Protein is the macronutrient most crucial to recovery and repair from strenuous exercise, and an adequate dietary intake is an important part of the performance puzzle for athletes of all levels. The protein we take in through food is needed for the growth and formation of new tissue, and to help regenerate the muscle fibres damaged through hard training. Just how important is protein for the squash player though, and how much should you be consuming for optimal results?
Protein is one of the 3 main macronutrients, along with carbohydrate and fat. Proteins in the body are made up of long chains of amino acids that are joined together by peptide bonds. There are 20 amino acids, 11 of which our bodies can produce that are thus known as ‘non-essential’, with the other 9 needing to be consumed through our diet and therefore labelled as ‘essential’ amino acids.
A protein source with all of the essential amino acids in the correct amounts and proportions necessary to increase muscle protein synthesis, is known as a ‘complete protein’. An ‘incomplete protein’ on the other hand, is a source that is missing one or more of the essential amino acids.
Protein has numerous roles in the human body, many of which are of particular importance to athletes. There are both structural proteins (such as those found in muscle and skin), and functional proteins (such as enzymes, growth factors, and components of the immune system). When we exercise we cause damage to our muscles, and as our muscles are largely comprised of proteins we need to repair and replace the damaged proteins. This plays a big role in how we get fitter and stronger in response to a training stimulus.
Athletes in demanding sports such as squash who are engaged in a greater volume and intensity of physical exercise, need more protein than the average as they suffer from greater muscle protein damage/breakdown. The typical recommendation for non-athletes is around 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, and sedentary individuals who consume animal products regularly will likely get sufficient amounts through their diets.
For the more active regular sportsperson though, recommended daily intake is much higher. Experts suggest a daily consumption in the region of 1.4g to 2.0g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, to ensure sufficient nutritional intake.
It’s worth noting here that there have been questions raised in the past over whether too much protein can damage the kidneys. Research indicates however, that a daily protein intake as high as 2.8g per kilogram of body weight remains safe for healthy individuals with no previous history of kidney issues. Higher amounts may indeed be safe also, but there isn’t enough data yet to draw concrete conclusions beyond the 2.8g per kilogram of body weight mark.
In respect to what are the best types of protein, animal sources such as beef, poultry, fish etc, are regularly viewed as the highest quality sources of protein. The milk proteins (whey and casein) that make up most powdered protein supplements are also rated as some of the highest quality available, with plant sources usually scoring lower.
Protein sources of animal origin are always ‘complete protein’ sources, with all of the necessary constituent amino acids. Most plant origin sources however, are missing one or more of the essential amino acids and must therefore be combined with others to get the full spectrum. This means it has traditionally been harder for vegan and vegetarian athletes to get sufficient intake of high quality protein, though a greater understanding of nutrition and supplementation has made this less of an issue in recent years.
For those interested in reading up more on protein for athletes/sportspeople, the International Society of Sports Nutrition are one of the gold standard authorities on anything nutrition/diet-related from a sports perspective. Their ‘position standpoint’ contains a thorough digest of current views and research on protein use for athletes, and is well worth checking out. The document is linked below, but the main take-home points from the paper are:
- Recommendation for an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4g–2.0g protein per kg bodyweight. This is on the higher side of recommendations you may hear, but this is what the most up-to-date research has concluded.
- Advice regarding the optimal protein intake per serving are mixed and are dependent upon a number of individual factors. A good general recommendation though is 0.25g per kg of bodyweight, or an absolute dose of around 20–40g.
- Protein intake should ideally be evenly distributed across the day, every 3 to 4 hours.
- While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily requirements through the consumption of whole foods, protein powder supplementation is a practical way of ensuring intake of adequate protein quality and quantity, without taking in an excess of calories.
- Athletes should also focus on achieving adequate carbohydrate intake to provide ‘fuel’ and promote optimal performance.
- Pre-sleep casein protein intake (30–40 g) provides highly beneficial increases in overnight muscle protein synthesis.
The full ISSN report can be found here, and is well worth a read.
Eating an overall healthy diet is key to success as a squash player, and it’s widely understood that ensuring you take in a diverse range of vitamins and minerals is a big part of that. Protein intake should be something extra that you strive to optimise day to day in particular however, to ensure you maximise the results of your training efforts.
Protein content of some common food sources:
- Grilled Chicken Breast (120g) – 38.4g
- Grilled Salmon Fillet (120g) – 29.5g
- Grilled Rump Steak ( 130g) – 40.3g
- Tinned Tuna in Brine (60g) – 15g
- Baked Beans (200g) – 10g
- Almonds (20g) – 4.2g
- Half Fat Cheddar Cheese (30g) – 9.8g
- Semi Skimmed Milk (200ml) – 7g
B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director
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