When a mixture of glucose and fructose is ingested (in the analyzed literature, respectively 1.2 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 1.8 g/min), there is less competition for intestinal absorption compared with the ingestion of an iso-energetic amount of glucose or fructose, two different intestinal transporters being involved. Furthermore, fructose absorption is stimulated by the presence of glucose.
increase the availability of exogenous carbohydrates in the bloodstream;
cause the higher exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates in fructose plus glucose combination compared to high glucose intake alone.
The combined ingestion of glucose and fructose allows to obtain exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rate around 1,26 g/min, therefore, higher than the rate reported with glucose alone (1g/min), also in high concentration.
The observed difference (+0,26 g/min) can be fully attributed to the oxidation of ingested fructose.
Sucrose and glucose
The ingestion of sucrose and glucose, in the same conditions of the ingestion of glucose and fructose (therefore, respectively 1.2 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 1.8 g/min), gives similar results.
Glucose, sucrose and fructose
Very high oxidation rates are found with a mixture of glucose, sucrose, and fructose (in the analyzed literature, respectively 1.2, 0.6 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 2.4 g/min; however, note the higher amounts of ingested carbohydrates).
Maltodextrin and fructose
High oxidation rates are also observed with combinations of maltodextrin and fructose, in the same conditions of the ingestion of glucose plus fructose (therefore, respectively 1.2 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 1.8 g/min).
Such high oxidation rates can be achieved with carbohydrates ingested in a beverage, in a gel or in a low-fat, low protein, low-fiber energy bar.
The best combination of carbohydrates ingested during exercise seems to be the mixture of maltodextrin and fructose in a 2:1 ratio, in a 5% solution, and in a dose around 80-90 g/h.
This mixture has the best ratio between amount of ingested carbohydrates and their oxidation rate and it means that smaller amounts of carbohydrates remain in the stomach or gut reducing the risk of gastrointestinal complication/discomfort during prolonged exercise (see brackets grafa in the figure).
A solution containing a combination of multiple transportable carbohydrates and a carbohydrate content not exceeding 5% optimizes gastric emptying rate and improves fluid delivery.
Example of a 5% carbohydrate solution containing around 80-90 g of maltodextrin and fructose in a 2:1 rate; ingestion time around 1 h.
During prolonged exercise, when high exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates are needed, the ingestion of multiple transportable carbohydrates is preferred above that of large amounts of a single carbohydrate.
The best mixture seems to be maltodextrin and fructose, in a 2:1 ratio, in a 5% concentration solution, and at ingestion rate of around 80-90 g/h.
Burke L.M., Hawley J.A., Wong S.H.S., & Jeukendrup A. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sport Sci 2011;29:Sup1,S17-S27. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.585473
Jentjens R.L.P.G., Moseley L., Waring R.H., Harding L.K., and Jeukendrup A.E. Oxidation of combined ingestion of glucose and fructose during exercise. J Appl Physiol 2004:96;1277-1284. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00974.2003
Jentjens R.L.P.G., Venables M.C., and Jeukendrup A.E. Oxidation of exogenous glucose, sucrose, and maltose during prolonged cycling exercise. J Appl Physiol 2004:96;1285-1291. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01023.2003
During prolonged exercise (>90 min), like marathon, Ironman, cross-country skiing, road cycling or open water swimming, the effects of supplementary carbohydrates on performance are mainly metabolic rather than central and include:
the provision of an additional muscle fuel source when glycogen stores become depleted;
Prolonged exercise: which carbohydrates should an athlete take?
Until 2004 it was believed that carbohydrates ingested during exercise (also prolonged exercise) could be oxidized at a rate no higher than 1 g/min, that is, 60 g/h, independent of the type of carbohydrate.
