Protein Nutrition and Endurance Exercise: What Does Science Say?

Last summer this site included a good deal of information about the use of creatine in rowing and other sports. In addition to creatine, many rowers take protein powder as part of their training. Is it useful? Is it advisable? What does research say?

The following is a summary of an interesting article from the Gatorade Sports Science institute web site. Up front I'll say I am sure that some would be skeptical and suggest that Gatorade has something to gain by their own formula reporting as the best in any research. While this is true to some extent, on this topic I would think not. Like all companies Gatorade is probably looking for new markets and new products for existing markets. If they could show that including protein in a particular drink would help, I am sure that they would be quick to go to market with something new.

The article is divided up into three significant sections:

1. Protein during exercise:

Two recent studies report that adding a small amount of protein to a sport drink improves endurance capacity. This article criticizes these studies and then reports on a better-designed trial that ensured optimal carbohydrate delivery and a more relevant sporting test. Importantly, the study was "double-blind" meaning neither the researchers nor the athletes were aware of which treatment (with or without protein) they were receiving during a given trial. (One wonders if athletes could not tell the difference between them by taste). This study confirmed the importance of carbohydrate in sports drinks during competition (admittedly 135 minutes of cycling not a 6 minute rowing race) but showed no significant improvement when protein was included.

2. Amino Acid supplementation:

Again the author of this review suggests no specific advantages in consuming a given amino acid or mixtures of them during exercise.

3. Protein ingestion during recovery:

Research about protein promoting carbohydrate replenishment is unclear. However the authors’ summary at the end of the article does report that:
"Consuming a small amount (10-20 grams) of high-quality protein after exercise promotes muscle protein synthesis compared to CHO alone and may enhance the body’s response to long-term training."
They also report that there is little evidence that protein improves performance in immediately subsequent exercise bouts (second or third workouts in one day, or perhaps later racing during a regatta). Any improvement seen in studies is probably linked to the extra calories these protein-containing drinks provide, and not the protein itself.

In other words, it helps with "muscle repair" and though it does not make a big difference for your next workout, it may well make a difference over the long term.

What does this mean to me?

1. Don’t pay extra for a sports drink containing protein for use during exercise, or to enhance recovery for your next workout.

2. To enhance recovery ensure that you are consuming enough calories - though obviously not too many!

3. Add a bit of protein to your immediate post-exercise recovery meal for long term benefits. It doesn’t need to be in a drink. It may well improve the rebuilding of muscle tissue over the long term.

What about protein powder supplementation – especially in weight training?

Lots of young athletes - and National Team athletes - feel a need to consume protein powder. A review of this topic is for another day; however, consider this: the Gatorade Sports Science Institute also provides a "round table" discussion article. In it William Kraemer, Ph.D. of Penn State comments on the need for protein in "elite (weight) lifters" - who all presumably need more than your average rower. He says:
"It doesn't appear that supplements are necessary, because most lifters get plenty of protein in their normal diets."

I would assume that several of you have opinions on this based on experience - please add your comments and direct this topic.

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