For all types of fitness, diet is important. For some, that means eating clean – making sure you choose whole foods that are unprocessed and free from nasty stuff.
Others, though, might be a bit more strict, especially if you’re training towards a particular goal or trying to lose weight.
In these cases, you may need to pay more attention to the specifics of your diet – protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Protein for runners doesn’t have to be a complicated topic. As long as you’re getting enough, and getting it from high-quality sources, you’ll be good to go. The good news is that, in general, if you are eating a healthy, balanced diet, you almost certainly are getting enough protein. Many athletes, though, choose to supplement just to be sure.
Let’s get into the details of why protein is such an important nutrient, how best to get it in, and if there’s anything you need to be careful of when consuming it.
Why Do Runners Need Protein?
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients. All food is made of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. While excessive consumption of both carbohydrates and fats has been linked to health problems, proteins have (at least to this point) gotten a clean bill of health. Protein does many things for the body, but top among its roles is the building of muscle fiber.
Often, runners think that if they aren’t lifting weights in the gym, they don’t need to pay attention to how much protein they’re eating. But that’s not true. Running and weightlifting may be very different ways of training, but both take a toll on the muscles.
When running, you’re burning calories and fat, but your muscles are also taking a bit of a beating. Protein is what helps repair muscle after exercise. When you’re eating the right protein and in the right amounts, your muscles come back stronger after every run.
This allows you to train longer and more intensely next time. Therefore, we can say that protein is essential for runners as it helps you to recover, progress, improve your times, and reach your goals!
What Can Happen If You Are Protein-Deficient?
It takes an extremely low amount of protein to become protein deficient to the extent where it begins to damage your body. But that’s for the average Joe who doesn’t do a lot of physical exercise.
If you’re a sportsperson, your protein intake has to be higher than that of the average person to maintain your muscle mass.
If an active, fit, sporty person suddenly develops a protein deficiency (for example, becoming a vegetarian or vegan and not meeting the same protein count they used to), they may not notice any side effects at first.
But as time goes, certain things become noticeable.
- Muscle mass may decrease.
- You may become fatigued more quickly.
- Your workout/running pace may slow significantly.
These things happen because your body is not receiving enough protein to repair your muscles properly when you rest. So every time you get out on the road or into the gym, you’re basically working out with sore, tired, and unrepaired muscles!
It’s hard to be at the top of your game if you’re not getting enough protein in your diet. If you’re a competitive runner, this can seriously hamper your chances of performing well, improving your times, and hitting new PBs.
Even if you’re just a casual runner, the constant fatigue can really put a damper on your enjoyment of running!
How Much Protein Do Runners Need?
Your average, everyday, non-athletic person needs to eat around 36 grams of protein every day.
Runners, though, need more. Adding any bit of exercise to your day means you’ll need more protein to fix up those muscles once you’re resting.
Those who run for an hour a day can need up to 90 grams of protein daily – almost three times as much as those who live a sedentary lifestyle. A commonly-cited guideline is you can consume about 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight (more on that later).
How Does Protein Help Your Body?
Protein is a nifty nutrient. It’s made of amino acids, the building blocks of the body!
But what does that mean? What does protein do in the body?
Protein is a kind of jack-of-all-trades. It performs many functions in the body, the best-known of which is muscle repair. One of its biggest advantages is a faster recovery time, so you can get back on the road and feeling good sooner rather than later.
Other things it does include:
- Increasing strength
- Improving bone density
- Boosting the immune system
- Reducing food cravings
- Boosting metabolism
- Reducing inflammation
- Helping heal wounds
- Decreasing recovery time
- Supporting weight management and weight loss
Can you see why it’s so important to have enough of it in your diet? It’s not just for those buff dudes in the gym to build big biceps!
Another thing that protein gets a thumbs-up for is being able to pack a ton of nutrition into fewer calories, keeping you feeling full for longer, so you won’t be wanting to snack in between every meal.
How Much Protein Do YOU Need?
There’s no exact number that works for everyone. You’ll need to calculate the right amount of protein for you based on your weight and your goals.
First, you’ll need to know your weight in kilograms. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get this number.
Second, consider your training situation. The scale for optimal protein intake is 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
The kind of training you’re doing makes a difference!
If you’re just taking a leisurely jog every day, you could get away with a gram of protein per kilogram of weight.
If you’re regularly running local 5ks, or training for a 10k or half marathon, start off with 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram. You can increase this to around 1.5 if you train hard.