Exogenous carbohydrate oxidation is limited by their intestinal absorption and the ingestion of more than around 60 g/min of a single type of carbohydrate will not increase carbohydrate oxidation rate but it is likely to be associated with gastrointestinal discomfort (see later). Why? At intestinal level, the passage of glucose (and galactose) is mediated by a sodium dependent transporter called SGLT1. This transporter becomes saturated at a carbohydrate intake about 60 g/h and this (and/or glucose disposal by the liver that regulates its transport into the bloodstream) limits the oxidation rate to 1g/min or 60 g/h. For this reason, also when glucose is ingested at very high rate (>60 g/h), exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates higher 1.0-1.1 g/min are not observed.
The rate of oxidation of ingested maltose, sucrose, maltodextrins and glucose polymer is fairly similar to that of ingested glucose.
Fructose uses a different sodium independent transporter called GLUT5. Compared with glucose, fructose has, like galactose, a lower oxidation rate, probably due to its lower rate of intestinal absorption and the need to be converted into glucose in the liver, again like galactose, before it can be oxidized.
Note: the high rates of carbohydrate ingestion may be associated with delayed gastric emptying and fluid absorption; this can be minimized by ingesting combinations of multiple transportable carbohydrates that enhance fluid delivery compared with a single carbohydrate. This also causes relatively little gastrointestinal distress.
In endurance sports, like Ironman, open water swimming, road cycling, marathon, or cross-country skiing, the most likely contributors to fatigue are dehydration and carbohydrate (especially liver and muscle glycogen) depletion.
Due to sweat loss needed to dissipate the heat generated during exercise, dehydration can compromise exercise performance.
It is important to start exercising in a euhydrated state, with normal plasma electrolyte levels, and attempt to maintain this state during any activity.
When an adequate amount of beverages with meals are consumed and a protracted recovery period (8-12 hours) has elapsed since the last exercise, the athlete should be euhydrated.
However, if s/he has not had adequate time or fluids/electrolytes volume to re-establish euhydration, a pre-hydration program may be useful to correct any previously incurred fluid-electrolyte deficit prior to initiating the next exercise.
If during exercise the nutritional target is to reduce sweat loss to less than 2–3% of body weight, prior to exercise the athlete should drink beverages at least 4 hours before the start of the activity, for example, about 5-7 mL/kg body weight.
But if the urine is still dark (highly concentrated) and/or is minimal, s/he should slowly drink more beverages, for example, another 3-5 mL/kg body weight, about 2 hours before the start of activity so that urine output normalizes before starting the event.
It is advisable to consume small amounts of sodium-containing foods or salted snacks and/or beverages with sodium that help to stimulate thirst and retain the consumed fluids.
Moreover, palatability of the ingested beverages is important to promote fluid consumption before, during, and after exercise. Fluid palatability is influenced by several factors, such as:
temperature, often between 15 and 21 °C;
Hyper-hydration, especially in the heat, could improve thermoregulation and exercise performance, therefore, it might be useful for those who lose body water at high rates, as during exercise in hot conditions or who have difficulty drinking sufficient amounts of fluid during exercise.
However there are several risks:
fluids that expand the intra- and extra-cellular spaces (e.g. glycerol solutions plus water) greatly increase the risk of having to void during exercise;
hyper-hydration may dilute and lower plasma sodium which increases the risk of dilutional hyponatraemia, if during exercise, fluids are replaced aggressively.
Finally, it must be noted that plasma expanders or hyper-hydrating agents are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
“Pre-hydrating with beverages, if needed, should be initiated at least several hours before the exercise task to enable fluid absorption and allow urine output to return toward normal levels. Consuming beverages with sodium and/or salted snacks or small meals with beverages can help stimulate thirst and retain needed fluids” (Sawka et al., 2007).
The form of carbohydrates ingested before exercise may have different effects on both metabolism and performance. Moreover, the ingestion of solid foods slows gastric empty, digestion and absorption rates compared with liquid foods and this has a different impact on glycemia.
For these reasons, several studies have investigated the effects of the form of carbohydrates on glycemic responses, oxidation rates and performance.
Studies comparing solid versus liquid carbohydrates and solid versus gel carbohydrates have found no difference in glycemic responses between groups.
