Do you need protein shakes to improve performance?

Protein is truly awesome; it forms the foundation of strong muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, can turbo charge our immune system, and accelerates recovery from hard training sessions. Protein is found in meat, dairy products, eggs, and many nuts and seeds. Just like sleep, nutrition is a huge part of the equation when it comes to improving performance.

One of the most commonly asked questions we get in the gym from teenage athletes (and their parents), is “should I take protein supplements?”

Like nearly all health and fitness questions; it depends!

Supplements are exactly that, they should be a supplemental part of a healthy diet. If for whatever reason you struggle to eat enough protein otherwise, protein shakes are convenient and (can be) nutritious. I'm not sure that I'd recommend hitting the beach with a 6-pack of shakes like these guys though!

There is endless information in the media about food and diets, and often it is confusing or contradictory, so it's no surprise to find parents and athletes without a clear plan for their nutrition. It also doesn’t help that a lot of teenagers think two-minute noodles or cheese toasties qualify as a nutritious snack (hint: they don’t!) Even the majority of food in school canteens is pretty poor for nutrient density. Picked up a burger or some dim-sim in your quest for a meaty snack? Unfortunately those tend to contain a hell of a lot of fillers and sodium content rather than usable nutrients. Vegetarians and vegans are even more limited in sources of protein rich foods, so if you fall into those groups you need to be more diligent to get the nutrition you need.

At Core Advantage we prefer an unflavoured whey protein isolate or concentrate that is 80% or higher protein by weight. The reason we prefer unflavoured is because there are no mystery flavouring chemicals and no added sugar. There are some small differences between isolate (faster digested, more refined, less lactose) and concentrate (less protein by weight, cheaper, slower digesting). For general use, versatility, and price whey protein concentrate (WPC) is our pick. We like for great value Australian produced and packaged 100% WPC/WPI, with none of the “marketing surcharge” or scary flavouring additives of the supermarket sold protein powders. They also sell some non-dairy protein for the vegans out there.  

We also recommend blending your own flavour combinations with fresh fruit, veg, seeds, milk or water, and other whole foods. Here is my go-to quick shake recipe that I use on days when we are flat chat writing new programs or running the internship:

Before rushing out and buying a bunch of protein powder, you must first consider your diet as a whole and assess your current protein intake. Starting a new diet (and new supplements) before you actually have an idea of what you currently eat and where your diet might fall short will just cost money and time, and might not actually help.  

How much protein do you consume?

Athletes should ideally be consuming between 0.8-1.5g of protein for every kg of body weight per day. An easy rule of thumb is to turn your body weight (in kilograms) into grams. This is your daily protein ballpark. (To check, keep an honest food diary for a week or so and average out the daily intake, this can be easily done using a free calorie counting app such as My Fitness Pal).  

What is the QUALITY your protein?

Like I said before, there might be “protein” in dim-sim - but it’s covered in deep fried coating, and is full of who-knows-what fillers, preservatives, and artificial flavours. Aim for natural whole food sources straight from the animal or plant. The less added or stripped away the better. These foods give us lots of complete proteins, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, all the good stuff necessary for recovering and performing.  

How often do you eat protein?

Regular small servings trump big doses, as they give our bodies a steady stream of amino acids, helping us to avoid a catabolic state (a scientific term for muscles wasting away). Getting 20-30g of protein every 3-4 hours is the best strategy. Be aware that you need to eat around 100g of chicken, beef to get 20-30g of protein. Eggs and nuts contain a little less.  

What about after training?

A 20-30g serving of fast digesting protein immediately following a training session is what we recommend. Durham wrote about the awesome "Gator-shake" in his article about tournament performance.  Just make sure that you are getting adequate protein from the rest of your diet before stressing about hitting this post-workout window.

By training hard, eating right, and taking care of your body most people should make good progress, recover properly, and perform at a high level without any dietary supplementation. So the truth of the matter is that protein supplements are a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have.

If after assessing and improving your personal eating habits you find that you are still struggling to get adequate protein, then a scoop or two of a good quality protein each day in a shake (or on top of porridge) might just be a great idea as a convenient, cost effective way of increasing performance, accelerating recovery and increasing lean muscle mass.

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And finally, what protein powder is best?

Most of the brands are very similar (despite the range of claims they make on the packages). We recommend avoiding the mass gainers as these are high in maltodextrin (a simple carbohydrate).

WPI is the best for post workout (fastest digesting), but soy, pea, and WPC all work fine. Hemp powder is less ideal post workout but might be a good snack or meal on the go, while casein is perfect for pre-bed as it is super slow digesting.

You shouldn’t have to spend any more than $50 a kg for WPI and $40 for WPC (buying 3-4kg at a time will bring the price down heaps)

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Table 1: nutritonal information for different protein types. These numbers are averages per 100g (bracketed numbers are grams per 30g scoop/serve). Check the nutrional label for specfic details before buying.