Marathon training might call for 1.4 to 1.7 grams, depending on how you feel.
How To Put It All Together
Once you’ve got your weight and chosen your desired level of activity/recommended protein intake all you need to do is multiply the two of them to get the number of grams of protein you need to be taking in every day!
- An experienced runner weighing 140 pounds (63.5 kilograms), who’s training hard for a half marathon would calculate their protein intake as follows:
63.5 x 1.5 = 95.25 grams of protein.
- A newbie who weighs 180 pounds (81.6 kilograms) running a relaxed 5k park run every week would work theirs out like this:
81.6 x 1 = 81.6 grams of protein.
The difference may be small, but it can make a significant change to your performance!
If you calculate your total and don’t feel any better or stronger after a week or so eating at your new protein total, increase the number you multiply your weight by. Eg. move from 1.2 to 1.4.
What’s The Best Way for Runners to Consume Protein?
We get the majority of our protein from eating meat. For vegetarians, legumes and some other veggies contain a decent amount, as do dairy products and eggs.
But the easiest way to increase your protein count without adding another full meal to your day is to use protein powder.
You’ll get all of the protein at half of the calories, and it’s quick-absorbing. You can do plenty with protein powder, too!
If you prefer no-fuss options, simply adding a scoop or two (depending on how much protein you need) to about 300ml of water is a great, quick way to get your protein in.
You can also add a scoop of protein powder to a bowl of yogurt or oats, stir some into your coffee (this works best with vanilla), or bake protein cupcakes or pancakes.
If protein powder isn’t the thing for you, it’s best to make an effort to increase the amount of natural proteins you eat at every meal. It’s not difficult to add some high-protein foods to your meal!
Can Protein Have Side Effects?
Like all good things, too much protein can have negative effects. In severe cases, eating too much protein for a long period of time can contribute to or even lead to kidney disease.
But if you’re eating the right amount based on your calculations above, the likelihood of having side effects is low (except for the common protein gas).
This is true regardless of how you’re getting your protein in! Eating too much real, healthy meat can be a bad thing, just as too much protein powder can be.
There are a couple of exceptions to the “no side effects” rule, and they apply more to protein powder than real food.
First, if you don’t tolerate gluten or lactose well, there’s a chance you may develop stomach problems when using whey protein.
Second, if you don’t keep up with your water intake, it can be quite easy to dehydrate without even realizing it!
Keep an eye on these two things, and you’ll be totally fine.
What Are The Different Types of Proteins Found In Drinks and Powders?
If you’ve opted to add a protein powder to your daily intake, it can be overwhelming trying to find the right one!
Here’s a quick run-down of the different types of proteins and what’s good about them to help you choose.
Whey is the most widely used type of protein powder. It absorbs quickly and easily into the system, and gets to work quickly on repair and muscle-building.
It’s a complete protein, meaning it’s not missing any amino acids, so it’s one of the healthiest around. Whey can even help reduce inflammation and decrease the chances of getting cancer.
Interestingly, whey is the left-over stuff from the cheesemaking process!
Whey will most likely be the easiest protein to find, so it is the most widely used.
Casein is recommended for those runners who are lactose intolerant. It won’t aggravate those sensitivities.
Casein takes longer to digest than whey. That keeps your protein levels up through the day. In some cases, you can take it just before bed, so it can digest slowly overnight.
If you’re adventurous in the kitchen and like the sound of protein brownies or crumpets, casein is the best protein to bake with.
Egg White Protein
This complete protein consists of 90% water and 10% protein. There’s no fat or cholesterol in this powder – it’s really made from egg whites. It’s also a complete protein, just like whey. It contains all 9 essential amino acids in the right amount for our bodies.
Vegans and vegetarians will benefit from this plant-based protein. As its name suggests, it’s made from peas, which are a super source of arginine and lysine, two important amino acids.
The other 7 amino acids are present too, making this a well-rounded protein that’s also low in cholesterol.
Brown Rice Protein
Another popular plant-based protein. Brown rice protein is slow-digesting, but lacks some of the amino acids the others contain.
Soy protein has a bit of a mixed reputation. Some swear by it as a vegan protein-alternative, while others feel that it made them puffy and chubby. For some people, it can even interfere with hormone function.
Whatever your thoughts, soy protein is a complete protein. The most unfortunate thing about soy is that most US soybeans are genetically modified. If you are a stickler for clean eating, make sure you check the manufacturer’s information about how they source ingredients.
The last of our plant-based protein powders, hemp also contains good amounts of electrolytes such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron.