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Protein for Building Muscle and Exercise Recovery


One of the most common sports nutrition questions I get asked is, “How much protein do I need to eat?” So, without further ado…Let’s Waste No Time and Get to the Numbers!

Protein Requirements for Athletes

Protein Needs for Sedentary and Non-Exercisers

At a bare minimum, the body needs 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (0.4 g/lb/day). This means, if you weigh 150 pounds, you will need at least 60 grams of protein daily. If you are a physically active person, this amount doesn’t come close to meeting your protein needs! Vast research shows individuals engaged in regular exercise training require more dietary protein than sedentary individuals.

Protein Needs for Athletes and Physically Active Individuals

For athletes and physically active individuals, your protein recommendation ranges from 0.7 – 0.9 g/lb/day. This means, if you weigh 150 pounds, you will need at least 105-135 grams of protein daily. This amount is not only safe but may improve the body’s ability to adapt to exercise training. Protein helps repair and rebuild muscle after exercise. Pinpointing the amount of protein depends on many things such as the type of exercise, gender, and a person’s amount of lean body mass.

I feel it is important for clients to know which foods contain protein and understand some basic numbers, such as one egg is 7 grams of protein. I teach my clients this info if they don’t already know it. I do not have my clients count grams of protein all day. In a way, I do that for them via their photo journal. I recommend eating within about thirty minutes after waking up and eating 20-25 grams of protein. I help clients understand easy ways to consume 20-25 grams of protein. For all other meals, clients do not need to bother counting grams, but I encourage protein intake at each meal about the size of a deck of cards. Can be bigger, but not smaller.

Protein from Plant-based sources vs. Animal sources

Protein is made of amino acids. There are 20 of them, nine of which are called essential because your body cannot produce them and must get them from your diet. If a food contains all nine essential amino acids, it is considered a complete protein, and all animal proteins are a complete protein {ie: meat, eggs, dairy}. Only some plant foods contain all nine essential amino acids {ie: chia seeds, hemp seeds, and buckwheat}.

Most plant foods contain only some essential amino acids {ie: nuts, tofu, chickpeas}. The old school thought about plant protein was you had to combine various proteins at one meal to achieve the benefits of a complete protein. Now research shows you can simply enjoy a variety of plant proteins spread over the course of a day and the body is able to still form complete proteins it can utilize.

Supplemental Protein Powder

While it is possible for physically active people to eat their daily protein requirements through a healthy diet, supplemental protein in various forms is a practical, convenient way of ensuring adequate and quality protein intake for athletes.

Different types and quality of protein can affect amino acid availability following protein supplementation. The superiority of one protein type over another in terms of optimizing recovery and/or training adaptations remains to be completely proven; however, whey and casein protein are a reliable protein form and easier to get the BCAAs compared to protein from soy, hemp, rice, and pea).

In an ideal world, I recommend using organic whey or casein protein, and even better if it comes from grass-fed cows.

Protein at Breakfast

Whether you exercise or not, it’s a must to eat a high-protein breakfast. Myself, and research, recommend 20-25 grams to start your day. It’s ok if breakfast looks like lunch or dinner as far as including chicken and meat.

Protein is crucial for stabilizing blood sugar levels first thing in the morning and providing sustained mid-morning energy. A higher protein breakfast is associated with reduced hunger later in the day because it decreases the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin. Adequate protein in the morning, compared with skipping breakfast, also increases the satiety hormone PYY, and often reduces cravings later in the day – particularly of high-fat foods.

Protein Timing is Critical

Timing is critical! Appropriately timed protein intake is essential for proper recovery, immune function, and the growth and maintenance of lean body mass.


Leading up to exercise, consumption of a carb + protein supplement may result in peak levels of protein synthesis. Glutathione is an amino acid that is of particular importance for reducing muscle breakdown during exercise.


For post-exercise nutrition, your optimal recovery window is within the first one hour following exercise, and both carbs and protein are important. The carbs are converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles to replenish what was lost. The protein helps move the glycogen into the muscle at a faster rate. This process is especially important if you have a shortened window of time between workouts, such as with “double days” or a PM workout and an AM workout the next day. If you’ve ever “bonked” or “hit a wall” during a workout, it’s because you ran out of glycogen. You either didn’t replenish enough after your last workout or you didn’t eat enough calories or carbs in your day.

If you are interested in weight loss, post-exercise recovery is not the time to skimp on calories.

Post-Exercise Carb and Protein Recommendations

Here are the exact number if you’re interested in calculating optimal post-exercise carb and protein recommendations:

Optimal dosage of carbohydrate post-exercise: (8 - 10g carb/kg/day). Has been shown to stimulate muscle glycogen re-synthesis.

Add protein (0.2g - 0.5g protein/kg/day) to those carbohydrates post-exercise to further enhance glycogen re-synthesis.

*to convert pounds to kilograms (kg), take your body weight in pounds divided by 2.2, and that is your weight in kg.

Exercise and Branched Chain Amino Acids

Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are specific amino acids called branched-chain amino acids (BCAA's), and here are three benefits for exercise.

First, they promote muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of making muscle. Consuming BCAA’s after a workout, including a resistance workout, will increase muscle protein synthesis.

Second, BCAA’s may decrease muscle soreness after a workout. This soreness is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which develops 12 to 24 hours after exercise and can last up to 72 hours. The exact cause of DOMS is not clearly understood but is thought to be the result of tiny tears in the muscles after exercise. BCAA’s have been shown to decrease muscle damage, which may help with the length and severity of DOMS. Supplementing with BCAAs, especially before exercise, may speed up recovery time.

Third, BCAA’s may help reduce exercise-induced fatigue. How quickly you tire out depends on several factors, but your muscles use BCAAs during exercise, and when blood levels decline, this impacts the serotonin levels in your brain, which contributes to the development of fatigue during exercise

The best food sources for BCAAs include beef, chicken breast, whey protein powder, salmon, turkey breast, eggs, and parmesan cheese.

Protein and Injury or Illness

Being injured or sick increases your protein needs. If possible, eat more protein during these times. When sick, chicken broth is a good alternative if you can’t stomach whole food. Another option is mixing collagen powder into water and sipping that. Normally collagen powder is flavorless.

Protein and Aging

As people age, they need less food and often eat less protein. Inadequate protein can lead to loss of muscle and strength. The weakest one-third of older people are likely to die sooner than the strongest one-third. Make sure you, your parents, and your grandparents stay active!!! If you can convince the older population to include strength training exercises on a consistent basis, even with light hand weights, this will provide so much benefit for aging more gracefully.

Summary: Consuming enough protein is critical for exercise performance, muscle building and recovery, recovering from illness and injury, and healthy aging. If you follow a vegan diet, be very discerning about how much protein you’re getting to ensure you eat enough to promote proper recovery.

If you're interested in changing your life and improving your nutrition and health, let's set up a free strategy call.

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist


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