Monday, 17 September 2012

The Inferno Triathlon - Racing into the thin air...

Race reports are something I try to keep to a minimum, but when I come across a race that I consider to be "a little bit special" I think it's worth sharing...

For Claire and I, more than previous years, 2012 was always about having fun with our racing. We felt a break from chasing Ironman times would be beneficial as we'd planned plenty of that for 2013 in our attempt to qualify for Hawaii!

While the pressure would be off – the challenges we set ourself would, however, remain tough – it's how we roll!

As such, racing would be varied and include marathons, ultra-races, some tough 70.3's, Olympic distance events and the National Cross Tri. But perhaps our toughest race would be a crazy multi-sport event set high in the Swiss Alps.

And so it was, on August 5th, we packed up the T5 with road and mountain bikes and headed to Europe for a 2 week road / training trip which would culminate with the awesome “Inferno Triathlon”.

Since this trip was doubling as our summer holiday, we had planned to visit a few of our favourite locations and get in as much swimming, biking and running as possible – the race in that sense, would be just another day training as we had planned no real taper.

Week one saw us tackle some classic French Alpine road climbs including the Col De Joux Plane, Ramaz and the climb to the Ski station of Avoriaz all in the area around Morzine.

This was a great opportunity to acclimatise to the heat, altitude and the physical demands of climbing for hours at a time! A number of specific Wattbike sessions prior to our departure had meant that the climbing legs were ready for whatever greeted us!

A week - Riding around the Alps...

As well as riding, we also found the many trekking tails hard to resist and completed some incredible runs in the mountains around Samoens as well as a wonderful, solitary swim in the crystal clear waters of Lac Mondriond.

Amazing Running..

And swimming in glacial lakes...

Towards the end of the first week, we ventured to Switzerland, stopping off in Sierre to compete in the Classic Seirre – Zinal mountain race. An epic jaunt over 20 severe miles and 2200m of climbing with a break neck 800m descent to the finish in Zinal. We both put in strong performances finishing in 4:00 (Claire) and 3:37 (Duncan) – a great little training run!

A few days later we were back on the bikes taking on the awesome Swiss passes of Grimsel, Fukar and Susten in an amazing 80 mile ride that possibly ranks as one of the most beautiful we have ever done.

The incedible Grimsel and Furka passes

So not quite your normal long course triathlon taper week - but as we'd said, this trip was all about having fun and not taking the racing too seriously. In any case, we'd been getting plenty of sleep, and lots of wonderful Swiss meat and cheese – so the legs felt pretty good as we prepared for Inferno race day a few easy days later!!

The Inferno is unique in that the bike section is tackled on both road and mountain bike. The event starts with a 3000m point to point swim from the shore of lake Thun near Interlaken to Oberhoffen. From here athletes pick up road bikes and cover 90k and well over 2 vertical kilometers of climbing over the Grosse Scheidegg to Grindlewald where the tarmac road runs out. Here competitors switch to the mountain bike for another 30k and further 1000 meters of climbing over the Kleine Scheidegg and then a white knuckle descent though the Ski station of Wegen. Then it's on to Stechelberg for the final leg – a 25k moutain run – straight up 2500 meters to finish atop the famous Schilthorn mountain at around 3000m above sea level.

The Inferno Triathlon Race Profile - at least the sswim was flat!

So having spent the entire day before the race busying ourselves with the logistics of getting all our kit to the four corners of the Bernese Oberland – we hit the hay (well the T5) for an early night.

Our day started at 3:30am with our customary pre-race breakfast before a moonlit stroll through the darkness to meet the coach that would take us to the swim start in Thun about an hour away. We arrived in ample time to complete our pre-race rituals and then made our way to the start.

The swim is a straight line though not particularly well marked. The sun was still to rise and the flood-lit castle on the distant shore of Oberhoffen was our target.

Before long we were under starters orders. Another appealing aspect of the Inferno is the relatively small entry field (300 odd athletes). This, and the strict cut-off times, meant that the normal bun fight that occurs at long distance swim starts failed to materialise and, once the gun fired, we both quickly found clear water.

The 300 strong swim start - only the brave need apply

The water was warm, clear and very calm – at least for the first 1000m. I struggled slightly with navigating as the organisers had deemed it unnecessary to provide intermediate marker buoys along the point to point course. I resigned myself to just finding a rhythm and let the numerous canoe marshals and the swim pack guide my way.

