How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in How Much Protein Do You Need

Position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition On Protein & Exercise

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

how much protein do athletes needThere is so much conflicting information about how much protein we should be getting. Some experts say we are eating too much. Others say we are eating too little. Some experts say we should just eat fruits and vegetables. Others say we should load up on meat. Some experts say athletes need more protein. Others say they get plenty of protein in the standard American diet. No wonder you are confused!

So, how much protein do athletes need?

Because of all the conflicting advice, I thought it would be worthwhile to share with you the International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Statement on protein and exercise (R. Jagr et al, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 14:20, 2017. DOI: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8).

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?


Before summarizing the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommendations, I should start by pointing out that these recommendations are focused on the effect of protein on exercise performance. They are also focused more on high performance athletes than on those of us who are just trying to stay fit.

I have covered protein needs of people of all ages and exercise intensities in my article “How Much Protein Do You Need?” and will refer to that article from time to time.

Here are the ISSN recommendations:

exercise and protein#1: “An acute exercise stimulus, particularly resistance exercise, and protein ingestion both stimulate muscle protein synthesis and are synergistic”. In simple English, exercise and protein work synergistically to help you increase muscle mass.

#2: “For building and maintaining muscle mass…, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 0.6 – 0.9 gm/pound body weight/day is sufficient for most exercising individuals”. This is 1.7-2.5 times the RDA for sedentary individuals, and is more appropriate for elite athletes than for your average weekend warrior or fitness enthusiast.

Protein Requirements Calculator

They make the point that protein alone is sufficient for increasing muscle mass following resistance training. However, they also say that addition of carbohydrate to a protein supplement improves muscle glycogen recovery and reduces post-workout muscle soreness.

I also prefer some carbohydrate with a protein supplement because of a phenomenon called “protein sparing.”  In brief, in the absence of carbohydrate, some of the ingested protein is converted to glucose to restore blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen stores. If you include carbohydrate with the protein, the carbohydrate will be used to restore blood glucose & glycogen, and all the protein can be used to increase muscle mass.

#3: “There is novel evidence that suggests higher protein intake (>1.36 gm/pound body weight/day) may promote loss of fat mass in resistance-trained individuals”. This recommendation is primarily for body builders.

#4: “Optimal protein intake per serving…depends on age and [the intensity of] recent resistance exercise. General recommendations are…a dose of 20-40g”. In general, young people require less protein following exercise than older people. I have covered age-specific protein recommendations in my article “How Much Protein Do You Need?”. As for intensity of exercise, most of us engage in moderate intensity exercise and should aim for the lower dose recommended by the ISSN. The higher dose is more appropriate for elite athletes engaged in high intensity training.

leucine protein and exercise#5: “Acute protein doses should strive to contain 700-3,000 mg of leucine…in addition to a balanced array of the essential amino acids”. Older people also need more leucine than younger people. I have discussed age-related leucine needs in my article “Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?”.

It is worth noting that in their position statement, the ISSN did not recommend any of the other ingredients that you often find in protein supplements.

#6: “These protein doses should be evenly distributed, every 3-4 h, across the day”. If you consume too much protein at one time, the excess will not be used for building muscle.

#7: “The optimal time period during which to ingest protein is likely a matter of individual tolerance…However, the anabolic effect of exercise is long-lasting (at least 24 h), but likely diminishes with increasing time post-exercise”. While the anabolic effect of exercise lasts for 24 hours or more, the maximum anabolic effect occurs during the first 2-4 hours after exercise. This is why a post-workout supplement is generally recommended immediately following a workout. Because there is a limit to how much protein can be consumed at any one time, additional protein should be consumed at regular intervals over the next 24 hours (recommendation #6).

