There is little doubt that hard training athletes have significantly higher protein requirements than the general population. Getting adequate amounts of quality protein throughout the day ensures that you are getting those needed amino acids to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and keep your immune system healthy.
What are amino acids?
Protein is made up of chains of smaller units called amino acids – which are the building blocks for muscles, enzymes, and other proteins in the body. There are 20 naturally occurring amino acids in dietary protein; 9 are essential amino acids, meaning they cannot be made in our body and we must get them from our food. The remaining 11 amino acids can be made in the body, and therefore are called non-essential.
Amino acids and sports
Amino acid intake from dietary protein is important for all athletes; providing performance enhancing benefits for both strength training and endurance exercises. While the main energy source for endurance athletes comes from carbohydrates, protein intake is also necessary to maintain and repair muscle and is essential for optimal immune system function. Some studies show inadequate protein intake may delay recovery time and contribute to muscle soreness and injuries.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA); leucine, valine and isoleucine, are of particular interest among endurance athletes as muscles can use them for energy when muscle carbohydrate stores are depleted. Some studies have shown BCAA can enhance endurance capacity. BCAA are essential amino acids; therefore must be consumed in the diet.
Glutamine, a non-essential amino acid, is the most abundant amino acid in the body and accounts for over 60% of the total amino acid in the muscle. Glutamine and the BCAA appear to play roles in immune responses following exercise. When the body is in stress during heavy exercise periods (such as a prolonged endurance session), it can not produce enough glutamine to keep up with the demand and may reduce sport performance and the body’s immune system.
There is currently no evidence to support amino acid, (such as BCAA) supplementation as superior to eating food sources. The research does support that athletes eat well balanced meals, allow for a variety of food sources, consume sufficient high quality protein within one hour pre and post training, and rest in order to avoid the negative impact of overtraining.
Strategies to increase amino acid intake
- The daily recommended intake for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. However, athletes performing prolonged, high intensity exercise should aim for more (1.2-1.7g/kg bodyweight) in order to promote muscle recovery and enhance performance.
- While protein and amino acid supplements are widely marketed they are not necessary and are not superior to amino acids found in protein containing foods such as meat, milk, soy, legumes and nuts.
- To increase amino acid intake, athletes should consume sources of quality protein such as meat, fish, milk and milk products and enjoy a variety of food sources every day.
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- Gualano AB1, Bozza T, Lopes De Campos P, Roschel H, Dos Santos Costa A, Luiz Marquezi M, Benatti F,Herbert Lancha Junior A. Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011 Mar;51(1):82-8.