Studies that have investigated difference in performance effects have found no differences.
Furthermore, no differences are found in carbohydrate oxidation rates between the carbohydrate ingestion in the three forms during exercise.
Hypoglycemia: strategies to limit it in susceptible subjects
From several studies it appears that the risk of developing hypoglycemia (blood glucose < 3.5 mmol /l or < 63 mg/l) is highly individual: some athletes are very prone to develop it and others are much more resistant.
A strategy to minimize glycemic and insulinemic responses during exercise is to delay carbohydrate ingestion just prior to exercise: in the last 5-15 min before exercise or during warm-up (even though followed by a short break). Why?
Warm-up and then exercise increase catecholamine concentrations blunting insulin response.
Moreover, it has been shown that ingestion of carbohydrate-containing beverages during a warm-up (even if followed by a short break) does not lead to rebound hypoglycemia, independent of the amount of carbohydrates, but instead increases glycemia. When carbohydrates are ingested within 10 min before the onset of the exercise, exercise will start before the increase of insulin concentration.
Therefore, this timing strategy would provide carbohydrates minimizing the risk of a possible reactive hypoglycaemia.
In addition, it is possible to choose low glycemic index carbohydrates that lead to more stable glycemic and insulinemic responses during subsequent exercise.
An intriguing observation is the lack of a clear relation between hypoglycaemia and its symptoms (likely related to a reduced delivery of glucose to the brain). In fact, symptoms are often reported in the absence of true hypoglycemia and hypoglycemia is not always associated with symptoms. Though the cause of the symptoms is still unknown, it is clearly not related to a glycemic threshold.
Some athletes develop symptoms similar to those of hypoglycemia, even though they aren’t always linked to actual low glycemia. To minimize these symptoms, for these subjects an individual approach is advisable. It may include:
carbohydrate ingestion just before the onset of exercise or during warm-up;
choose low-to-moderate GI carbohydrates that result in more stable glycemic and insulinemic responses;
During endurance exercise, the most likely contributors to fatigue are dehydration andcarbohydrate depletion, especially of muscle and liver glycogen.
To prevent the “crisis” due to the depletion of muscle and liver carbohydrates, it is essential having high glycogen stores before the start of the activity.
What does affect glycogen stores?
The diet in the days before the competition.
The level of training (well-trained athletes synthesize more glycogen and have potentially higher stores, because they have more efficient enzymes).
The activity in the day of the competition and the days before (if muscle doesn’t work it doesn’t lose glycogen). Therefore, it is better to do light trainings in the days before the competition, not to deplete glycogen stores, and to take care of nutrition.
The “Swedish origin” of carbohydrate loading
Very high muscle glycogen levels (the so-called glycogen supercompensation) can improve performance, i.e. time to complete a predetermined distance, by 2-3% in the events lasting more than 90 minutes, compared with low to normal glycogen, while benefits seem to be little or absent when the duration of the event is less than 90 min.
Well-trained athletes can achieve glycogen supercompensation without the depletion phase prior to carbohydrate loading, the old technique discovered by two Swedish researchers, Saltin and Hermansen, in 1960s.
The researchers discovered that muscle glycogen concentration could be doubled in the six days before the competition following this diet:
three days of low carb menu (a nutritional plan very poor in carbohydrates, i.e. without pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, legumes, fruits etc.);
This diet causes a lot of problems: the first three days are very hard and there may be symptoms similar to depression due to low glucose delivery to brain, and the benefits are few.
Moreover, with the current training techniques, the type and amount of work done, we can indeed obtain high levels of glycogen: above 2.5 g/kg of body weight.
The “corrent” carbohydrate loading
If we compete on Sunday, a possible training/nutritional plan to obtain supercompensation of glycogen stores can be the following:
Wednesday, namely four days before the competition, moderate training and then dinner without carbohydrates;
from Thursday on, namely the three days before the competition, hyperglucidic diet and light trainings.
