Demystifying Protein For Athletes

By: ray.perry : December 09, 2013

It takes a village to get 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Jeremy Jones up and down a mountain. He spends months, if not years, studying maps and tracking weather patterns. He recruits snowboarding partners and avalanche experts. Don't forget the packs upon packs of rescue gear, as well as the film crews to capture it all.

But there's one thing that could throw the whole effort off-kilter.

"Nutrition makes or breaks what I do in the mountains," the legendary backcountry snowboarder says. "It's common for it to take 8 to 12 hours to get on top of a line, so having the energy to snowboard down at a really high level is key."

While superhuman feats of strength, endurance and fearlessness make for sexy sports headlines, nutrition is behind the scenes doing much of the heavy lifting. As godfather of American fitness Jack LaLanne once quipped, "Exercise is king, nutrition is queen, put them together and you've got a kingdom."

Athletics, whether you're riding an avalanche-prone peak in Alaska or following along to a yoga DVD in your living room, don't build strength. Just the opposite: They break it down. It's the fuel you get during the rest period afterward – in the form of protein-rich foods like eggs, chicken and pistachios – that rebuilds your muscles and prepares your body for the next round.

And if you ask University of Southern California nutritionist Becci Twombley, she'd turn LaLanne's legendary advice right on its head.

"I definitely think that nutrition is more important than strength," Twombley says. "You can still compete if you're weak and recovered, but if you're strong and overtrained, you're done."

Twombley plans the meals for more than 700 athletes at USC, including its storied football team. To help the players prep for a game, she's helped pioneer a holistic approach called "Recovery 30." Essentially, the recovery starts before the game even begins.

On Friday evening, a group of 30 players – 11 starters on both sides of the ball and the next eight guys who get the most snaps – get a 20-minute massage and a serving of cherry juice with whey protein.

"The purpose of that is to get their cells and their muscles as recovered as possible from the week of practice," she says. "Before bed, they'll also get a snack bag that has pistachios and a power drink. That way, they're healing overnight and wake up as fresh as possible."

Pre-game, the players eat a meal with a heavier load of carbs. Rice, pasta, potatoes and yogurt are the focus, but an omelet bar and two kinds of chicken offer a healthy dose of protein, as well.

"They need to load their glycogen storage, their muscle energy, and the carbs take care of that," Twombley says. "The protein in that meal is to slow the digestion of carbohydrates so they're not starving two hours later."

Post-game, the focus is back on protein and recovery. Injuries and slower-than-expected recovery times are red flags that the players aren't getting enough protein.

"They're always hungry if they're not getting enough," she says. "Even if we give them enough carbs to meet their energy demands, they'd burn right through them. They also couldn't recover well, so their fatigue level would be overwhelming."

Twombley recommends that athletes get at least 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. (To convert your bodyweight from pounds to kilograms, divide by 2.2.) One of her go-to protein sources is pistachios. An ounce of pistachios has 6 grams of protein, nearly as much as an ounce of meat or one egg.

"When you compare them, they're fairly similar," she says. "The difference is you're going to get a lot more antioxidants from a pistachio than you are from an ounce of beef jerky. So besides the rebuilding power of protein, you get the added benefit of antioxidants to prevent cellular damage. That's really where most of the education comes in, in the art of explaining the added benefits of certain foods."

That's why Jeremy Jones starts and ends his longs days in the mountains with pistachios.

"They have the protein of eggs and meat, the antioxidants of blueberries and the potassium of bananas," he says. "Pistachios truly are a superfood."