I felt ok in the water – not great, perhaps due to the fact that swimming had been limited in the preceding week. I gradually found my rhythm and settled into a comfortable cruise - I wasn't in much of a rush to be honest! The swell increased as the swim progressed into the lake. In my isolation, my mind started playing tricks on me and I imagined I was at the back of this elite field having a really bad swim! This sense of foreboding continued until, with 200m to go, a familiar pair of goggles drew up alongside me. It was Claire! It's incredible how often this happens in our races. Training together means that we are really in tune with each other's pace and we often find ourselves sharing the same patch of water among 100's of swimmers!

fairly uneventful swim...

This lifted my spirits as Claire has been swimming brilliantly (and quicker than me) all year – so this meant my swim had been pretty good after all.

We excited the water in 52:29 (Claire) and 52:58 (Dunc) ran into T1 together and began putting on sufficient kit to protect us from the strength of the sun which was now making it's presence felt. I stole a march on Claire and headed off on the road bike section.

I was lying in 43rd position in the Vets (35-44) field and Claire was 7th in the women's race.

me leaving T1 with Claire in close quarter (top left)

Onto the bike and now I felt at home! The riding felt easy on the smooth roads in the clean air. We were both quickly into the climbing and gaining altitude over several small but testing climbs. Small is a relative term of course – small by Swiss standards, pretty big by UK standards but nothing compared to the beast which awaited us at the end of the road bike section.

Our training in the previous week and key sessions on the Wattbike (using the magnetic resistance setting) had served us both well and, happily, we were both feeling strong.

We had both decided to take a cautious approach to the ride – knowing how easy it would be to overcook things over such mountainous terrain. I decided to treat the first 40 miles as just another tough training ride – but then work for the 15- 20 miles or so over the final climb. I was trying not to get goaded into racing too soon. Sadly the course was dogged with large draft packs (the road bike is supposed to be non-drafting), but my strategy meant I was happy to let them go. I had a feeling I'd see many of them again on the final climb. I was certainly not going to involve myself in any drafting – or pull the cheats along.

Meanwhile, Claire was also feeling strong and enjoying the first part of the ride through the amazingly picturesque surroundings.

After 3 initial testing climbs, the mid section of the ride rolled along, hugging the lake shore. A turn away from the lake then took us onto the final climb of the Grosse Scheidegg. The severity of the bike course is bought home by the fact that total altitude gained is similar to that gained at the Ironman Lanzarote – those guys get 112 miles to fit the climbing in – we only got 60! Steep does not begin to describe the final accent and I was never out of my compact 27 ratio. Indeed, I was often left praying for more gears!

By now, the sun was overhead and adding to the effort – as was the altitude. But this is where I had planned to start working. So I got my head down and settled in to a solid effort which would see me climbing through a furnace for the next 1 hour 30 minutes. I was now coming to realise why this race was called “The Inferno”

Feeling the heat - but loving it!

The road, got steeper and the sun got hotter, but I was in my element. This is what I had been doing for the past 10 days and I felt great. I was picking off riders steadily. My road bike was perfect for the terrain and I passed many riders struggling on TT bikes on the steep incline.

Once we crested the Grosse Scheidegg, it was time to buckle in for the seriously high speed descent to Grindlewald. I class myself as a reasonable descender but even I struggled to match the speed of some riders who seemed to be benefiting from local knowledge. The decent was twisty and technical with enough rough patches to to insure you could not afford to loose focus for a second. For most of the descent I was locked in a battle of nerves and skill with a French rider as our pace seemed to increase with each hairpin.

Claire decided that discretion was the better side of valour on the decent and was happy to concede a few places in order to arrive at T2 in one piece – a decision I always support as there is only room for one loony in our relationship!!

The MTB - Waiting at Grindlewald

I flew into T2 after a 3:59 bike split having moved up 9 places in the Vets race – not bad for somebody out training! Ha ha !! I was quickly onto my MTB and tackling the 15k climb of the Kleine Scheidegg.

Claire arrived with a 4:49 bike split. By playing it safe on the descents she was now in 25th position in the women's field but knowing her conservative approach would pay dividends on the run.

