Supercharge your Exercise with Protein

Increase your protein intake to enhance your exercise and support your muscle health.


By Sarah Romotsky, R.D.


Whether you are spending time in spin classes or going on daily walks, you know that getting physical activity is important for your overall health. But did you know that you can “pump” up your exercise performance and results with the proper nutrition? While all nutrients play a role in improving health, dietary protein offers some awesome health benefits specific to exercise. 

Protein and Your Muscles 

Protein is made up of amino acids which can either be produced by the body or obtained through food. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids to be used for various purposes in the body. One of these purposes is to support muscle health by either helping to gain lean muscle mass by building new muscle or muscle repair after activity. 

Who Needs More Protein? 

Research largely supports the idea that active individuals require more protein than inactive adults. However, these needs vary based on age, weight, type/duration of activity, weight loss/gain goals, training status, and type of protein consumed. The following groups often require a higher protein intake: 

  • Older individuals 
  • Strength athletes 
  • Weight loss goals 
  • Low body fat percentage 
  • Vegetarians/vegans 

According to research, endurance athletes (cyclists, distance runners, triathletes, etc.) should consume roughly 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. It is recommended, that strength and power athletes (weight lifters, power lifters) consume 0.5 to 0.8 g/lb. Those who spend most of their gym time lifting weights are classified as a strength athlete. 

If you are a highly active individual with weight loss goals, research suggests that you can consume as much as 0.9 g/lb. For a 150 lb active adult trying to lose weight, that’s 135 grams of protein. 

Pump Up Your Protein Intake 

While pre- and post-exercise protein intake is important, remember to spread your protein intake throughout the day to optimize muscle health. Ideally, each meal should contain about 30 grams of protein with 15 gram snacks as needed. If you struggle eating enough protein at breakfast, try some of these options to boost your intake: 

  • Egg and cheese breakfast burrito 
  • Greek yogurt with pumpkin or sunflower seeds 
  • Commercial protein bar or shake (>20g protein) if on the go. Experiment with protein powder (try a soy protein powder) by adding ½ scoop to milk, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt. 

Pre- and post-exercise nutrition is dependent upon the type of exercise (strength/endurance), duration of activity, and personal preferences, of course! If you’ve eaten a meal 2-3 hours before exercise, you probably do not need a pre-workout snack. However, if you are feeling hungry, combine protein and carbohydrate sources for a snack. 

Try some of these snacks about 30 minutes prior to exercise: 

  • Yogurt and fruit 
  • Oatmeal with fruit and nuts 
  • Toast with banana and 1 Tbsp nut butter 
  • Protein smoothie (1/2 scoop protein powder, 1 cup coffee, ½ banana) 

As for post-workout, some people prefer to consume a full meal. If this sounds like you, pair a lean protein with veggies and a whole grain. Enjoy one of these protein packed post-workout meals: 

  • BBQ chicken on a whole grain roll with a side salad 
  • Bean and veggie quesadilla 
  • Tuna salad wrap (use canned or pouched tuna) 
  • Beef chili stuffed sweet potato 
  • Protein smoothie (1 scoop chocolate protein powder, 2 handfuls spinach, ½ banana, 1 cup soy milk, 1 thumb-sized dab of nut butter) 

The most important thing to remember is that your protein intake should be distributed throughout the day with meals and snacks to make sure you are meeting your protein needs. Additionally, when increasing protein intake, it may be important to make sure that you are increasing water intake, especially if you have a kidney disorder. 

Studies have shown that increased protein intake affects kidney filtration rates in patients with chronic kidney disorders. However, it is important to note that these effects are not seen in patients with normal kidney function and that the kidneys are able to properly process the increased protein intake. Keeping these findings in mind, there are a variety of protein foods that can help enhance your exercise and get you across the finish line. Ready, set, GO! 

For additional information on protein and exercise, check out the IFIC Foundation course, “Putting the PRO on the Plate: Protein Consumption for Active Adults,” which was approved by the American Council on Exercise and National Academy of Sports Medicine for continuing education. 

Additional resources: 

Top Protein Myths for Gym-Goers Exposed 

Putting Protein on Your Plate: An Infographic Guide 

Sarah Romotsky, RD, is the Director of Health & Wellness at the International Food Information Council. Sarah leads the development and implementation of strategic communication initiatives on science-based health and wellness topics. A native of Southern California, Sarah received a BA in Mass Communications from UC Berkeley and later completed the Dietetic Program at SF State University.

Second Photo Credit: Ramon Espelt Photography/; Third Photo Credit: CaseyMartin/ and Fourth Photo Credit: Vladislav Nosick/

Jun 20, 2015

Just use lots of pre-workout! Lol

Jul 2, 2015

Great article and discussion of requirements for different kinds of "athletes"