#8: “While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily protein requirements through the consumption of whole foods, supplementation is a practical way of ensuring intake of adequate protein quality and quantity, while minimizing caloric intake.”

protein shakes#9: “Rapidly digested proteins that contain high proportions of essential amino acids and adequate leucine are most effective in stimulating muscle protein synthesis.”  This recommendation is most appropriate for protein(s) ingested during the acute 2-4 hour anabolic phase immediately after exercise. During the remaining 24 hours of the anabolic phase, it is more important to maintain a constant amino acid concentration in the bloodstream. For this reason, I generally recommend more slowly digested proteins, such as meat or soy, between 4 and 24 hours after exercise.

#10: “Different types and quality of protein can affect amino acid bioavailability following protein supplementation.”  Simply put, there are a lot of “junk” protein supplements out there. Look for a manufacturer with a reputation for integrity and for product quality.

#11: “Athletes should consider focusing on whole food sources of protein that contain all the essential amino acids.”  Simply put, you should avoid supplements that contain only a few selected amino acids. Instead, choose supplements that provide whole protein from natural sources. Leucine, for example, is very beneficial when added to a whole protein supplement containing all the essential amino acids, but leucine by itself would be of little value.

protein endurance#12: “Endurance athletes should focus on achieving adequate carbohydrate intake to promote optimal performance; the addition of protein may help offset muscle damage and promote recovery.”  In short, endurance athletes benefit from a combination of carbohydrate and protein, but carbohydrate is of primary importance.

#13: “Pre-sleep casein intake (30-40 g) provides increases in overnight muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate without decreasing the overnight fat breakdown.”  The definitive studies on this have been fairly recent. This recommendation is most appropriate for elite athletes who are primarily interested in increasing muscle mass. For the rest of us, calorie considerations would outweigh the small increment in muscle mass we could gain overnight.

The above gives a summary the ISSN statement on protein and exercise and offers an answer to the question how much protein do athletes need?


The Bottom Line


This article is different from my previous articles in that it is a summary. It would be pointless to make a summary of a summary, so I have done away with “The Bottom Line.”  Read the article above for a quick summary of the International Society for Sports Nutrition position statement on protein and exercise.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney


Latest Article

Calf Cramps Remedy

Posted February 20, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Don’t Let A Leg Cramp Stop You Short

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT – The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney


calf cramps remedyGetting a leg cramp while you are running can be the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”  If you don’t treat it properly and quickly when it is happening, you may limp to the finish line, and you can suffer from its effects for days afterward.  I will show you the best calf cramps remedy below.  First, let’s go over spasms and muscle cramps.

A spasm and a cramp are similar because it’s a shortening in the muscle fiber, but that’s where the similarity ends. A spasm is a slow-forming shortening of a group of fibers that tie up into a knot in the muscle. You can feel a spasm with your fingertips, it feels like a bump as you slide along the full length of the muscle. With a spasm, as you press down and slide, it doesn’t hurt until you get to the spasm, and then it can really hurt. But then it stops hurting as you slide off the spasm. A spasm refers pain to the insertion points of the muscle and frequently doesn’t hurt where the spasm has formed (that is, until you press on it).

Why Do Your Muscles Cramp?

calf cramps remedy muscle crampsA cramp (Charlie horse) is when all the fibers of the entire muscle suddenly and violently contract. The muscle will quickly shorten and can go into a huge knot, or it will just totally shorten.

Usually a cramp happens in your calf muscle, although it can happen to any muscle in the body.  Your calf is comprised of two major muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius, which is shown in this graphic, originates behind your knee and inserts into your Achilles tendon.

Visualize the muscle suddenly shortening, pulling up on your Achilles tendon, and becoming a mass of tight knots through the entire muscle.

Muscles have an “all or nothing” response.  This means that when a muscle fiber contracts, it will shorten 100% of its length.  It never starts to shorten and then make a U-turn and lengthen.  A cramp is seriously painful, and if you try to stretch it out as it’s happening, you can tear the muscle fibers. In fact, that’s the reason it hurts for sometimes days after the cramp.