The mountain bike section is one climb – but it's a biggy. 1000m straight up over loose shingle and forest tracks. The heat was now quite oppressive and the reduced speed of the MTB meant the cooling effect was reduced. Sweat was coming off me in rivers. The route passes into trees periodically, but the majority of it is completely exposed and sauna hot!

The climb was unrelenting. At no point did the gradient ease for even a minute. As we neared the summit, it became clear we were well into the winter ski areas – with the pistes being easy to identify even in their naked state. The last section must surely have been a black run as everybody was reduced to pushing for 10 minutes or so.

I reached the summit of the Kleine Scheidegg in just over 1 hour 30 minutes – 6.25mph average!But now things were gonna get fast! Once again, time to disengage brain and let rip. This time, a 15k, snaking fire road descent to Wegen. I do love my mountain biking, and really, while steep, the terrain was not technical. Not by UK trail centre standards at least.

It felt great to be tearing down the mountain at speeds I'm more used to on a road bike! It also seemed that the vast majority of riders were more at home on tarmac and I was able to pick of a few more places.

Claire continued to climb strongly and proceed with caution on the loose descent – her race would start once the final leg began!

The last section from Wegen to Lauterbrunnen did actually get quite technical as open fire roads were replaced with steep rooty single track. I continued to pass rider after rider struggling on the technical terrain – many pushing. Oh the shame!!

A final 4k road section bought me to Stelchelburg in just over 2 hours for the MTB section. I had continued my move through the field and now placed 27th in the Vets race.

Claire arrived in 2 hours 44 minutes and now also placed in 27th position.

The run actually breaks you in quite gently with a pleasant 4k trail section along the river to Lauterbrunnen. But the fun doesn't last long. Once the turn away from the town is made – the slog to Murren at 17k begins. We had been told that most of this section was run-able so I set myself the challenge of doing just that. This is where mental fortitude took over and it was simply a case of putting one foot in front of the other and trying to maintain forward momentum. There were occasions when the terrain simply became too steep to run economically, at which point a “power walk” became more energy efficient. They key was to just keep moving, whether running, power walking or crawling on hands and knees!

The ski town of Murren was packed with supporters and the narrow roads through the centre were run-able even though the legs pleaded otherwise. Once beyond Murren though – things got pretty crazy. The steepness of the terrain was the sort you experience for maybe a kilometre or two in the steepest parts of the Peak District – we had 8k to go and it just didn't let up!

Running through Murren

The heat was now fierce. We were now well above three line and into seriously high altitudes. Runners were spread over the mountain in various states of fatigue – some reduced to a death march , some managing to muster a decent hike – but nobody running. Not in this terrain... Not in this heat... not at this altitude.

I forced myself to break into a trot whenever the gradient reduced be even a few degrees – but these moments were few and far between and often left me gasping for breath in the thin air. This was survival – but Claire and I were both surviving better than most.

Claire pushing into the thin air

Our cautious approach to the road bike section and effective fuelling throughout the day were now paying dividends. Everybody was suffering – but we were suffering that little bit less.

The last few kilometres were some of the most amazing I'd ever run – almost otherworldly. 3k from the end you could see the summit and hear the Germanic ramblings of the race organiser over the PA – it was surreal in the extreme!

And so it was after a 3:33:13 “run” split I crossed the line, outside the famous revolving restaurant, atop the Schilthorn some 10:29:53 after starting. I had passed a further 9 Vets during the final section to finish 18th in my category. Interestingly I'd have placed 11th in the Senior category (under 35)

The Inferno then – clearly not one for the youngsters

Meters from the finish...

Meanwhile, Claire was continuing her determined climb up the mountain – overtaking a steady stream of fading men and women.

Claire battling on...

At 12:23:27, Claire finished after a terrific 3:56:24 run which moved her up 11 places to 16th in the girls race.

The Crazy race finish!

There can be little doubt that mile for mile, hour for hour, the Inferno is one of the toughest multi-sport races around. It's severity is not to be underestimated yet it seems many do.

In total 14 racers from the UK took on the challenge......

But I think only two made it all the way to the top!

Bringing home the bacon for the UK

All in all, an incredible race. If you decide to take it on, make sure you respect the cut-off times - but the views are worth it!!

amazing views...

Friday, 20 July 2012

Protein - Add POWER to your diet

Since starting my blog, I like to think I have made my views on dietary fat pretty clear. If not, have a read here, here and here.

I've hopefully corrected a few long held misconceptions and busted a few myths along the way.

