Protein For Recovery: How Much is Enough?

Published on: 04/14/2023

When it comes to protein for recovery, how much is enough?  Is more always better? 

Hello! I’m Allison, a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. I’m spreading the word on nutrition and exercise, what you need and what you don’t. 

Whether you’re a recreational or a competitive athlete, if you engage in intense exercise, you have higher protein requirements than someone who is sedentary (1). 

During a workout your muscles go through complex metabolic changes that can lead to muscle protein breakdown. Your body uses protein from your diet to repair the damaged tissues.  This is how your muscles get bigger and stronger (2). 

Keep in mind that protein does more than just build and repair muscle tissue. Amino acids are individual parts of protein and they are involved in regulating your (3):

  • Immune system
  • Hormones
  • Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in your body)

Many athletes use supplements like protein powder to get the right amount of protein for recovery. You may be wondering  – Do you need a protein supplement or can you get enough protein through food?

The answer lies in something called “muscle protein synthesis” (or MPS for short). 

MPS is the metabolic process of repairing and building muscle tissue (4). Muscle protein synthesis is the opposite muscle protein breakdown. 

We’re going to discuss how to optimize your MPS and how to get the most bang for your buck with food and training. Let’s get started!

Increasing Muscle Protein Synthesis

Nutrition and exercise are both important factors in optimizing your muscle protein synthesis (5). Combining protein and exercise together improves MPS more than either one alone.

MPS is working hardest in the first 2 hrs following activity. This means that it is important to have a meal or snack with good quality protein (more on this in a bit) during this time frame (5).

I know what you’re thinking – but how much protein do I need? We’re going to look at protein requirements in the next section, but for most athletes, 20-40 grams of protein after a workout is the right amount. 

Keep in mind that more is not always better. Having more than 40 g of protein after exercise does not lead to any more increases in MPS (1) and can be expensive If you’re using protein supplements. 

Your MPS increases when you eat meals spaced every 3-4 hours. This means that eating 3 meals a day and 2-3 snacks that include protein will give you the best increases in MPS (5). 

Although resistance exercise and shorter bursts of aerobic exercise lead to the most increase in MPS after activity, protein is still important for endurance athletes. 

Consuming protein with adequate carbohydrates during extended bouts of activity has been shown to reduce muscle damage and soreness (5)

We’ve established that protein and exercise are both important for increasing strength and growing muscle mass. The real question is how much protein do you need? Let’s take a look!

Protein Requirements: What’s the Right Amount

The amount of protein that is right for your body is different for everyone. There are several factors that affect how much protein your body needs including: 

  • Activity level
  • Total energy intake
  • Body weight
  • Physiological stress (illness)

Protein requirements are typically calculated using your body weight. General guidelines for adults are 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. For someone who weighs 150 lbs that means their requirement would be 55 grams per day.

If you are an athlete (competitive or recreational) your protein needs are higher and range from 1.2 -2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. That means if you are an athlete who weighs 150 lbs, your protein you need 82-136 g protein/day (1,5). 

It’s important to remember that consuming adequate energy (not just protein) for your activity level helps to ensure that the protein you eat will be put to work building muscle and NOT being used as energy to fuel activity (1). 

If you are trying to lose weight by restricting your caloric intake, then eating higher amounts of protein has been shown to help to maintain muscle mass (1).

If you want to read more about the risks of energy restriction and eating disorders in the athletic population, you can read my blog Mindful Eating for Athletes: Is it Possible?

For most people, including 20-40 grams of protein at each of 3 meals/day and 2-3 snacks will ensure your body is getting the right amount. This will also provide enough of the essential amino acids needed for optimal MPS. 

Next we’re going to look at amino acids and how they’re different from protein and why leucine is important. Keep reading to find out!

Leucine and the Other Amino Acids

Amino acids are individual units that make up protein. Some amino acids can be made in your body but there are 9 amino acids that only come from food – these have been named the essential amino acids. 

Muscle protein synthesis will be working best when you consume protein that includes all 9 essential amino acids together. Leucine is one of the essential amino acids that is particularly important in increasing muscle protein synthesis (5). 

A good way to make sure you are getting enough of the essential amino acids (including leucine) is by including complete protein sources when you eat or combining different types of incomplete protein sources.

So what is a complete protein? A complete protein is any protein source that has all of the essential amino acids. Animal sources of protein (like meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs) contain all the essential amino acids while vegetarian sources do not. 

That raises an important question – Is it possible for vegetarian athletes to eat enough protein?

Absolutely! With some planning, vegetarian meals can easily meet your protein requirements and provide all the essential amino acids you need for muscle protein synthesis. Vegetarian meals also have additional benefits including less saturated fat and more fiber (6). 

Let’s dive in and see what foods are good sources of protein and how to get the most out of your vegetarian meals. 

Sources of Protein

Protein can come from animal sources or vegetarian sources. Animal sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids and this is why they are considered “complete” protein. 

Animal sources of protein include:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy such as milk, yogurt and cheese

If you include animal sources of protein with your meals, you only need one type of protein food to provide all the essential amino acids at that meal. 

Most vegetarian sources of protein are not complete proteins with a few exceptions like soy and quinoa (7) (8). 

Vegetarian sources of protein include:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans and legumes
  • Pea milk 
  • Soy (tofu, tempeh, soy milk)
  • Quinoa

A good rule of thumb to follow when vegetarian meal planning, is to combine two or more vegetarian sources of protein together to increase the variety of amino acids.  

What may surprise you is that grain products also provide some protein and can be used to complement vegetarian sources of protein. An example of this is pairing beans and rice.  

Let’s take a look at some examples of meals and snacks that provide 20-40 g protein. 

High protein meal and snacks:

  • 1 cup lentil soup with 1 piece naan bread
    • 18 g protein
  • Greek yogurt (¾ cup), fruit and ¼ cup nuts or seeds
    • 15 g protein
    • Add 1 tbsp whey protein: 25g protein
  • 1 cup quinoa salad with ½ cup marinated tofu and ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
    • 25 g protein 
  • Sandwich with 3 oz chicken, tuna or meat and 1 oz cheese
    • 32 g protein
  • Smoothie made with 8 oz milk, soy milk or pea milk, fruit and 2 tbsp of peanut butter
    • 16 g protein
    • Add ¾ cup greek yogurt: 24 g protein
    • Add 1 scoop protein powder 36-46 g protein
  • 11 Pretzel chips with 3 tbsp natural peanut butter and a latte made with dairy, soy or pea milk
    • 23 g protein
  • 1 egg sandwich on english muffin with 1 oz cheese and a  latte (made with 8 oz milk)
    •  24 g protein

It is possible to eat enough protein from food, but using a protein supplement can also be a quick and easy option to reach your daily protein goals. 

That’s a wrap on our discussion about protein for recovery. Let’s do a quick recap of the key points!

Key Takeaways

Protein is an essential nutrient to repair muscle tissue. 

Both protein and exercise influence your body’s muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of building new muscle tissue. There are several thing you can do to maximize your muscle protein synthesis:

  • Eat a meal or snack containing good quality protein within 2 hours of finishing your training
  • Eat every 3-4 hours throughout the day
  • Include a complete source of protein (with all the essential amino acids) at each meal and snack
  • Consider a protein supplement if you are unable to get the protein you need from food

Wondering if you’re getting enough protein? Contact me here and we can book a discovery call. I offer personalized diet assessments and recommendations for getting the most out of your training. 


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Welcome to my blog! I’m combining my love of writing with my love of food to bring you evidenced based information on sports nutrition and mental health – specifically ADHD.

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