A Calf Cramps Remedy You Can Administer Yourself

calf cramps remedy squeezeThe best thing to do is to squeeze the two ends of your calf muscle together, which will help the cramp complete as quickly as possible. This will hurt, but for less time than the normal cramping process.  Hold your calf tightly, as shown in this picture, and continue to press the two ends toward each other.

Hold it until you can breathe normally (about 30-45 seconds), and then release. Breathe for a minute or so, and then push the two ends together again.  This second time won’t hurt, you are only doing it to make sure that all the fibers have completed the contraction.

calf cramps remedy hold sittingOnce you have stopped the cramp, don’t stretch…yet. You need to flush out the hydrogen ions (AKA lactic acid) that rapidly built-up in the muscle during the cramp.

There are many ways to self-treat your calf. If you are out on the road you can either sit on a bench or lie on the ground and put the sore calf onto your opposite knee.  Press down and hold the pressure for 30 seconds. Then deeply press along the muscle going from the back of your knee toward your ankle.

calf cramps remedy opposite footYou can also use your opposite heel and press deeply, straight into your calf.

Start at the top of the muscle and move down toward your ankle. Stop whenever you come to a point that is especially painful. The point should be close to the area shown in this picture.

Hold the pressure for 30-60 seconds, or until it doesn’t hurt anymore.  Release, and then repeat 2-3 times.

Complete this self-treatment by squeezing your calf muscle, like you are wringing out a wet towel.  This will force blood into your muscle and get your circulation moving again.

Proof That My Treatments Work

I once taught this technique at an Ironman Triathlon during a 15-minute session I was giving to the triathletes.  Several days later a triathlete emailed me and told me that he had a cramp as he was running, and he did the treatment I’d taught him.  It cost him a few minutes (he wasn’t in the top three, so the time loss wasn’t a huge issue) but he was able to get up and get back to running, totally without pain.

About a mile later he got a cramp in the other leg, but he automatically started to just stretch it like he’d always done before.  He ended up limping all the way to the finish line, and days later it was still hurting.  He wanted to let me know that my cramp treatment really worked great.  This was especially helpful because I’d always wondered what body chemistry did to the outcome of treating a cramp, and here I found out that chemistry wasn’t involved in the treatment of the muscle fibers.

What To Do After The Calf Cramps Remedy

If the cramp happens during a race or athletic event, knowing how to stop it, and these quick massage techniques, will get you back into the game. But it hasn’t totally resolved the issue. Finally, when you have the time to be detailed (after the race, in the evening, etc.), it is important to work out all the spasms and then stretch properly.

When you are treating the muscles afterward, I suggest you consider getting an analgesic cream that goes way deep into the muscle fibers. Use it when you are massaging the muscle, but don’t put it on before you play, run, or before/after a shower because it will go too deep into the muscle and burn like crazy. After you do the treatments, use ice &/or arnica gel (get it at a good health food store) to heal the bruised muscle fibers and help with pain and swelling. Arnica is fantastic, it’s an amazing homeopathic remedy that has been around for ages and really works.

Naturally you will also want to make sure you hydrate properly and that your diet, vitamins and minerals are all in balance.

calf cramps remedy bookCramping is a common problem athletes face, but with a little bit of effort you can prevent muscle injury and get back in the race quickly!

You can find the full treatments for your muscle cramps by going to my book, Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living . This book has treatments for your entire body, from your head to your feet.  YOU are your own Best Therapist!  Stop pain quickly and easily with self-treatments you can do anytime, anyplace.

Wishing you well,

Julie Donnelly

julie donnelly

About The Author

Julie Donnelly is a Deep Muscle Massage Therapist with 20 years of experience specializing in the treatment of chronic joint pain and sports injuries. She has worked extensively with elite athletes and patients who have been unsuccessful at finding relief through the more conventional therapies.

She has been widely published, both on – and off – line, in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers around the country. She is also often chosen to speak at national conventions, medical schools, and health facilities nationwide.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.