So, I trust were are all now gaining the wonderful nutritional (and performance) benefits of eating healthy (animal fats), drinking whole milk, and passing on the vegetable oils, trans fats and processed pseudo-foods.

I've also questioned the long held belief in the importance of dietary carbohydrate and even been so bold as to suggest that athletes need not be quite so reliant upon them – certainly not to the percentages advised by many mainstream sources. Indeed performance can be vastly improved (particularly in events lasting over an hour) by becoming LESS reliant on carbohydrate and (re)training our bodies to be more efficient at burning fat - and to do that you gotta eat it!

Oh but you can get away with eating so much fat because you train so much – it doesn't apply to normal people!”

I hear this all the time, and let me lay this one to rest.....


The reality is, if I trained less I'd eat MORE fat and even FEWER carbs. My training allows me eat more CARBOHYDRATE, not more FAT!

So what about protein?

So far, this macro nutrient has flown below the radar on my blog but today it gets it's 15 minutes of fame!

I'm gonna opt to delicately side step the ethical debate around meat consumption. I'm just going to assume that we all support the fact that we NEED protein and accept that people have the freedom to choose where that protein comes from. I respect ethical vegetarians and vegans and think their motivations are very noble.

Personally, I don't think the ethics of a vegetarian / vegan diet are quite so clear cut and I consider it a privilege, not a right to eat meat. I do so in a way which I view as ethical and sustainable as possible – choosing, as I do, to eat meat (and animal products) from animals which have lead as natural, and as happy a life as possible. Ok, not quite side stepped, but I leave it there.

So please, don't judge me for being a carnivore – I love animals too....... I just wish they didn't taste so damn good (or were so good for me).

I am also going to avoid getting dragged into addressing the numerous scare stories linking meat consumption to everything from cancer to global warming. This is not the subject of this post and 5 minutes on Google will highlight the massive flaws in ALL of these studies – yes, every single one.

If you are interested, here's another great blog that addresses the shortcomings of these studies.

Suffice it to say that any research grouping “red AND processed meat” into a SINGLE food group, and not allowing for the ratios of other macro nutrients being consumed, is not worth a second of your valuable consideration. Grass Fed Rib Eye and Billy Bear Ham are about as alike nutritionally as Jersey Butter and used Engine oil...... or margarine.

Really  NOT the same thing!

No, this post is more about Protein as a macro nutrient, what it does for us, and critically how much we should consume and when. True to form, I'll also be donning my myth busting pants as well!

So queue the superhero music...... I need to find a phone booth!

So What is Protein Exactly?

Protein” is often the catch all phrase used to describe a particular macro nutrient we obtain from our diet. To be accurate, this is “Dietary Protein” and we get it from many different sources in different quantities and qualities (more later).


Contrary to popular belief, humans do not use dietary protein directly. As an example, If I eat a steak – the protein content does not go straight to my muscles for repair like some sort of car body filler.

No, as with most dietary science, it's a little more complex than that – but brilliant in it's design.

Dietary proteins (like all proteins) are biochemical compounds consisting of one or more repeating chains of amino acids known as “polypeptides” - this is important, because it's the amino acids which are critical!

There are 22 amino acids which we need to worry about 13 of which we can make or “synthesise” ourselves, 9 of which we cannot (10 for children as they are unable synthesise the amino acid Arginine). These 9 (10) amino are known as “essential amino acids”.

As a side note – you'll often hear textbooks and some nutritionists / dieticians speak of 20 amino acids and 8 essential amino acids.

Strictly speaking there are another 2 (at least) “non-standard” amino acids which are genetically encoded for humans, these are Selenocysteine and Pyrrolysine – but I'm maybe splitting hairs.

20 or 22 - to fully understand this, you'd need to arm yourself with a degree in biochemistry or read this article – be warned, this article WILL make your brain hurt.

Thankfully, the scientific minutia is not all that important. What IS important is the notion that some protein sources (mostly animal based) contain ALL the amino acids the human body needs, other sources DO NOT (mostly plant based) and so must be combined to provide a “complete protein”. A complete protein is one that provides at least the 9 (10) essential amino acids (in sufficient quantity) from which all others can be synthesised.
Dietary protein can therefore be viewed as a model made of Lego bricks. With the individual bricks representing the individual amino acids.

Now, I might want to build a Lego car – but my sister has just built a little house for her dolls.

