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.
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When you’re at your ideal body weight, making fitness gains, overcoming obstacles and pushing your limits is, well, just more fun than if you’re over or under your target weight. (We’ve been there, on both sides. Flipping tires, running miles and climbing walls isn’t easier.) For most athletes, pursuing and maintaining weight is a lifelong journey tied to age, hormones, exertion, stress, sleep and many other factors as the body changes over time. It’s a moving target which (in general) should be based less on a scale and more on how you feel in your own skin.
But, whether you want to lose lbs, bulk up, or stay where you're at, protein is crucial to achieving your weight management goals in a healthy way. In fact, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, paired with exercise, moderately elevated protein intake may help you lose weight—or maintain it—by increasing satiety (more than carbohydrates or fats do), and retaining lean muscle mass (which supports your metabolic profile). In other words, in addition to quicker recovery, protein can be a useful tool to feel fuller, longer. When used correctly, it can help you reach your target weight over time, and ultimately, maximize your workouts.
The main idea? You should establish healthy habits that set you up for long term success. Here's our most efficient protein-forward, RD-approved advice to optimize this macronutrient to achieve your ideal-weight goals so you can train and race like the Spartan champ you are.
3 Protein Tips for Weight Management
If You Want to Lose...
First thing’s first: generally, when athletes want to “lose weight” they mean lose body fat and lower their overall BMI (body mass index). So with fat loss in mind, know that it’s crucial you don’t just diet your way into oblivion or your whole fitness plan will go to hell. “Research shows us that a high protein diet is key to fat loss and maintaining muscle mass,” says Marley Oldham Carnes, MS, RDN, CSCS. It’s important to maintain muscle mass through fat loss efforts so you can continue getting stronger and leaner. “It takes a balance of protein intake and calorie intake to ensure weight loss,” she says. For example if you are eating 3-5 small meals per day (getting 20-30g of protein at each meal or snack) AND scoring a calorie deficit for the day (input is less than output), then substituting a protein powder for a small meal or snack is a solid strategy, she suggests.
If You Want to Gain...
For most athletes who want to “gain weight”, they mean packing on the muscle—not fat. A study in the Journal of Sports Science found athletes who want to gain muscle mass and strength generally consume higher amounts of protein than endurance athletes to generate more muscle protein. Why? Because higher amounts of protein help prevent both protein deficiency (helpful for repair after heavy lifting sessions) and because it improves performance and response to exercise stimuli. In other words, more protein may help you get stronger, faster. Oldham Carnes backs it up saying, “If you are overeating on calories or protein shakes or real food, then that will lead to weight gain.” Just stick to grass-fed whey protein powders that are easy to absorb ASAP, and steer clear of heavy fat-and-carb days for the most part, if muscle-mass gain is your goal.
If You Want to Maintain...
Let’s say you’re right where you want to be, but don’t want to let your progress slip. Consider working with a registered dietician or nutritionist who can help you dial in your caloric and macronutrient intake, like protein demands. This is especially important for aging athletes, because vitamin and mineral needs change as the body gets older, as does your palette, your hormone levels and so much more outside of your control. Get the support you need so you can stay active, feel vital and train into later decades.
Also, “focusing on portion control and pairing protein with each meal and snack is a simple way to help with weight maintenance,” says Oldham Carnes. If you’re too busy to eat a full meal, don’t skip it. Opt for a plant-based protein powder with a full amino acid profile and antioxidant-rich ingredients (like turmeric, tart cherry and ginger) to cut down on post-workout inflammation. The bottom line? Your nutritional health is a moving target and it’s good to do whatever’s in your power to set yourself up for success.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is not medical advice. Consult your healthcare provider about your medical status to create a personalized weight management plan that’s right for you.