The amount of dietary carbohydrates needed to recover glycogen stores or to promote glycogen loading depends on the duration and intensity of the training programme, and they span from 5 to 12 g/kg of body weight/d, depending on the athlete and his activity. With higher carbohydrate intake you can achieve higher glycogen stores but this does not always results in better performance; moreover, it should be noted that glycogen storage is associated with weight gain due to water retention (approximately 3 g per gram of glycogen), and this may not be desirable in some sports.
In the last years endurance sports, defined in the PASSCLAIM document of the European Commission as those lasting 30 min or more, are increasing in popularity and competitions as half marathons, marathons, even ultramarathons, half Ironmans, or Ironman competitions attract more and more people.
They are competitions which can last hours, or days in the more extreme case of ultramarathons.
Athletes at all levels should take care of training and nutrition to optimize performance and to avoid potential health threats.
In endurance sports the most likely contributors to fatigue are dehydration and carbohydrate depletion (especially liver and muscle glycogen).
Dehydration and endurance sports
Dehydration is due to sweat losses needed to dissipate the heat that is generated during exercise. To prevent the onset of fatigue from this cause, the nutritional target is to reduce sweat losses to less than 2–3% of body weight; it is equally important to avoid drinking in excess of sweating rate, especially low sodium drinks, to prevent hyponatraemia (low serum sodium levels).
Glycogen depletion and endurance sports
Muscle glycogen and blood glucose are the most important substrates from which muscle obtains the energy needed for contraction.
Fatigue during prolonged exercise is often associated with reduced blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen depletion; therefore, it is essential starting exercise/competition with high pre-exercise muscle and liver glycogen concentrations, the last one for the maintaining of normal blood glucose levels.
Other problems which reduce performance and can be an health threat of the athlete, especially in long-distance races, are gastrointestinal problems, hyperthermia and hyponatraemia.
Hyponatraemia has occasionally been reported, especially among slower competitors with very high intakes of low sodium drinks.
Gastrointestinal problems occur frequently, especially in long-distance races; both genetic predisposition and the intake of highly concentrated carbohydrate solutions, hyperosmotic drinks, as well as the intake of fibre, fat, and protein seem to be important in their occurrence.
An important energy source for working muscle is its glycogen store, whose level is correlated with the onset of fatigue.
The highly trained athlete not only has glycogen stores potentially higher but he is also able to synthesize it faster thanks to more efficient enzymes.
To synthesize glycogen it is necessary to ingest carbohydrates; but how many, which, when, and how often?
The two phases of muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise
In order to restore as quickly as possible muscle glycogen depots, it is useful to know that, as a result of training sessions that deplete muscle glycogento values below 75% those at rest and not fasting, glycogen synthesis occurs in two phases.
To know and therefore take advantage of the biphasicity is important for those athletes who are engaged in more daily training sessions, or who otherwise have little time for recovery between a high intensity exercise and the subsequent one (less than 8 hours), in order to maximize glycogen synthesis and achieve the optimal performance during a second close exercise session.
The two phases are characterized by:
a different sensitivity to circulating insulin levels;
a different velocity.
Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: the first phase
The first phase, immediately following the end of an activity and lasting 30-60 minutes, is insulin-independent, i.e. glucose uptake by muscle cell as glycogen synthesis are independent from hormone action.
This phase is characterized by an elevated rate of synthesis that however decreases rapidly if you do not take in carbohydrates: the maximum rate is in the first 30 minutes, then declines to about one fifth in 60 minutes, and to about one ninth in 120 minutes from the end of exercise.
How is it possible to take advantage of this first phase to replenish muscle glycogen stores as much as possible? By making sure that the greatest possible amount of glucose arrives to muscle in the phase immediately following to the end of exercise, best if done within the first 30 minutes.
What to ingest?
High glycemic index, but easy to digest and absorb, carbohydrates.
