Experienced and high-level athletes do not have the same nutritional needs as everyone else. Sports nutrition products exist to meet their needs. A variety of nutrients are required so that the body functions properly, including proteins.

Why? What do they do? And which proteins are the best for intense physical activity? Are milk proteins preferable to other options and are they part of a healthy lifestyle? What benefits do they provide? Ingredia answers all your questions on proteins for athletes.

What are proteins and milk proteins made of?

What is the structure and function of proteins?

Proteins are biological molecules composed of sequences of amino acids. They are essential because some of these amino acids are not synthesized by the human body. They must come from elsewhere, primarily from food.

Proteins have a wide variety of functions in the body. We can categorize proteins based on their function:

  • motor proteins, like myosin, which helps muscles contract
  • structural proteins, like keratin, which is the primary component of hair, nails, etc.
  • hormonal proteins, like insulin, which is a key glycemic regulator
  • enzymatic proteins.

And where do milk proteins fit in all of this?

There are two types of milk proteins: casein and serum proteins. Serum proteins are soluble and are found in whey. Casein forms the curd when milk is transformed.

Why should you consume proteins when you are physically active?

One of the functions of proteins is muscle building. They maintain and regenerate muscles, so they are particularly important for anyone with a high level of muscular activity.
Intense physical activity also has a particular effect on protein metabolism. Normal synthesis and deterioration are affected for up to 3 hours after physical activity. We observe this mechanism in athletes who train in endurance and strength disciplines (1).
Athletes who train less regularly, but are increasing their level of physical activity, also experience this effect and have increased protein needs on a temporary basis. These needs must be met even if the increase in exertion is spread out over time.
Finally, it is important to note that the amino acids in proteins stimulate hormone production, allowing for quality sleep, which is essential for athletes. Proteins for athletes, particularly high-level athletes, are essential. They must therefore be included in sports nutrition products.

What are the protein requirements for endurance sports?

Athletes who regularly practice endurance sports have specific protein needs. They should consume at least 1g/kg/day. But what does it mean to regularly practice an endurance sport? This includes running, speed walking, swimming, cross-country skiing, cycling, etc., 4–5 days per week for at least an hour.
High-level athletes have greater needs, a recommended daily value of 1.6g/kg/day.
These needs are not always easy to meet with regular nutrition, especially for athletes that follow a specific diet (vegetarian for example). All protein-enriched sports nutrition products can be recommended when there is a deficiency.

Why do athletes who practice strength disciplines need proteins?

Strength discipline includes track and field events: throwing, jumping, running, as well as weightlifting and bodybuilding. The effects on proteins last longer after exertion than with endurance sports: 4–48 hours. The more the athletes train, the quicker proteins return to normal. Beginners can be affected for days!

This is not very surprising when you consider that strength discipline require an increase in muscle mass, for which a high level of availability of amino acids is needed, and therefore logically a higher protein intake.

In addition, strength training often requires eccentric muscle contractions or specific muscle mass development, which may cause lesions. It is proteins that create the muscle fibers necessary to repair these lesions.

Generally speaking, experienced athletes need 1.3-1.5g/kg/day. Athletes who want to increase their muscle mass need more protein (2-2.5g/kg/day).
The significant protein consumption required to develop muscle mass is often temporary; up to 6 months per year is recommended. What is interesting is that up to a third of this protein can come from nutritional supplements for athletes. This means that developing protein-enriched products for athletes is a smart decision.

Which proteins are the best choice for athletes?

Which proteins are the best for bodybuilding, strength and endurance disciplines mainly depends on their digestibility. Here, we must discuss postprandial bioavailability, which means the availability of food after eating and after digestion.

Animal proteins are easier to digest for the human body than plant-based proteins. They also have all the amino acids that the human body needs. Therefore milk proteins are such a good option. Cow’s milk and its derivatives are an excellent source of protein for athletes: 30g/l. They seem to be more efficient than soy proteins in the recovery phase after exertion in strength disciplines.

Sports nutrition products enriched with milk proteins are therefore particularly well-suited for a healthy diet for athletes who do not want to eat meat.

When should you ingest protein: before or after exertion?

Most athletes wonder when they should ingest protein for their workouts. This is an excellent question.

As we saw above, the recovery phase is essential. Athletes in all disciplines, especially strength disciplines (track and field, weightlifting and bodybuilding) must consume a large quantity of amino acids in the hours following their workouts. These amino acids help with muscle hypertrophy, so it is recommended that athletes consume proteins (and carbohydrates) just after exertion. If it is not mealtime, a product rich in milk proteins is a perfect choice.

Ingesting proteins before or during the workout is also an option. This seems to increase the speed of protein synthesis during exertion. Sports nutrition products enriched with milk proteins are thus also recommended in the preparation phase.

Can proteins for athletes be dangerous?

Are supplements or protein-enriched products dangerous for athletes?
Our milk proteins are processed for sports nutrition. They are therefore appropriate for people who practice an athletic discipline regularly and at high intensity. Athletes are not at any risk if they add milk proteins to their diets, if they follow the indicated doses and the nutritional product’s recommendations. A balanced diet is essential!

Do proteins consumed as part of athletic training make you gain weight?

Generally speaking, proteins do not cause weight gain—quite the opposite.

  • They make you feel full quickly, so you eat less.
  • They increase digestion time, so you feel satiated longer, which limits cravings.
  • They contribute to lean body mass instead of body fat.

It is, of course, possible to gain weight with protein since it helps increase muscle mass. But gaining muscle does not mean gaining fat! Consuming protein-enriched sports nutrition products helps keep you in shape for a high level of physical activity.

So, we can see that protein-enriched products have significant benefits for experienced athletes. Milk proteins, which are animal proteins, are a more complete option that is better adapted to the human body. They are an excellent alternative for athletes who wish to adopt a healthy lifestyle, particularly vegetarian athletes who need proteins that can be easily assimilated into their diets. Ingredia contributes to this need with a line of milk proteins for the sports nutrition sector.

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