I have absolutely no use for a dolls house. (In the same way I have no direct use for a cows gluteus maximus)

No bother, I can “break down” her dolls house (most probably violently) and rebuild the Lego bricks into whatever I want – in this case a car.

Providing the model of the dolls house contains ALL the building bricks I need, I can build whatever I want.

If it doesn't, I may have to destroy the Lego fairy castle she's built as well (Seriously, leave my god damn Lego alone!!)

So this is exactly how the human body uses protein. We consume it in what ever form we fancy, we break it down into individual amino acids and “re-build” them into whichever proteins WE as humans need – Providing the original dietary protein source contains all the “building blocks” or amino acids we require.

This ladies and gents is “Protein Synthesis” - pretty neat eh?

So hopefully you can see, if you are consuming incomplete proteins due to a poor diet (I'm not saying vegetarian or vegan – but these diets DO make it harder to consume complete proteins), then you will not be able to synthesise the various proteins your body requires. Like the child with only a modest supply of Lego bricks who can only build lame stuff like aeroplanes with only one wing rather than cool stuff like spaceships!

So, lucky for those of us who consume animal products, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and milk as these are all fine sources of complete protein.

Unlucky for vegetarians and vegans most plant based foods are not. Even sources which do contain all 9 (10) essential amino acids (like Quinoa) they typically do not contain them in sufficient quantity to be considered “complete”. The may have what is know as a “limiting amino acid”.

Worse still, the many meat replacement products which do provide complete protein (soya products, Quorn etc) also have many negative health consequences to boot. (I'll save that one for another day – the vegans out there probably already hate me)

Of course, the vegetarian diet can be very healthy - it fact, in many ways it's much healthier than the typical Western diet. Vegetarians do actually seem to care what they eat at least! 

The best way of providing enough high quality protein in the vegetarian diet is to include meat.... sorry I mean fish! Including fish (particularly oily varieties like mackerel) will also boost Omega 3 intake.

Vegans - seriously, best of luck, but I guess you'll be eating a whole lot of soya and beans / pulses / grains. Sadly these are not foods I would advise anybody to eat in large quantities if health is your ultimate goal. But each to their own.

Bottom line, if you don't eat animal products, you need to be very vigilant in obtaining your protein from a wide variety of different sources, ideally at every meal.

What does Protein do exactly?

It helps us grow, build and repair muscle” is a fairly standard response but only represents a tiny fraction of what Protein does.

The importance of Protein is best summarised by saying it participates in virtually every process within cells. To this end we should not consider protein as a single compound but more as a number of many different compounds each one dedicated to performing different roles within the body.

So, from our supply of amino acids (derived from dietary protein) we are able to synthesise our own proteins for whatever role may be required.

These roles include....


Certain proteins, in the form of antibodies, provide defence by immobilizing foreign invaders so white blood cells can destroy them.

Muscle Contraction

The proteins Actin and Myosin are involved in muscle contraction and movement.

Biochemical Catalysts

These proteins facilitate and / or speed up chemical reactions within the body. For example, Lactase breaks down the sugar found in milk.


Some proteins serve as chemical messengers to help to coordinate certain bodily functions and activities. You'll all have heard of one...”Insulin” is a hormone protein which regulates glucose metabolism. Another important ones for athletes is is Somatotropin, a growth hormone which stimulates protein production in muscle cells.


These proteins include Keratin, Collagen and Elastin. They are fibrous and stringy and provide support and strength for hair, nails, tendons and ligaments.


These proteins store amino acids allowing our bodies to draw on them as required to synthesise other proteins. This includes a protein you've probably heard of – casein (milk protein).


Carrier proteins move molecules around the body. An important example is hemoglobin which transports oxygen through the blood.

So protein is NOT just the preserve of athletes, gym junkies or body-builders. I'd strongly recommend including it in the diet of anybody who enjoys being alive!

So how much do we need?

Tricky ones this.

We could ask, “Well how much can I actually use?”

To which the answer would be – “It depends on how much you need!”

So kind of a catch 22 and there is the problem. Protein requirement varies from person to person based on genetics, gender, size, age, activity and stress levels, training goals etc.

You'll hear anything from 0.8g – 2.0g of protein per Kg of body weight.

The needs of a small, sedentary female, will differ from those of a large male engaged in heavy strength training which in turn differ from the needs of the elderly.

