Whey protein shown to boost mitochondria in runners

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - sportpoint
©Getty Images - sportpoint

Related tags Protein Whey protein Sports nutrition Sports drink Sports drinks

A recent study showed supplementing runners with whey protein provided greater mitochondrial adaptations in response to exercise than did a carbohydrate-only drink used as a control.

The research was published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition​. It was conducted by a team of researchers associated with several Danish universities and institutes.

The researchers said there is a lot of evidence for the effects of protein supplementation on muscle protein synthesis as a response to an exercise stimulus.  They said less is known about how additional timed protein intake affects the adaptations in athletes’ mitochondria, which are the energy producing organelles within all of the cells of the body. 

Testing to see if protein boosts mitochondrial improvements

The function of mitochondria within muscle cells is of special importance in sports performance. Trained athletes produce more energy faster in their muscle cell mitochondria than do sedentary individuals. This improved function is one of the adaptations the body goes through in response to an exercise stimulus.

The researchers’ goal was to test whether additional protein added to a carbohydrate beverage could support this process better than just using the  carbohydrate-based sports drink alone as a training aid.  To test this hypothesis they recruited 24 trained runners who completed a six week training period using one of the two beverages.

The test group consumed a protein beverage before training at a dosage of 0.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.  After training they consumed a protein/carbohydrate beverage, which had 0.3g/kg of protein and 1g/kg of carbohydrate. The control group consumed a carbohydrate only beverage with the same number of calories.

The researchers measured several markers of mitochondrial function, including the levels of Cytochrome C (Cyt C), which is a heme protein involved in cellular respiration.  They found the levels of this protein were significantly upregulated in the protein/carbohydrate group as opposed to the carbohydrate-only controls. Several other marker proteins showed a similar trend, although the differences there did not reach statistical significance. 

Some markers upregulated, but overall performance not affected

As is the case with many tightly focused sports nutrition studies, it remains to be seen where this observed effect will fit into the grand scheme of sports performance.  While the Cyt C result would seem to indicate that additional protein can improve mitochondrial adaptations to a training stimulus, it did not improve the protein group’s VO2 max (a measure of how effectively the body takes up oxygen) over the carbohydrate group, nor did it help the protein supplemented athletes run faster in a 6 kilometer time trial.

Source:Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
17​, Article number: 46 (2020)
Supplement with whey protein hydrolysate in contrast to carbohydrate supports mitochondrial adaptations in trained runners
Authors: Hansen M, et al.

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