Nutrition: Protein improves your post-ride recovery

Why carbo-loading is not enough

How often have you considered that what you eat straight after riding is as important as what you eat before and during exertion? Most often a tasty pastry from the nearest bakery will do, or anything at all really, as long as you can choke it down in one bite. Next time make it baked beans on toast or a chicken pie. Here’s why.

All too often cyclists think their performance depends on the amount of carbohydrates they consume. While they are essential before and during exercise, numerous studies are now suggesting the importance that protein plays too.

Carbs might be the best riding fuel, but skimp on protein when the ride is over and you’ll suffer fatigue, muscle soreness and slower recovery.

Why you need protein

Prolonged and intense endurance training like cycling increases your protein requirements for two reasons. Firstly, you need more to compensate for the increased breakdown of protein during training. When muscle glycogen stores become low (around 60-90 minutes of endurance training) certain amino acids known as branched chain amino acids which make up a substantial proportion of muscle protein (see box below) can be used for energy.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for cyclists, protein is vital for the repair and recovery of muscle tissue after a ride. It’s in this post-recovery phase that you may need to rethink what you’re eating. Not only should you be rebuilding your fuel stores immediately after a ride, but you also need to repair damaged muscle fibres as soon as possible.

Eat the wrong foods after training and you’ll end up exhausted with sore, aching legs. If you eat right then your body will get stronger, fitter and recover faster.

Protein-rich foods have additional benefits too – they are involved in producing neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain keeping you alert, focused and energised. They also slow down the release rate of glucose into the bloodstream, helping stabilise blood sugar between rides, and containing energising nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and zinc.

How much do I need?

Depending on the amount and intensity of your cycling, the recommended range is 1.2-1.4g protein per kg of body weight per day. 

This compares to 0.8g/kg of body weight per day for the average person. So if you weigh 70kg you would need between 84-98g/day. In practical terms, a 100g (3 1⁄2 oz) piece of meat or fish contains between 25-30g protein and vegetarian sources around 15-20g. So depending on your choices you would need 3-5 servings a day. 

Good protein sources

When to eat protein

To meet your protein needs you’ll need to include some protein with most meals and snacks, the exception being just before and during rides when carbohydrates are more valuable. 

It should also feature as part of your refuelling immediately after a ride and later in your post-training meal.

Including a little protein with your carbohydrate speeds glycogen recovery, helps minimise protein breakdown, reduces muscle soreness and boosts muscle repair. Aim for a ratio of three parts carbohydrate to one part protein (about 20-25g protein and 60-70g carbohydrate depending on body weight).

Ways to get protein into you

Protein shakes, milkshakes and smoothies are all good choices, especially if you can’t stomach solid food straight away. Alternatively, try a protein/energy bar, rice cakes with raisins and peanut butter, or some pieces of fruit and a glass of milk. 

After you’ve showered and dressed, eat something more substantial to prepare your body for your next ride. Depending on the time of day and individual calorie needs, here are some good options:

Breakfast

  • Scrambled/poached eggs on wholegrain toast and orange juice
  • Cereal and fruit with yogurt or milk
  • Muesli, topped with berries and yogurt
  • Fresh fruit and wholegrain toast with baked beans
  • Porridge, raisins and milk topped with seeds

Lunch or dinner

  • Jacket potato, chicken breast and salad
  • Chilli or vegetarian chilli and rice
  • Grilled salmon, potatoes and steamed vegetables
  • Pitta breads with falafel and salad
  • Pasta with tuna and tomato sauce
  • Bean burrito and salad
  • Turkey stir fry and noodles

Protein Recipes 

Apricot and orange boost - Serves 2

Sweet and refreshing, the combination of fruit and soy provides plenty of energising protein as well as carbs, essential vitamins and minerals to kick start the day or after a ride. Instead of tofu you could add a scoop of whey protein powder.

  • 3 fresh apricots, destoned
  • 5 dried, ready to eat apricots 
  • 300ml (10 1⁄2 fl oz) freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 200g (7oz) silken tofu

Place all the ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth and creamy

Nutritional information: calories 177kcal, carbohydrates 25.5g, protein 10.5g, total fat 4.4g, saturated fat 0.5g. Provides potassium, calcium, iron, betacarotene, folate, vitamin C.

Speedy Chicken Chow Mein - Serves 2

A super-speedy after-training meal, providing easily digested protein with carbs and plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables to help the body repair and recover.

  • 150g (51⁄2 oz) wholewheat egg noodles,
  • 1tsp sesame oil,
  • 1tbsp light olive oil,
  • 2 chicken breasts, skinless, cut into strips,
  • 1tsp five spice powder,
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 carrot, cut into julienne
  • 4 shiitake mushrooms,
  • 1 red pepper,
  • sliced 50g (2oz) sugar snap peas or mangetout,
  • 2tbsp rice wine,
  • 2tbsp tamari wheat free soy sauce ,
  • 50g (2oz) bean sprouts

1. Cook the egg noodles according to the packet instructions. Drain and refresh under cold water. Place in a bowl and toss in the sesame oil.

2. Heat a wok or large frying pan with the olive oil. Add the chicken, five spice powder and garlic. Stir fry for 3-4 minutes until the chicken begins to brown.

3. Toss in the vegetables, except the beansprouts, and stir fry for a couple of minutes.

4. Add the noodles, rice wine, tamari and beansprouts and stir for a further minute to heat through. Serve immediately.

Nutritional information per serving: Calories 378kcal, carbohydrates 20.6g, protein 48.6g, total fat 9.9g, saturated fat 1.9g. Provides iron, zinc, betacarotene, B vitamins, folate, vitamin C, iodine, selenium, potassium.

Protein supplements

While ideally you want to obtain all your protein needs from diet alone, there may be times when you can’t stomach lots of food, especially during intense training or prolonged rides.

Protein supplements are a convenient way to make up for any shortfalls. Protein shakes or bars tend to be based on whey, casein or soy protein, and many contain additional nutrients, vitamins and minerals. 

Whey protein is the most popular and contains a high concentration of essential amino acids including the branched chain amino acids in an easily digested form. A single serving (1 scoop) contains between 15-25g protein. Make it into a drink, and combine it with some fresh fruit, for a good post-training snack.

Know your amino acids

Amino acids are the small components of protein and are used by the body to repair and build muscle. There are eight essential amino acids that must be provided by the diet, while the body produces the others. 

All these essential amino acids are required for your body to use proteins effectively. Animal proteins as well as soya, quorn and quinoa contain a good balance of these essential amino acids. 

Plant sources such as beans, pulses, grains, nuts and seeds lack certain essential amino acids. So the key for vegetarians and vegans is to combine plant proteins to provide your body with complete protein (beans and toast, or dhal and rice, for example).

Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) comprise three essential amino acids – valine, leucine and isoleucine – and make up one-third of muscle protein. During intense aerobic exercise they can be used as fuel by the muscles particularly when muscle glycogen is depleted. 

Studies suggest that supplementing with BCAA during and after exercise may help reduce protein breakdown, preserving muscle and reducing muscle damage. 

Available as capsules and included in protein powders, they could be of value if you are restricting your calories or if protein intake is too low.

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