In this sense – if the body needs it, it'll pretty much take what you can give it! (within reason)

This needs some nuancing though.

I'm sure many of you have heard the proposition that we can only “absorb” 20-30g of dietary protein in one sitting. If a anybody tells you this they fundamentally misunderstand how protein is assimilated by the human body. As dogmas go, it ranks right up there with myths like “Saturated fat clogs your arteries”, “High Cholesterol causes heart disease” and “Athletes need to base their diet on 60% carbohydrate”.

Before we look at the science, lets consider this notion from a logical, evolutionary perspective.

Imagine if you will one of our Palaeolithic ancestors. Now, it is generally agreed that “paleo man” ate a heavily animal based diet – up to 65% total calories in fact (with the rest coming from plants).

So it can be taken as a given that our ancestors would have consumed a fair amount of dietary protein and fat (also less total carbohydrate, definitely MUCH LESS sugar and definitely ZERO “Weight-watchers “ lasagne).

Also, before the benefits of shops and refrigeration or other means of preservation, food would have been consumed more sporadically, eaten as and when it was available, most likely during large single feeds and interspersed with periods of enforced fasting. The human body evolved to operate in this way, as did those of most other animals. Indeed, intermittent fasting or “IF” has a large following amongst those looking to maximise health and longevity.

It would seem a pretty serious flaw in the human design if, having taken a number of days to bag a decent meal our paleo ancestor would only be able to make use of a mere 30g of dietary protein it contained?

I'm guessing a fully grown active caveman could need (conservatively) around 100-150g of protein per day. So the lousy 30g “hit” from his meal would see him becoming quickly protein deficient and pretty quickly dead – along with the rest of his species.

No, luckily for us the human body is far more elegant than that. Larger, protein rich meals (which are also likely to also contain significant amounts of dietary fat) will take longer to digest.

This is key, we don't eat pure protein or amino acids (unless we supplement) – we eat REAL food!

Also, the presence of protein in the duodenum causes the secretion of the peptide hormone Cholecystokinin which slows the intestinal contractions – giving yet more time for amino acids to be absorbed. Hey, it's almost like the body actually knows what it's doing and isn't deliberately trying to kill us!

So yes, while it may take time, ALL the protein you eat WILL be broken down into amino acids and absorbed. Remember, absorption only refers to nutrient uptake via the digestive tract and the fact is, our bodies have a very large capacity for amino acid absorption. Now amino acid UTILIZATION is a different story and this is probably where a lot of the miss-information comes from.

As I've explained amino acids serve many different roles within the body. But what about the specific benefits to athletes and sports people?

Muscle building

For endurance athletes this doesn't mean getting huge biceps and pecs (sorry). Genetics and body type will largely dictate if you are likely to “bulk-up” with training and diet – even if you lift big weights (which you should) - Natural endurance athletes (ectomorphs) are less likely to bulk up than naturally bigger people (meso and endomorphs). However – this doesn't mean endurance athletes can't build lean muscle and get very lean and very powerful – because we can!

So for endurance athletes combining protein with training is about building new, lean muscle mass, losing excess body fat and increasing our strength and power to weight ratio.

Oi fatty!

Exercise adaptation

This means becoming stronger or more efficient as a result of training. Diet (and specifically protein) supports this. It may be by producing more muscle tissue, but equally it may be through producing more mitochondria (energy cells) or new oxidative enzymes – to improve aerobic capacity.

This underlines the importance of protein intake after ALL types of training, not just those deemed to “damage muscles” as traditional dogma would dictate. The way and type of protein which is synthesised depends on the nature of the training stimulus.


Recovery is of course a critical component of training. It's during recovery, NOT TRAINING that our bodies become stronger and more efficient than they were before. Training (and racing) causes damage at the cellular level. Without adequate protein, recovery from training will be impaired . This not only limits subsequent training (and adaptation) but also increases injury risk.

Above all, we want to make sure we are supplying our bodies with enough dietary protein to maximise muscle protein synthesis, and support exercise adaptation and recovery.

To achieve this, the rate of muscle protein synthesis (from amino acids) must be elevated above baseline (and above the rate of muscle breakdown). How much dietary protein do we need to achieve this?

