The Power of Protein…
There is no other nutrient that has captured the imagination of athletes more than protein. Recent interest in the virtues of protein for both fat loss & muscle gain has ensured rugby athletes have taken a keener interest in their protein intake. This heightened interest has also stimulated a flourishing protein supplement industry which has been very cleverly marketed. Given this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that protein & amino acid supplements remain some of the most popular dietary supplements among rugby athletes.
Protein needs of rugby athletes… Is supplementation warranted?
There is now little doubt that hard training rugby athletes have higher protein needs than their sedentary counterparts, perhaps 50‐100% greater than dietary guidelines advocated for the general public. To the ill‐informed, this may be justification enough to support the use of protein & amino acid supplements. However, because athletes generally have a generous appetite & protein is so widely distributed in the meal plan, most rugby athletes easily achieve their elevated daily protein intake targets.
Generic dietary guidelines are unlikely to offer insight into optimisation of dietary protein intake to support functions pertinent to hard training rugby athletes including repair of muscle damage & stimulation of muscle building. Rather, consideration should be given to the nutritional value of the protein & its distribution throughout the day if these functions are to be optimised.
Protein quality & timing
The nutritional value of proteins varies markedly depending on their amino acid profile & digestibility. Animal sourced proteins such as that from dairy foods, eggs & most meats are considered high biological value (HBV); that is, they contain large amounts of essential amino acids in a form that is readily digested. Amongst plant based foods, isolated soy protein is also considered to be of high value, so long as its anti‐nutritional factors are removed. While there are a large number of amino acids derived from the foods we eat, it is only the essential amino acids (ones our body cannot make itself & thus must come from the diet) that are required to facilitate many of the functions important to rugby athletes.
The individual amino acids produced during the metabolism of dietary proteins serve as both a substrate for building other dietary proteins as well as a trigger for activating various metabolic processes. Amongst athletes interested in muscle building, amino acids, & specifically leucine, play a critical role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. The leucine content of foods varies markedly but some foods are naturally high in leucine, including milk & meat proteins. Financial support of the diary industry has facilitated significant research into the value of diary proteins. Dairy protein is compromised mainly of casein (80%), with smaller amounts of whey (20%). It is the whey protein which is particularly high in leucine. Not only is whey high in leucine but it’s also digested at a much faster rate than casein, ensuring blood leucine levels peak soon after ingestion, turning on the protein synthetic machinery responsible for building muscle. Recent research suggests that the combination of a HBV protein rich in leucine that is rapidly digested results in more favourable muscle building compared to other proteins.
Amongst HBV protein‐rich foods like meats & dairy, an individual protein serve of ~20‐25g has been shown to maximally stimulate protein building, with amounts in excess merely stimulating protein oxidation & thus offering no further benefit. Strategic selection of specific foods or combinations of different foods at meals & snacks throughout the day will not only result in optimisation of protein intake but also contribute to achieving other essential nutrient needs. For example, each of the following selections provides 20‐30g of high quality protein without the need for special dietary supplements…
Breakfast – Whenever you get up
3 egg omelette · Bowl of cereal with 250 ml of milk plus a tub of yoghurt ·
Fruit smoothie with 250 ml low fat milk, fruit, honey & 30g skim milk powder
Snack – 10am
White bread sandwich, protein bars, fruits,Small tin of tuna on crackers with 1-2 slices cheese
Lunch · 12 midday
60 g ham with 2 slices of cheese on sandwiches with salad
Snack – pre training 3 to 4pm
White bread sandwich, protein bars, fruits. 2 tubs of flavoured yoghurt
Dinner · 6pm
120 g piece (raw) of fat trimmed beef, skinless chicken or seafood
Snack · 10pm
High Protein Smoothie.
Recent research suggests there may be advantages to the inclusion of these HBV proteins in the acute post‐exercise period when the body has a heightened sensitivity to dietary protein. While less is known about optimisation of protein intake outside of the immediate post‐exercise period (upwards of 3 hours after exercise), it makes good sense to include a small serve of protein rich food at all meals & snacks throughout the day, as described in the examplesabove.
How do We Cook…
PAN‐FRYING OR GRILLING STEAK, LAMB/PORK CHOPS, CHICKEN BREAST
- Preheat the cooking surface such as a frying pan or grill to a high heat. Trim all visible fat; if cooking chicken breast remove the skin
- Place the meat or chicken in the pan or under the grill (without oil) – you should hear a loud sizzle. If the cooking surface is not hot enough the meat or chicken will not stick. When it is sealed, it will easily lift from the cooking surface. If juices start to run from the meat, then you know the pan wasn’t hot enough
- Cook meat or chicken without touching or turning until the juices rise to the surface of the cooked side
- Turn meat or chicken & cook 1‐2 minutes until cooked to your liking
Test steak to see if it is cooked to your liking by pressing it with a pair of tongs, but do not cut the meat, as this causes the juice to escape. Rare steaks feel springy, well‐done steaks feel firm.
2.5cm thick steak… 3 mins each side cooked to rare 4 mins cooked to medium 5 mins well done
STIR‐FRYING BEEF, LAMB, PORK OR CHICKEN
- Slice meat or chicken across the grain. Slicing in this way ensures that the cooked meat is tender
- Heat a wok or frying pan over a high meat for at least 4 minutes or until the pan is very hot
- Spray pan with cooking oil spray
- Add meat or chicken & stir‐fry (Stir quickly with a heat proof spatula) until brown on all sides 5. Do not cook the meat through at this point as you will probably add other ingredients to the pan & continue to cook the stir fry
When purchasing meat choose lean cuts· Cut off any excess fat before cooking· Remove chicken skin from chicken before cooking ·
Non‐stick cookware is a way to reduce the use of fat when cooking, no oil or just a light spray with a cooking oil spray is all that is needed.