscle-mass gains when paired with resistance work, allows for better muscular preservation when you eat it during low-energy moments, and limits muscle loss related to aging.
The thing is, you can’t just house a chicken breast once a day and call it good. You need enough protein in your diet (and frequently!) to keep up with your demanding workouts. “My top tip for athletes (and those looking for better health and fitness) is to space out protein throughout the day,” says Marley Oldham Carnes, MS, RDN, CSCS. “Research supports that 120 grams of protein at two meals is not as beneficial as 120 grams of protein across 3-4 meals or snacks.” This goes for busy athletes, aging athletes, high-volume athletes, heck, any athlete.
Lucky for you, we pulled together our quick-but-effective ways to introduce more protein into your diet so you can optimize your recovery (and therefore your workouts). Plus, we start you off with a few RD-favorite protein pairings to inspire your shift.
Protein Tips for Athletes: 4 Ways Jumpstart Your Intake
1. Set A Schedule (Or At Least Be Intentional About It)
The most important thing when it comes to adding more protein in your diet is to be diligent. Eating a ton of protein one day, and then forgetting or accidentally cutting back the next won’t help you much. Just like with your fitness program, your nutrition regimen builds on itself. “Consistency is king when it comes to protein,” says Oldham Carnes. Crafting a schedule of protein-rich meals and snacks will go a long way to seeing results fast. If you need help, set a reminder in your phone a few times per day to chow down.
2. Make Your Breakfast Count
Breakfast tends to be people’s smallest protein meal of the day, according to Oldham Carnes. Many athletes choose to skip breakfast entirely because they’re fasting, busy or aren’t hungry. But getting even a small dose of protein doesn’t have to be complicated—and breakfast isn’t a protein opportunity to be missed. “For many of my athletes, it’s as simple as adding a protein shake into their morning routine,” she explains. (Try Orgain's Organic Protein Plant-Based Protein Powder for an extra kick.) “I generally also have them pair their protein shake with a serving of fruit.” Easy to add to your routine, no excuses.
3. Opt for a High-Protein Milk
Not all milk is equal when it comes to servings of protein (and we don’t mean dairy versus plant based here). There’s actually “regular” milk and milk that has extra protein—just check the labels at your local grocery store. Consider switching to an option fortified with protein, like Orgain's Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk. A dash in your coffee, or a glass here and there amps up your intake and your muscles thank you down the line. “It’s a super easy, surprising swap—at breakfast, or any time throughout the day—to change out your milk or plant-based beverages to high-protein milk,” says Oldham Carnes.
4. Embellish Your Meals with Nuts & Seeds
Whipping up a salad? Add nuts and seeds. Looking for a small (but nourishing) snack? Top off your Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, or fruit with a nut butter. “Things like nuts and seeds are easy ways to add in healthy fats and small amounts of protein to some of your favorite dishes and snacks without much effort,” says Oldham Carnes. One of her go-tos is recommending athletes add peanut butter to oatmeal or use it, instead of jelly on a whole wheat english muffin. Get creative. Bottom line: when in doubt, sprinkle a serving of nuts and seeds onto your dish [or eat them on the side] and you’ll reap the benefits.
The Dream Protein Pairings for Athletes
When you’re grocery shopping, look for high-protein swaps to your traditional selections. “You would be surprised that not only is there high-protein milk but also things like high-protein cream cheese (Greek yogurt based),” says Oldham Carnes. Here are a few of her favorite protein pairings (and more, if you want ‘em!) that she recommends to her athletes.
- 1-2 Boiled eggs and a handful of grapes
- Low-fat cottage cheese (a protein and omega-3 fatty-acid bonus) topped with roasted pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flax seeds or chia seeds
- Low-fat Greek yogurt mixed with protein powder, nuts, seeds or nut butter
- Edamame added to stir fry veggies and brown rice
- Protein shakes and smoothie powders mixed with fruit, high-protein milk and nut butters
- Fish, like salmon, tuna, trout and halibut (which also give you heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation and joint pain)
BONUS TIPS: To adequately portion protein in your meal’s main dish (think: fish or chicken) Oldham Carnes says to opt for servings slightly larger than the size of your palm. She also recommends this protein calculator to help you determine how many grams of protein you should consume based on your fitness goals.