Again, we need to look at amino acids. Studies have suggested that around 15g of essential amino acids are required to optimise muscle protein synthesis. Critically however, not all amino acids are equal and it seems that the amino acid Leucine has a more significant role to play. It has been shown that Leucine stimulates a compound in muscle known as mTOR or the rather wordy "Mammalian target of rapamycin" which is like a molecular "switch" which drives muscle protein synthesis. 15g of essential amino acids will typically yield around 3g of Leucine. So we need at least 3g of Leucine – how can we get this?

Well, 30g of Whey protein powder would do the job (less if you choose to add extra Leucine), but if you are using a food source you might need anything up to 40g if beef or fish was you protein of choice.

So, protein is doing it's thang – how long will this effect last? This will also depend on the nature of the protein source. Science seems to agree that protein synthesis will last around 2 hours following ingestion of a (whey) protein supplement and maybe 3 hours following food.

What's interesting is that protein synthesis seems to stall beyond this time frame, even if blood amino acids remain elevated. It can be said that protein synthesis becomes “refractory” or no longer responsive to elevated blood amino acid levels beyond a 2-3 hour period. A real shot in the eye to anybody advising a “grazing” dietary approach or one recommending protein intake should be spread out across many small meals. (including the gym junkies who neck a protein shake every 2 hours!)

A rat study by Wilson G, Layman D et al showed that once again Leucine had a role to play. Here it was found that Leucine supplimentation 2hrs after training (and initial protein intake) could extend the protein synthesis window or reactivate protein synthesis once it had become refractory to circulating blood amino acids. I am not aware that this study has been conducted in humans yet, so consider these results with caution.

Generally speaking though, it seems a “reset” is required and blood amino levels should be allowed to return to near base line levels before another bout of protein synthesis can be initiated with a protein feed.

Contrary to nutritional dogma then, it would seem our protein intake is better coming from 4-6 larger protein doses with 4 to 5 hours in between rather than lots of smaller doses with snacks and shakes etc.

This notion is supported by a great deal of research looking at both intermittent fasting diets and uneven protein feeding diets.

The study below had subjects eating ALL their daily food intake in one meal – pretty extreme my modern standards. However, the subjects did not become protein deficient (which they surely should have if we are to believe the 30g protein per meal limit). They DID however become leaner and had lower cortisol levels (the bodies stress hormone)

A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloricrestriction in healthy normal-weight, middle-aged adults

This next study looked at elderly ladies who consumed dietary protein either split equally throughout all daily meals or taken as a large protein feed during one of their main meals.

Protein synthesis was significantly improved in the group consuming their daily protein intake in a single meal.

Daily protein intake was still within the “normally” advised range, but the elderly subjects benefited from the single higher “dose”.

Whether this benefit was due to the single feed or just the higher dose is hard to say. Maybe the split feeding did not provide enough protein to meal to optimise protein synthesis?

However, we CAN say that higher protein doses are not just tolerated – they are beneficial,

So hopefully the nail is well and truly in the coffin of the “20-30g protein per meal” dogma

Daily requirement remains hard to quantify though. I would view the generally publicised range of 0.8-2.0g per Kg body weight as a minimum but would suggest elevated levels could be optimum - or more beneficial from a health / body composition / performance stand point.

The basic protein needs of a sedentary individual could probably be met at the lower / mid point of this scale by consuming real foods containing high quality protein (ideally animal based – sorry). But even this group may benefit from increasing protein intake (more later).

Those engaged in heavy training should definitely push intakes towards the 2g/kg level and will not experience negative health connotations (providing the individual is in good general and renal health and does not choose potentially damaging protein sources like soya).

Very big males wanting to build significant size and strength could even push beyond 2g/kg without ill effect.

But do remember, just because you may not be “working out” regularly, don't think you have no use for dietary protein. You do of course, as this blog has hopefully made clear by highlighting the many roles protein plays beyond simply “muscle building”.

Indeed, there may be another reason to increase protein intake amongst sedentary individuals

That being “Satiety” – or satisfying hunger.

Anecdotally, higher protein diets have been shown to satisfy hunger but the mechanism has been largely unexplained.

However, recent research has shown that satiety and food intake is modulated (in part) through special receptors (known as mu-opioid receptors or MORs) on nerves found in the walls of the portal vein.

The portal vein drains blood from the gut. So, stimulating these receptors enhances food intake, blocking them suppresses intake.

And what do we think protein does?

