Extreme performance – and recovery – with whey protein

Whey protein is an essential part of my ability to keep myself ready and able to train or race day after day, read more...

Allan Steen Olesen
Allan Steen Olesen Professional triathlete
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Published: Oct. 13. 2017

Pushing my mind and body to perform has always been a part of my life, right from the early days as a competitive swimmer. Today, I’m a seven-day-a-week professional triathlete, training 20 to 30 hours weekly, and up to 40 hours during intensive periods. Whey protein is an essential part of my ability to keep myself ready and able to train or race day after day.

If you compare a professional triathlete’s training regime to that of a ‘hobby triathlete’, it demands more than four times the amount of energy input and output – and it’s also close to the limits of what a human body can sustain as an everyday effort. To maintain (and preferably lift) my performance, therefore, I have to take care of my body to whatever extent is practically and scientifically possible.

Eating for three 
To begin with, I eat a lot of food. More than 8,000 calories a day when training hard, which is about three times that typically consumed by a male of my age and size. As you might expect, I try to stick to ordinary, but healthy forms of food – vegetarian and raw foods are always on the menu – but I’m far from a fanatic in this respect; it’s more the sheer volume of carbohydrates and other nutrients that matters to me. But, of course, when you’re eating that much food, you want to be sure to minimise the amount of unhealthy substances in your diet.

All those calories are necessary to complete around 800 kilometres of swimming, 3,000 kilometres of running and 15,000 kilometres on a bike every year. But ordinary food is just not enough to ensure I can train and, in particular, recover sufficiently before the next gruelling session! And that’s where whey protein comes in.

Key building block
I use a hydrolyzed form of whey protein as a key building block to ensure my muscles can rebuild their strength after being broken down during vigorous exercise. And often, there isn’t much time for this rebuilding to take place before I’m again pushing my muscles to the extreme.

I think of triathlon nutrition as a puzzle to be solved and continually optimised. How do I get enough nutrition to go the distance and perform at my best? How do I make sure to get back to full strength between training sessions and race events? And for me, high-quality whey protein (i.e. pure protein rather than products with a lot of other components added to it) is key to this effort.

Feed for speed
While some athletes ingest whey protein prior to, as well as after each training session, I prefer to focus on giving my body plenty of carbohydrates before, for example, a run – keeping my digestive system ‘ clean’ of anything I don’t really need for the specific activity. When a long bike ride is required, I would, for example, drink whey protein at least two hours beforehand, and keep my protein intake concentrated right after training where recovery is essential.

For professional endurance athletes, there is a constant risk of overtraining. That’s why I’m very careful to ensure the protein supplements I eat are of as high a quality as possible. Granted, hydrolyzed whey protein is a more expensive version, but it is absorbed extremely quickly and seems to be the most effective for helping me to cope with higher training volumes for longer.

Does it work?
How do I know that the type of protein I use and the way I use it delivers what I’m looking for? It is, of course, hard to measure this objectively as there are many parameters that can affect performance outcomes – from weather to terrain to how much sleep I might have gotten the night before. It’s an almost endless list. But the results have been made abundantly clear to me over the past two or three years.

You see, every year I’ve been training intensively in Spain, doing up to 40 hours of training each and every week. That’s extremely tough on my body, and my performance and general well-being slowly degrades – mainly evidenced by growing fatigue from day to day. Previously, using ordinary protein powders, this degradation would kick in around a week earlier than it does with the hydrolyzed form of whey protein I use today. And an extra week of training at peak ability means a lot for a professional athlete.

A battle of three disciplines
There’s another aspect, too, that is specific to triathletes and which has implications for how and when protein supplements are consumed. I’m referring to specific contrasts that exist in the sport. Generally speaking, a triathlete needs to balance not only having a high level of fitness, but also the right muscle composition: being strong enough to swim fast and power through the bike leg, while still being lean enough to run fast. It’s a delicate balance. The sport also varies between sprint and long distance racing, meaning that  you have both long endurance and strength-based training blocks, and more intense and race-specific training blocks, depending on the season. Balancing your protein intake is key to perform well no matter what the focus is throughout the season.

Food and protein supplements aren’t all that keep my career on track, of course. Life as a professional triathlete is a constant, though intensely enjoyable, treadmill of endurance, strength and core training, accompanied by stretching and massage sessions (including Normatec recovery treatment), all while trying to keep on top of equipment maintenance, sponsorships, events, photoshoots, social media, logistics, and so on. It’s enough to make anyone tired – but with the right mindset, training and, of course, food, it is amazing what you can achieve!

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