Therefore, it is advisable to replace foods, even though of high glycemic index, that need some time for digestion and the subsequent absorption, with solutions/gel containing for example glucose and/or sucrose. These solutions ensure the maximal possible absorption rate and resupply of glucose to muscle because of they contain only glucose and are without fiber or anything else that could slow their digestion and the following absorption of the monosaccharide, that is, they are capable of producing high blood glucose levels in a relatively short time.
It is also possible to play on temperature and concentration of the solution to accelerate the gastric transit.
It should be further underlined that the use of these carbohydrate solutions is recommended only when the recovery time from a training/competition session causing significant depletion of muscle glycogen and the following one is short, less than 8 hours.
How many carbohydrates do you need?
Many studies has been conducted to find the ideal amount of carbohydrates to ingest.
If in post-exercise the athlete does not eat, glycogen synthesis rate is very low, while if he ingests adequate amounts of carbohydrates immediately after cessation of exercise, synthesis rate can reach a value over 20 times higher.
From the analysis of scientific literature it seems reasonable to state that, as a result of training sessions that deplete muscle glycogen stores as seen above (<75% of those at rest and not fasting), the maximum synthesis rate is obtained by carbohydrate intake, with high glycemic index and high digestion and absorption rates, equal to about 1.2 g/kg of body weight/h for the next 4-5 hours from the end of exercise.
In this way, the amount of glycogen produced is higher than 150% compared to the ingestion of 0.8 g/kg/h.
Because further increases, up to 1.6 g/kg/h, do not lead to further rise in glycogen synthesis rate, the carbohydrate amount equal to 1.2 g/kg/h can be considered optimum to maximize the resynthesis rate of muscle glycogen stores during post-exercise.
And the frequency of carbohydrate ingestion?
It was observed that if carbohydrates are ingested frequently, every 15-30 minutes, it seems there is a further stimulation of muscle glucose uptake as of muscle glycogen replenishment compared with ingestion at 2-hours intervals. Particularly, ingestions in the first post-exercise hours seem to optimize glycogen levels.
Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: the second phase
The second phase begins from the end of the first, lasts until the start of the last meal before the next exercise (hence, from several hours to days), and is insulin-dependent i.e. muscle glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis are sensitive to circulating hormone levels.
Moreover, you observe a significant reduction in muscle glycogen synthesis rate: with adequate carbohydrate intake the synthesis rate is at a value of about 10-30% lower than that observed during the first phase.
This phase can last for several hours, but tends to be shorter if:
In order to optimize the resynthesis rate of glycogen, experimental data indicate that meals with high glycemic index carbohydrates are more effective than those with low glycemic index carbohydrates; but if between a training/competition session and the subsequent one days and not hours spend, the evidences do not favor high glycemic index carbohydrates as compared to low glycemic index ones as long as an adequate amount is taken in.
Muscle glycogen synthesis rate and ingestion of carbohydrates and proteins
The combined ingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free insulinotropic amino acids) allows to obtain post-exercise glycogen synthesis rate that does not significantly differ from that obtained with larger amounts of carbohydrates alone. This could be an advantage for the athlete who may ingest smaller amount of carbohydrates, therefore reducing possible gastrointestinal complications commons during training/competition afterward to their great consumption.
From the analysis of scientific literature it seems reasonable to affirm that, after an exercise that depletes at least 75% of muscle glycogen stores, you can obtain a glycogen synthesis rate similar to that reached with 1.2 g/kg/h of carbohydrates alone (the maximum obtainable) with the coingestion of 0.8 g/kg/h of carbohydrates and 0.4 g/kg /h of proteins, maintaining the same frequency of ingestion, therefore every 15-30 minutes during the first 4-5 hours of post-exercise.
The two phases of muscle glycogen synthesis: molecular mechanisms
The biphasicity is consequence, in both phases, of an increase in:
However, the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes are different.
In the first phase, the increase in glucose transport rate, independent from insulin presence, is mediated by the translocation, induced by the contraction, of glucose transporters, called GLUT4, on the cytoplasmatic membrane of the muscle cell.