Yup – you guessed it. Protein, or more precisely peptides, (the products of digested dietary protein) block MORs, blunting appetite. These peptides then send signals to the brain which transmits signals back to the gut to stimulate the intestine to release glucose. This then suppresses the desire to eat.

Add to that the fact that animal protein often comes with a good source of healthy fats and you can start to see why a breakfast of bacon and eggs will satisfy hunger far more effectively than a “real world” serving of Special K! (And could be lower in calories as well!)

Another reason to consider increasing your protein intake is if weight loss or improved body composition is your goal.

A great (recent) study here showed that during a 12 month, calorie restricted diet, when protien intake was increased from the accepted norm of 0.8 g/kg to 1.6 g/kg a greater percentage of fat mass was lost and more muscle mass was maintained.

Interestingly, both high protein AND low protein groups did lose the same amount of weight but the lower protein group lost more muscle (and less actual fat) – not good.

This illustrates the problem with many conventional weight loss regimes which limit protein and fat in favour of carbohydrate (often poor quality). These diets do often yield weight loss (mostly by extreme calorie restriction) and people who follow them may even deem their “diet” to have been a success. Until, that is, they try to maintain this restrictive eating regime and realise it's just not possible. When they do eventually “fall off the wagon” the lost of precious muscle mass (and the preference for their bodies to burn sugar and store fat) will mean the fat very quickly returns.

The so called “yo-yo” diet ensues.

So why does protein consumption cause this preferential (and more likely permanent) weight loss? Well not only does dietary protein require more energy to break down than carbohydrate (increased thermogenisis), having more muscle mass increases your energy requirement at rest (increases BMR) so you burn more calories doing nothing!

Also, lower protein intakes most often mean higher carbohydrate intake (to obtain sufficient calories). Higher carbohydrate intakes (particularly of the refined sugary types) keeps insulin elevated which “locks in” fat as opposed to burning it as fuel. Higher protein diets on the other hand typically have lower carbohydrate percentages and higher fat percentages. Consuming fat does not trigger insulin, so our bodies adapt to becoming efficient fat burners.

So if weight loss is your goal (even for athletes) it's far better to keep good fats in the diet along with protein up to 1.5 – 2.0 g/kg and introduce strength training into your regime. That way, lean muscle mass will be maintained – even increased and you will become a lean, fat burning machine!!

Oh, an your food will taste good – which is a bonus!

Is there a flip side?

It would be remiss of me to extol the many virtues of protein intakes, which may be higher than those deemed appropriate by many main stream sources, without discussing any negative health issues.

Some would warn of the potential damaging effects of too much protein as this is said to place excessive stress on the kidneys.

Ok, “stress”. It's an emotive word.

Dead-lifts “stess” our back and other muscles, but this is what our back and other muscles are designed to do – lift heavy shit!

It's the same with our kidneys. Higher protein loads do “stress” our kidneys – but it's what our kidneys are designed to do – handle fluctuating protein loads.

It's like advising people not to breathe too hard because it stresses the lungs. Or think to hard because it stresses the brain!

Same applies to kidney stones. Increasing protein intake will not increase your risk. Again, it seems a pre-existing metabolic dysfunction is required before dietary protein can increase risk of stone formation.

No, in a healthy individual, with healthy, functioning kidneys, the idea that higher protein intakes come with increased risk of kidney disease is just not supported by the science.

Conversely, the notion that higher protein intake DOES NOT increase health risks, in healthy individual, IS supported by the science.

Dietary protein intake and renal function

High protein diets decrease total and abdominal fat and improve CVD risk profile

Bottom line – healthy individuals need not be concerned.

So with that, it's over to you all.

Consider your age, size and training / weight loss goals. Consider that for most of us, the lower end of the generally accepted range is too low and there are significant benefits to increasing protein consumption.

Consider splitting your (increased) daily protein intake across your 3 main meals and your 1 – 2 post workout recovery supplements. If anything, aim for 4-5 higher protein doses with more time in between, as opposed to “grazing” or multiple feeds with lower single protein doses.

Following this regime (and incorporating heavy weight training into my routine) I have been able to lose significant amounts of body fat and build more lean muscle.

Ok, so I've never been a fatty exactly, but I'm a stronger and leaner athlete in my 40's than I was in my 20's – FACT.

But I do now fall asleep on the sofa after training....

Eat well... train hard... rest harder!