How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

Proteins

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

You hear a lot about athletes and protein. And while it's true that some athletes who participate in strenuous exercise may have a slightly increased need to get some quality protein in their diet, it may not be as much as you think. All the energy we need to maintain our body and mind, as well as the fuel to help us exercise comes from the foods we eat and the fluids we drink.

To determine the right amount of calories, and nutrients to consume, it's helpful to consider how we use our energy stores on a daily basis and replace energy accordingly. It's also helpful to understand the main groupings of nutrients in the typical diet. The macronutrients our bodies need the most are broken into three main categories:

Each category of food is important for health and everyone needs to consume foods from each food group. The ratios in which we need to consume these foods, however, are often the topic of debate, especially when it comes to athletes.

Protein

Proteins are often called the building blocks of the body. Protein consists of combinations of structures called amino acids that combine in various ways to make muscles, bone, tendons, skin, hair, and other tissues. They serve other functions as well including nutrient transportation and enzyme production. In fact, over 10,000 different proteins are in the body.

Adequate, regular protein intake for athletes and non-athletes alike is essential because it isn’t easily stored by the body. Various foods supply protein in varying amounts. The body needs 20 different types of amino acids to grow and function properly. However, of these 20 amino acids, nine of them are essential in the diet and can't be made in the body like the other 11 non-essential amino acids.

These complete proteins contain amino acids histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Sources mostly include animal products such as:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Meat

Incomplete proteins contain low amounts of one or more essential amino acids. Sources include:

  • Beans (lacks methionine)
  • Grains (lacks lysine, threonine)
  • Nuts (lacks lysine)
  • Vegetables (lacks methionine)
  • Corn (lacks trytophan, lysine)

Vegan athletes and to a lesser degree vegetarian athletes may have trouble getting the 9 essential amino acids in their diets if they aren’t aware of how to combine foods. Soy is a form of complete vegetarian protein

Protein Needs for Athletes

Athletes fall into a slightly different category than the typical non-exerciser. An athlete uses protein primarily to repair and rebuild muscle that is broken down during exercise and to help optimizes carbohydrate storage in the form of glycogen.

Protein isn’t an ideal source of fuel for exercise but can be used when the diet lacks adequate carbohydrates. This is detrimental, though, because if used for fuel, there isn’t enough available to repair and rebuild body tissues, including muscle.

Recommended Daily Intake

The average adult needs 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight per day to prevent protein deficiencies.

  • Endurance athletes need about 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight per day.
  • Strength training athletes need about 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight per day.
  • If weight loss is to be included while maintaining endurance and strength training, protein needs greater than 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight may be needed.

Carbohydrates for Athletes

Strength athletes believe more protein is important to build muscle. It turns out that strength athletes actually require a slightly higher carbohydrate intake to build adequate glycogen stores to fuel their workouts. It is the strength training workout that leads to increased muscle mass and strength. This is because all high intensity, powerful muscle contractions (such as weightlifting) are fueled with carbohydrates.

Neither fat nor protein can be oxidized rapidly enough to meet the demands of high-intensity exercise. Adequate dietary carbohydrate must be consumed daily to restore glycogen levels.

Suggested High Protein Foods

This is how many grams of protein are found in different foods:

  • Beef 3oz: 21g
  • Cheese 3oz: 21g
  • Chicken 3oz: 21g
  • Eggs 2 large: 13g
  • Fish 3oz: 21g
  • Milk 8oz: 8g
  • Peanut butter 2 tbsp: 8g
  • Tofu 3oz: 15g
  • Turkey 3oz: 21g
  • Yogurt 8oz: 8g
  • Greek yogurt: 23g
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mariotti F, Gardner CD. Dietary protein and amino acids in vegetarian diets—A reviewNutrients. 2019; 11(11):2661. doi:10.3390/nu11112661

  2. Kato H, Suzuki K, Bannai M, Moore DR. Protein requirements are elevated in endurance athletes after exercise as determined by the indicator amino acid oxidation methodPLoS One. 2016;11(6):e0157406. 2016 Jun 20. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157406

  3. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exerciseJ Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

Additional Reading
  • The Position Statement from the Dietitians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine, Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research in the Winter of 2000, 61(4):176-192.