In addition, the low glycogen levels also stimulate glucose transport as it is believed that a large portion of transporter-containing vesicles are bound to glycogen, and therefore they may become available when its levels are depleted.
Finally, the low muscle glycogen levels stimulate glycogen synthase activity too: it has been demonstrated that these levels are a regulator of enzyme activity far more potent than insulin.
In the second phase, the increase in muscle glycogen synthesis is due to insulin action on glucose transporters and on glycogen synthase activity of muscle cell. This sensibility to the action of circulating insulin, that can persist up to 48 hours, depending on carbohydrate intake and the amount of resynthesized muscle glycogen, has attracted much attention: it is in fact possible, through appropriate nutritional intervention, to increase the secretion in order to improve glycogen synthesis itself, but also protein anabolism, reducing at the same time the protein-breakdown rate.
Glycogen synthesis rate and insulin (H4)
The coingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free amino acids) increases postprandial insulin secretion compared to carbohydrates alone (in some studies there was an increase in hormone secretion 2-3 times higher compared to carbohydrates alone).
It was speculated that, thanks to the higher circulating insulin concentrations, further increases in post-exercise glycogen synthesis rate could be obtained compared to those observed with carbohydrates alone, but in reality it does not seem so. In fact, if carbohydrate intake is increased to 1.2 g/kg/h plus 0.4 g/kg/h of proteins no further increases in glycogen synthesis rate are observed if compared to those obtained with the ingestion of carbohydrates alone in the same amount (1,2 g/kg/h, that, as mentioned above, like the coingestion of 0,8 g/kg/h of carbohydrates and 0,4 g/kg/h of proteins, allows to attain the maximum achievable rate in post-exercise) or in isoenergetic quantities, that is, 1.6 g/kg (proteins and carbohydrates contain the same calorie/g)
Insulin and preferential carbohydrate storage
The greater circulating insulin levels reached with the coingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free amino acids) might stimulate the accumulation of ingested carbohydrates in tissues most sensitive to its action, such as liver and previously worked muscle, thus resulting in a more efficient storage, for the purposes of sport activity, of the same carbohydrates.
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van Loon L.J.C., Saris W.H.M., Kruijshoop M., Wagenmakers A.J.M. Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72: 106-111 [Abstract]
Muscle glycogen represents a source of glucose, therefore energy, that can be used by muscle during physical activity: it is an energy store where needed!
Furthermore a close relationship exists between the onset of fatigue and depletion of its muscle stores.
Glycogen as energy source
Carbohydrates and fatty acids (lipids) represent the main energy source for muscle during exercise and their relative contribution varies depending on:
the intensity and duration of exercise;
the level of training.
If for fatty acids there are no problems regarding body stores so it is not for carbohydrates whose stores, present in glycogen form principally in the liver and the muscle, are modest, less than 5% of total body energy stores: in a non-fasting 70 kg adult male there are about 250 g of glycogen in the muscle and 100 g in the liver, for a total energy of about 1400 kcal. In athletes the amount could be higher, for example in the best marathoners, again considering an adult male as above, you can reach up to 475 g in total, muscle plus liver, which corresponds to about 1900 kcal.
In spite of this, glycogen contribution to the total energy needed to sustain muscular workload rises with the increase of exercise intensity, whereas we reduce that in the form of fatty acids.
Furthermore, in the absence of replenishment with exogenous carbohydrates, performance is determined by the endogenous stores of liver and skeletal muscle glycogen, of which relative consumption is different: an increase of intensity increases that of the second (muscle) while remain more or less constant in that of the first (liver).
Skeletal muscle glycogen and intese exercises
In fact, skeletal muscle glycogen represents the most important energy reserve for prolonged moderate-high intensity exercise, an importance that increase in the case of high-intensity interval exercise (common in training session undertaken by swimmers runners, rowers or in team-sport players) or in resistance exercise, therefore both endurance and resistance exercises. If for example we consider the marathon about 80% of utilized energy derives from carbohydrate oxidation, for the most part skeletal muscle glycogen.
