Maintaining Muscle With Less Training

maintain muscle with limited training

I write this at a time when many athlete’s who have been putting in so much physical and emotional energy as well as countless hours, just had the end of their season or main competitive event taken from them. And if not, your training for your sport may have just been suspended and your identity feels as if it’s been stripped. Even to me, it feels like COVID-19 shut the world down in about 72 hours and I’m getting so many messages from athletes asking for tips so they don’t lose everything they’ve worked for. The best I can do for now is give you nutrition tips for maintaining muscle with less training.

It’s worth noting that the research I am referencing to help in maintaining muscle mass with limited training was meant for injured athletes or non-athletes under different conditions under bed rest. For athletes, literature on the subject doesn’t really exist when it comes to nutrient needs during low activity for reasons other than injury and prescribed limited activity during eating disorder recovery. Considering this, you’ll see that below I recommend, based on logic, that protein needs for you while doing at home training, but not recovering from injury, may be slightly lower than the referenced research. Additionally, this information is meant to help you attempt to maximize retention of muscle strength, power, and endurance as best as you can, knowing that some loss may occur, especially depending on how long training is limited for.

maintaining muscle with limited training

Adequate Energy to Maintain Muscle

eat enough for performance

Sports may already put you at higher risk of energy restriction due to the culture you’re exposed to and beliefs that a lower weight results in better performance. Our culture has made it almost intuitive to think you should restrict food intake when your activity level decreases. But, this information can be harmful, because with intentional or unintentional restriction can come muscle loss, higher risk of injury, poor mental health, and a variety of other negative performance and health consequences. And as the topic of this article suggests, adequate energy intake is important for maintaining muscle with limited training as well.

It’s a great time to focus on learning your hunger and fullness cues, since they’re a piece of helping you know how often and how much to eat (whether at home from coronavirus or engaging in normal training). Other pieces are understanding how much protein to include at meals and snacks, ensuring proper nutrient timing, and including fat and fiber at meals so you feel full and satisfied to limit mindless or anxious eating throughout the day while you’re stuck at home.

Protein To Maintain Muscle With Less Training

If you’re trying to limit energy intake, or frequency of food intake, protein intake may be reduced as well, in a time when you want to increase it. Even though your training may be limited versus normal, increasing protein may help reduce muscle loss. Recommendations for athletes with lower activity levels, who are also in need of more protein to recover from injury are broad. Most evidence suggests anywhere from 1.6-2.5 g/kg, while the most well-accepted recommendations for endurance athletes in training range from 1.2-1.6 g/kg and for strength and power athletes range from 1.4-2 g/kg. Still, some recent work on male endurance athletes, suggests as much as 1.8 and up to 2.6g/kg may be required for recovery from their highest mileage workouts. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) also suggests there may be evidence to support greater amounts of protein for resistance trained individuals with high intensity, volume, and frequency of training.

my recommendation to athletes would be to reach an intake between 1.8 – 2.5 g/kg per day during reduced training periods

Noting that studies showed ~2.3 g/kg/day reduced muscle loss during periods of negative energy balance, and increasing protein to 1.6g/kg/day (in women) failed to preserve muscle loss, my recommendations to athletes I work with would be to reach an intake between 1.8 – 2.5 g/kg per day. However, as you will see below, your total protein intake won’t matter if it isn’t consumed at regular intervals throughout the day, versus a large amount twice per day, for example. Energy and protein timing may be the most important factor in building muscle with normal training and maintaining muscle with limited training.

Currently, there is no knowledge of sex specific differences in protein needs during injury or bed rest, as tends to be the case with protein. All published recommendations for normal health and physical performance are in grams per kilogram of body weight and dependent upon activity level.

Protein Sources to Maintain Muscle

Essential amino acids (EAAs) are necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is basically the growth and repair of muscle, often in response to exercise, or to stress on the muscles. Depending on the type of exercise you are doing, your body may be enhancing different muscle fibers. This is part of the importance of sport and position specific training.

Now I’ll back up to essential amino acids for some of my readers here. Proteins are made up of amino acids, also known as building blocks. I like to think of them all as 20 different colored or shaped legos. If everyone reading this article had their own pile of countless legos, with 20 different types, and I told you to build something with them, you’d all build something different. This represents the ability to create many different proteins in the body from what we eat. However, nine of the 20 amino acids are essential, meaning we have to eat them, because our body cannot alter other amino acids into them if we are in need.

Our intake of essential amino acids is important for adequate MPS. One study found that 16 grams of EAA and 30 grams of carbohydrate supplementation reduced muscle protein loss during 28 days of bed rest. While these were not athletes, they were healthy men. As seen below, 1 rep leg extension strength was better maintained in the supplement vs. control group.

While essential amino acid supplementation was used in the study for ease and control, there is no evidence showing supplements are superior to food, so when you have the option, choose foods first! In an emergency stuck at home situation though, a shelf stable protein supplement is a good item to have on hand.

Like supplements, foods also provide you with the essential amino acid leucine, which is likely the most important. It has been found to trigger MPS more than other EAA’s. Leucine is found in greater amounts in animal proteins (fish, eggs, dairy, meat), but if eating a meal or snack with plant protein, choose tofu, soy milk, adzuki beans, lentils, buckwheat, and pumpkin seeds, for example as plant sources that boast the highest leucine levels to help in maintaining muscle with less training.

high protein pantry foods

Protein Sources With a Long Shelf Life

Nutrient Timing

Energy and protein timing may be the most important factor in building muscle with normal training and maintaining muscle with limited training.

While we need more information on the impact of meal patterns and the response of MPS during reduced activity, it’s logical for athletes to plan their meal patterns to reduce the loss of muscle protein. You’ll optimize the overall response of MPS throughout the day by spreading protein equally throughout the day.

While the amounts below are supported in various studies and well accepted by sports dietitians, this specific study showed benefits to MPS in both exercised and resting muscle when eating about 0.25-.30 g/kg of protein per dose. Some athletes engaging in. more strength training, with greater muscle mass may benefit from up to .4g/kg per. dose. For many this is 20-25 grams, but at the higher dose with a higher weight could be 35 or more. It’s best to eat 4-5 times per day with these quantities of protein, along with adequate carbohydrate, as suggested in the EAA and carbohydrate supplementation study referenced above.

Wellness Tips With Limited Training

  • It may feel like your identity as an athlete is all your are. But the reality is, eventually your athletic career will end. I don’t say that to make you anxious, but to motivate you to tap into the rest of you. Use this time for self-discovery and learn about what else you enjoy!
  • Use this opportunity where you’re focusing less on your sport and other responsibilities to take a deep dive into better understanding your hunger to support your performance. This will help you no matter your level of activity in the future.
  • When you’re stressed, think about what tends to help you the most self-care wise. Other than exercise, of course. If you haven’t figured this out yet, take time to explore new activities such as yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, adult coloring books, baking, even sudoku!
  • Have a loose plan for your meals and snacks. This helps ensure they are balanced, you’re getting protein in regularly, and can help you avoid food boredom, too.

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