The amount of protein that an athlete needs is a hotly debated topic. Some people's recommendations vary from as little as 15-20% of total calories consumed to as much as 2.2-3.3g/kg of body weight (1). The NSCA, on the other hand, recommends a more moderate 1.5-2.0g/kg of body weight. With such a range between these recommendations, it is clear that protein consumption is not an exact science, but taking into account a few variables athletes can narrow down how much protein they should be consuming on a daily basis.
The first and most important variable in protein consumption is an athlete’s weight. A 300 pound offensive linemen’s protein needs will be vastly different than a 180 pound defensive back. For this reason, an athlete should not base their protein consumption on a generic number each day. A better option is to use a percentage of total calories consumed or a fraction of the athlete’s body weight. Doing this will give the athlete the amount of protein they need for their body, opposed to a generic number for everyone on the team.
Athletes that are more active require more calories and thus more protein. Two athletes can weigh the same, but if one athlete trains 3 hours a week and the other 10 hours a week, they will require different amounts of protein to recover and repair their body. Also, athletes that do primary resistance training in the off-season will need extra protein to allow their muscles to repair and become stronger (1). Because of this, protein consumption based solely on body weight may result in an athlete consuming less than optimal levels of protein.
The last thing to consider is the quality of protein being consumed. The two primary measures of protein quality are biological value (BV) and protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). Both of these score protein based on how well the body can absorb and use the protein in the food being consumed. Foods that score high on both of these charts are things such as eggs, dairy, and meat. On the other hand, plant-based protein sources such as wheat or rice tend to be lower on these scales. If you consume primary protein from the high of these scales, you may not need as much protein a day as someone that gets much of their protein from plant-based sources.
How Much Protein Should an Athlete Eat
Using the NSCA’s recommendation, it is advised to consume 1.5-2.0g of protein per kg of body weight. Athletes that are very active should aim for the higher end of that range. Also, athletes that consume mainly lower quality protein should be on the upper end of this range as well.
One more point to take into account is how you feel and perform. Athletes that are consuming insufficient amounts of protein will often feel sluggish, lose strength, and not be able to recover from a training session as fast as they should. If you feel any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to increase the amount of protein you are consuming each day.
1. Baechle, T. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed., p. 208). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.