Finally, the replenishment rate of glycogen stores in post-exercise is one of the most important factors in establishing necessary recovery time.
Muscle glycogen and fatigue
Fatigue and low glycogen levels are closely correlate but it is not clear which mechanisms are at the basis of this relationship; one hypothesis is that there exists a minimum glycogen concentration that is “protected” and is resistant to being used during exercise, perhaps to ensure an energy reserve in case of extreme necessity.
Because of the closely relationship between skeletal muscle glycogen depletion and fatigue, its replenish rate in the post-exercise is one of the most important factors in determining necessary recovery time.
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It is now accepted by athletes, coaches and athletic trainers that proper diet is one of the cornerstones for achieving better athletic performance. Despite this widely spread assumption, many, even at the highest levels, still believe that an high protein intake is fundamental in the athlete’s diet. This opinion is not new and is deeply rooted in the imaginary of many people almost as if, eating meat, even of big and strong animals, we were able to gain their strength and vitality too.
The function of proteins as energy-supplier for working muscle was hypothesized for the first time by von Liebig in ‘800 and it is because of his studies if, even today, animal proteins, and therefore meats, are often believed having great importance in the energy balance in the athlete’s diet, despite nearly two centuries in which biochemistry and sports medicine have made enormous progress.
Really, by the end of ‘800 von Pettenkofer and Voit and, at the beginning of ‘900, Christensen and Hansen retrenched their importance for energy purposes, also for the muscle engaged in sport performance, instead bringing out the prominent role played by carbohydrates and lipids.
Of course we shouldn’t think that proteins are not useful for the athlete or sedentary people. The question we need to answer is how many proteins a competitive athlete, engaged in intense and daily workouts, often two daily sessions (for 3-6 hours), 7/7, for more than 10 months a year, needs per day. We can immediately say that, compared to the general population, and with the exception of some sports, (see below) the recommended amount of protein is greater.
Metabolic fate of proteins at rest and during exercise
In a healthy adult subject engaged in a non-competitive physical activity, the daily protein requirements is about 0.85 g/kg desirable body weight, as shown by WHO.
Proteins turnover in healthy adults, about 3-4 g/kg body weight/day (or 210-280 g for a 70 kg adult), is slower for the muscle than the other tissues and decreasing with age, and is related to the amount of amino acids in the diet and protein catabolism. At rest the anabolic process, especially of synthesis, uses about 75% amino acids while the remaining 25% undergoes oxidative process, that will lead to CO2 and urea release (for the removal of ammonia). During physical activity, as result of the decreased availability of sugars, i.e. muscle glycogen and blood glucose used for energy purposes, as well as the intervention of cortisol, the percentage of amino acids destinated to anabolic processes is reduced while it increases that of amino acids diverted to catabolic processes, that is, it occurs an increase in the destruction of tissue proteins. At the end of physical activity, for about two hours, anabolic processes remain low whereupon it occurs their sharp increase that brings them to values higher than basal ones, so, training induces an increase in protein synthesis even in the absence of an increase in proteins intake.
What determines the daily protein requirements?
There are many factors to be taken into account in the calculation of the daily protein requirements.
The age of the subject (if, for example, he/she is in the age of development).
Gender: female athletes may require higher levels as their energy intake is lower.
An adequate carbohydrate intake reduces their consumption.
During physical activity, glucogenic amino acids may be used as energy source directly in the muscle, after their conversion to glucose in the liver through gluconeogenesis.
An adequate carbohydrate intake before and during prolonged exercise lowers the use of body proteins.
The energy intake of the diet.
A reduced energy intake increases protein requirements; conversely, the higher energy intake, the lower the amount of protein required to achieve nitrogen balance; usually there is a nitrogen retention of 1-2 mg per kcal introduced.
If the athlete is engaged in very hard competition/workouts, or if he requires an increase in muscle masses (e.g. strength sports) nitrogen balance must be positive; a negative balance indicates a loss of muscle mass.
