Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Is Protein Everything It's Hyped Up To Be?

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With a mantra of moderation, common sense and experience as a dietitian firing the way to optimal exercise performance, sometimes, even my own runs go wrong.

Make me drink a protein shake and you’ll soon see me shooting daggers your way, wondering why on earth you trade your carbs for protein.  If you love working out, but also want to stay slim, then why miss the fundamental rules and fill up on expensive and often unnecessary protein from this supposed magical potion – the ‘protein shake’? 

As a nation, we already eat protein in excess.  This is true even if you enjoy lifting heavy weights and exercise daily.  For the average gym bunny, you don’t need it.  You really don’t need the additional protein drinks to your already ‘protein hyped’ diet.  You really don’t.

Similarly, strength athletes requiring higher protein intakes up to 1.2-1.7g/kg can usually meet these requirements effortlessly through diet alone and without the use of protein supplements.  It’s usually the energy intake from carbohydrates that you might be slipping up on. 

Golden Carbs
You could keep pumping in the protein, but without the essential carbohydrate intake, your exercise performance could be compromised.  

Carbohydrate foods are what your body require to fuel your performance and facilitate the muscle building process.  It is also essential to get the energy balance right, to ensure that proteins are spared for protein synthesis and not in meeting your energy requirements.

I have been running since I was 16 years old.  It’s a ritual.  I do feel the stress and frustrations building up inside me if I don’t thrash it out over a 50 minute run.  Yet yesterday morning, I headed out without breakfast.  Very unusual behaviour I can assure you!  In my defence, I felt quite grotty after a rather large meal the previous night and could only manage a hefty mug of tea to pass my lips.

It was nearly time for lunch and grey clouds threatened to halt my promised run, so I quickly sculled a small glass of banana smoothie and out that door I went.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that I had headaches and a stomach cramp.  I was dehydrated and had limited nutrition in the way of carbohydrates backing me up for the 9K run.  

I was unable to enjoy myself and instead of hitting that euphoric feeling, I was spiralling downwards and dying to complete the run.  Shame on me! 

What To Eat Before Exercise
Prior to exercise, a meal or snack consisting of carbohydrates and some protein (the word some being key here) should be consumed.  It’s best to stick to familiar foods to avoid abdominal discomfort.  

Ensure that you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration during and post your exercise session.

What Went Wrong For Me?  
I didn’t eat breakfast and my snack was consumed literally 10 minutes before I rushed out the door.  My usual porridge would have been the perfect choice.  It’s a low to medium GI carb meal.  

Oats provide the slow releasing carbs and protein is found in milk.  When eaten at least 3 hours before a scheduled exercise session this would have been perfect timing for maximal abdominal tolerance and blood glucose profiling during exercise.

What and When To Eat Before Exercise
To improve performance, eat a small snack an hour prior to your run or exercise session. My fruit smoothie would have been ideal, except that I needed to have enjoyed it at least an hour before my run to reap the benefits of optimal blood sugar levels.  Let’s not forget the risk of abdominal cramps when eating too close prior to a workout!  

Most importantly, I needed to drink up and the less than 250ml cup of tea didn’t quite cut it.  If you exercise after work, a banana or a slice of fruit bread and water will do the trick.

Breaking news..
So instead of the protein shake, reach for a fruit smoothie whereby banana blended with yoghurt or milk can be the winning combination for that spot on ratio of fluids, carbs and protein.  Just make sure that you drink it at least an hour before your scheduled exercise session.  A glass of chocolate milkshake will do quite nicely too.  You can even add a spoonful of skimmed milk powder to manipulate the protein content if required.  And remember, you need your golden carbs.

Carbohydrates are found in bread, pasta, potato, fruit and some vegetables.