Whether your favorite Olympic athlete is celebrating the thrill of victory or suffering the agony of defeat, he or she is now concentrating on recovery from intense exercise — and perhaps an injury that occurred as part of his or her competition.

Across a wide range of sports, intense exercise produces high mechanical forces, potentially leading to muscle damage, soreness, inflammation and loss of muscle function. A 52-week analysis of elite adolescent athletes by Rosen et al. (“High Injury Burden in Elite Adolescent Athletes: A 52-Week Prospective Study”) found that among all athletes, 57.4% reported at least one new injury, and the one-year prevalence of injury was 91.6%. Optimal nutrition, including whey protein, can build muscle to minimize injury and speed healing.

Two Olympic athletes who tout the benefits of whey protein are CJ Cummings and Jourdan Delacruz, both USA Olympic weightlifters. Both are spokespersons for Ascent Protein.

Cummings notes, “My recovery nutrition consists of resting for about 30 minutes after I work out and then consuming either two scoops of Ascent Protein in a shake or a one-scoop shake and a bottle of Ascent’s Recovery Water. I currently don’t take any other supplements other than a multivitamin. I consume whey protein almost exclusively after I work out because I feel it helps my muscles recover.” 

Delacruz says, “I love a good smoothie immediately after training because it provides the perfect amount of quick carbs and whey protein. I add a mixture of frozen fruits, yogurt, a scoop of Ascent Whey protein, and done!"

Quantity matters

The human body requires energy, protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and a range of micronutrients to compensate for inflammation and speed muscle healing. The first consideration for the athlete is adequate protein quantity. 

In 2017, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommended 0.25 gram of a high-quality protein per kilogram of body weight, or an absolute dose of 20-40 grams. Acute protein doses should strive to contain 700-3,000 milligrams of leucine and/or a higher relative leucine content, in addition to a balanced array of the essential amino acids.

Quality counts, too

Despite the surge in plant protein supplementsa recent study (“Effects of Whey and Pea Protein Supplementation on Post-Eccentric Exercise Muscle Damage: A Randomized Trial”) revealed that plants proteins might not perform as well as dairy protein for exercise recovery. Contrary to their hypothesis, Nieman et al. noted that whey, but not pea protein, attenuated the large post-exercise increase in serum creatine kinase and myoglobin, two markers of muscle damage.

“A protein’s bioavailability, digestibility and amino acid composition are central to its ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Gram for gram, dairy proteins provide one of the highest concentrations of essential amino acids and especially leucine, which are the primary drivers of muscle protein synthesis, ultimately leading to the building and maintenance of muscle,” says Kristi Saitama, vice president, global ingredients marketing for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

In its 2020 report on protein supplements, Grand View Research found that 67.9% of all protein supplement sales come from animal sources, due to the stalwart popularity of whey among athletes and gym-goers.

Timing, purity are considerations

The frequency and timing of protein supplement ingestion plays an important role. Data support spreading intake throughout the day, especially before and immediately after exercise, and before bedtime. The International Olympic Committee recommends that athletes ingest 15-25 grams “of such protein after each training session to maximize the synthesis of proteins.”

A few years ago, I visited the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. There, I learned that Olympic athletes must carefully control everything they put in their bodies so that they don’t inadvertently consume any banned substances. 

Several whey manufacturers sell their protein directly to consumers. (Ascent Native Whey Protein is produced by Leprino Foods.) Purchasing whey protein directly from a whey supplier might be one strategy to ensure supplement purity.