The nitrogen balance is calculated as difference between the nitrogen taken with proteins (equal to: g. proteins/6.25) and the lost one (equal to: urinary urea in 24 hours, in g., x0.56]; in formula:
Nb (nitrogen balance) = (g. protein/6.25) – [urinary urea in 24 hours, in g., x0.56)]
The type of competition/workouts that the athlete is doing, either resistance or endurance, as well as the duration and intensity of the exercise itself.
Resistance training leads to an increase in protein turnover in muscle, stimulating protein synthesis to a greater extent than protein degradation; both processes are influenced by the recovery between a training and the next one as well as by the degree of training (more training less loss).
In the resistance and endurance performances the optimal protein requirements in younger people as for those who train less time are estimated at 1.3 to 1.5 g protein/kg body weight, while in adult athletes who train more time is slightly lower, about 1-1.2 g/Kg of body weight.
In subjects engaged in a hard physical activity, proteins are used not only for plastic purposes, which are incremented, but also for energy purposes being able to satisfy in some cases up to 10-15% of the total energy demand.
Indeed, intense aerobic performances, longer than 60 minutes, obtain about 3-5% of the consumed energy by the oxidation of protein substrates; if we add to this the proteins required for the repair of damaged tissue protein structures, it results a daily protein demand about 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg body weight.
If the effort is intense and longer than 90 minutes (as it may occur in road cycling, running, swimming, or cross-country skiing), also in relation to the amount of available glycogen in muscle and liver (see above), the amount of proteins used for energy purposes can get to satisfy, in the latter stages of a prolonged endurance exercise, 15% of the energy needs of the athlete.
The physical condition.
When needed, the desired weight.
Athletes attempting to lose weight or maintain a low weight may need more proteins.
From the above, protein requirements don’t exceed 1.5 g/kg body weight, also for an adult athlete engaged in intense and protracted workouts, while if you consider the amount of protein used for energy purposes, you do not go over 15% of the daily energy needs.
So, it’s clear that diets which supply higher amounts (sometimes much higher) of proteins aren’t of any use, stimulate the loss of calcium in bones and overload of work liver and kidney. Moreover, excess proteins don’t accumulate but are used to fat synthesis.
How to meet the increased protein requirements of athletes
A diet that provides 12 to 15% of its calories from protein will be quite sufficient to satisfy the needs of almost all of the athletes, also those engaged in exhausting workouts.
In fact, with the exception of some sports whose energy expenditure is low, close to that of sedentary subject (for example: shooting, or artistic and rhythmic gymnastics), athletes need a high amount of calories and, for some sports such as road cycling, swimming or cross-country skiing, it may be double/triple than that of a sedentary subject.
The increase in food intake is accompanied by a parallel increase in protein intake, because only a few foods such as honey, maltodextrin, fructose, sugar and vegetable oils are protein-free, or nearly protein-free.
Calculation of protein requirements of athletes
If you consider an energy demand of 3500 kcal/die, with a protein intake equal to 15% of total daily calories, you have:
3500 x 0.15 = 525 Kcal
As 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, you obtain:
525/4 = 131 g of proteins
Dividing the number found by the highest protein requirements seen above (1.5 g/kg body weight/day), you obtain:
131/1.5 = 87 kg
that is, the energy needs of a 87 kg athlete engaged in intense workouts are satisfied.
Repeating the same calculations for a caloric intake of 5000 , you obtain 187 g of protein; dividing it by 1.5 the result is 125 kg, that is, the energy needs of a 125 kg athlete are satisfied.
These protein intakes can be met by a Mediterranean-type diet, without protein or amino acids supplements.
Giampietro M. L’alimentazione per l’esercizio fisico e lo sport. Il Pensiero Scientifico Editore. Prima edizione 2005
Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. Report of a joint FAO/WHO/UNU expert consultation. 2002 (WHO technical report series ; no. 935) [PDF]
Biochemistry and Nutrition