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Should You Supplement Protein as a Combat Athlete?

Don’t we all like to watch ‘what I eat in a day’ clips of our favorite athletes on YouTube? Or is it just me? Well, anyway, it’s more likely than not that, somewhere in those short clips, the athlete will chug one or multiple protein drinks. With professional fighters, this is no different.

If you are interested to see some of my favorites, here they are:

Next to those clips, we can find many more articles online on fighters’ diets. Almost all of them include a protein drink somewhere in the day, here you can find some more examples:

Supplementing proteins in the form of protein shakes seems to be a staple in the diet of most of the top fighters. These are professional athletes that work with high-level professional nutritionists. Hence, it seems logical that these protein drinks have to be beneficial, or even necessary for professional athletes from combat sports to perform at the maximum of their ability.

How much protein do we need?

When you ask people why they drink protein shakes, they will most likely answer something along the line of ‘to build muscle’. Proteins are indeed necessary to grow and maintain cells and tissue in the body, this includes muscle mass.

However, humans have always gotten the necessary proteins from whole foods. Why should we now have to supplement them?

First, let’s have a look at how much protein humans need. This amount differs, depending on who you ask. According to the US National Institute of Health, about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram is recommended for the average human. So, a person weighing 75 kilograms, like me, would need to eat 60 grams of protein a day? What do 60 grams of protein look like? How much would you have to eat to achieve this amount?

Using the App MyFitnessPal I tracked how much protein I ate yesterday, which was a pretty standard day for me:

As you can see, I ate 90 grams of protein, way more than the recommended 60 grams of protein. I guess I won’t have to start supplementing protein any time soon.

But obviously, I’m nowhere near being an athlete, let alone a world-class fighter. Fighters, who train multiple times a day all year round, will have other requirements than me. They have a weekly routine that involves grappling, striking, wrestling, and strength & conditioning, all of which are strenuous on the muscles, joints, and tissues. The training breaks down the muscle after which extra protein is needed to repair. On top of that, they have a higher muscle-to-body ratio than the average human being. Having more muscle mass to maintain also means a higher need for protein.

Phil Daru is a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with the best of the best in the world of MMA. Notable athletes he has trained include Dustin Poirier, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Colby Covington, among others. Although Phil Daru is not a specialized nutritionist, he’s very knowledgeable on the topic. In an interview, he advised MMA athletes to consume anywhere between 1.76 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. The British Judo Centre of Excellence advises athletes a daily intake of protein between 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram. So, there is quite a variation in the recommended protein intake for combat athletes. However, we can conclude that the recommendation is way higher for them than it is for the average sedentary person.

For convenience, let’s use the average of the recommendations of Phil Daru and the British Judo Centre of Excellence as the recommended amount of protein for all professional fighters. This comes down to a recommendation of 1.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.

That is more than double the amount recommended for the average sedentary adult. Applying this to me at 75 kg, I would need to consume 129 grams of protein. With my current diet, although I have protein-rich foods with every meal, I would not arrive at that amount. I should have to increase my protein intake by 30% to get there.

Necessary to supplement ?

Now, it’s clear to us that a professional fighter has to consume way more protein than the average person. Furthermore, we saw that, even when a person already eats a protein-rich diet, it’s not easy to reach the required amount of protein.

However, we should also take into account that when training as a professional athlete, your appetite would obviously be bigger and so you would eat more and consume more protein. Maybe the increased caloric intake combined with a few tweaks in the diet, by adding some protein-rich snacks here and there, is enough to reach the required amount of protein.

If you take my example, I’m 39 grams of protein short of reaching the required amount. That would require the equivalent of eating 8 extra whole eggs to reach the goal. I’m not sure I would be able to do this every day, it would be a lot easier to drink one tasty protein shake a day. Hence, I can see how drinking protein drinks could help professional fighters to reach the daily required amount of protein.

When to eat protein

Timing of protein intake could be another reason to drink protein shakes. Let’s say that, like many athletes, you would like to ingest some proteins into your system right after a workout. I can assure you that after a hard grappling, wrestling, or striking session, you don’t feel like eating some eggs or chicken breast. What you will be able to get in your stomach, is a liquid protein drink. On top of that, it’s way easier to bring a protein shake in your gym bag as it is to first prepare your food in advance, wrap it up, and warm it in the gym after practice. If you are always on the go, protein shakes can be a game-changer.

But how important is it really to time your protein intake? On this, there are many different opinions. I’ll go over them below:

  • By far the most popular opinion is that you should consume protein within one hour after training to recover, maintain, and build muscle. That’s why many athletes and nutritionists call the 60 minutes after a workout, the ‘anabolic window’. During this window, the effect of protein consumption will be the highest. This opinion seems to be confirmed by some studies.

  • Others argue that it does not matter when during the day you consume protein. As long as your daily protein intake is high enough, you can choose to have them in the morning, before training, after training, or right before bed. This claim is supported by research as well.

  • And lastly, there is a group that says you should consume your proteins before you work out. George Lockhart, the nutritionist of Connor Mcgregor is one of them. He says that eating protein before a workout releases the hormone glucagon, which makes the body burn stored fat and carbohydrates for energy. As a result, the athlete will be able to go harder in the training session. After the workout, it’s more important to consume carbs than it is to consume protein, he argues.

Bottom Line

Supplementing protein through protein shakes is not necessary for a professional fighter. However, it can make his/her life a lot easier. Protein shakes are a great way to have a lot of protein in your system without having to spend a lot of time cooking and eating. Furthermore, using protein shakes will make it a lot easier to consume protein in a certain time period.

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