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I go through a bi-weekly exercise program that includes long distance running, sprints, front crawl, upper body compound exercise and stretching. I would think my metabolism and protein needs varies with those activities, so what strategy for timing and amounts should I adopt to try to optimize my protein consumption in each case?

The different types of activities I am interested in are:

  • running long distance (e.g. 7.5+ miles)
  • running sprints (e.g. 12 minute Cooper or 5K)
  • slow front crawl (e.g. 45 to 60 minutes)
  • compound upper body exercises (e.g. 45 minutes)
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

There is no "timing" for consuming protein. There is not a single study that demonstrates eating protein at a specific time will somehow boost recovery or muscle gain. What's far more important is just your protein intake on average, over time. Your body is actually quite adept at regulating your protein metabolism. You have something called an amino acid bank that contains amino acids and when your body requires certain proteins, it can "withdraw" from this bank and when you consume proteins it can "deposit."
That's an oversimplified description of a complex biochemical process, but the needs for protein are actually quite small. The idea you need tons and tons of protein is more marketing than science (after all, supplement companies have to sell their protein shakes so of course they want you to believe you need tons of it). The body actually adapts to protein intake and excess protein is simply converted (via a highly inefficient process) to energy and burned rather than used to build muscle tissue.

One of the best online articles I've read with respect to protein intake is Lyle McDonald's series here:

The bottom line you'll find is that there is a lot of myth and speculation, there really is no magic to consuming protein. If you train excessively hard, you don't recover immediately after the workout but in the days after the workout, and therefore it's just average intake over those intake that counts, not specific protein on a given day or hour of the day.

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If you're interested in reading more on the subject, Brad Pilon's e-book has an exhaustive list of studies on the topic -- TruthAboutProtein.com (I've actually purchased the book and his conclusion is that pretty much everyone who is in to "fitness" easily gets enough protein in their diet through real food.) –  Jedidja Nov 11 '11 at 16:42
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