Getting your nutrition right is critical for runners. Protein is a critical part of the equation if you want to harness your true athletic potential. Carbohydrates are often placed front and center in the fueling discussion, with the key role of protein being pushed to the background.
Protein has a massive role to play in runner’s health and energy management, including:
- Boosting strength
- Improving muscle recovery
- Supporting the immune system
- Forming enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters
- Increasing bone density
- Assisting hemoglobin formation
But how much protein does a runner need to perform well?
The amount of protein we need is a source of much contention, with varying views and options, making it very confusing for the average runner to know the right number. This is even more complicated when you factor in whether you want to lose, gain, or maintain your weight.
Below, we’ll look at how much protein you need as a runner, whether you need to increase your protein intake during intense training, and if there’s such a thing as too much protein.
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
Our bodies are amazing machines, and much like how your car will start sputtering if it’s running out of fuel, your body gives you signs if you aren’t getting enough protein.
The main signals to look out for include the following:
- You feel sluggish, tired, or energy lulls throughout the day
- You struggle to build muscle or recover from your workouts
- You feel constantly hungry despite eating adequate calories
These are the first signs that your body likely needs more protein. But how much protein should we be getting as runners?
Let’s look at the recommendations.
How Much Protein Does A Runner Need?
Studies done by the NIH concluded that the average person requires 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, an average person who does no exercise and weighs 75 kilograms needs 60 grams of protein daily.
To meet the additional caloric and functional needs of an athlete, dietary intake of protein should be increased to 1 gram (light), 1.3 grams (moderate), and 1.6 grams (intense) of protein per kilogram of body weight based on exercise intensity. So, an average person that weighs 75 kilograms needs 75 – 120 grams of protein daily, depending on their activity level.
These studies also found that long-term protein consumption of 2 – 3.5 grams per kilogram of body weight is tolerable in well-adapted subjects.
Sources of High Protein
Let’s look at some of the foods with the highest protein content:
|Greek Yogurt||150 grams||11 – 20 grams|
|Cottage Cheese||½ cup||13 grams|
|Milk||220 ml||8 grams|
|Cheese||28 grams||1 – 7 grams|
|Eggs||1 egg||6 grams|
|Ground Turkey||28 grams||7 grams|
|Chicken, Beef, Fish||28 grams||7 – 8 grams|
|Tempeh||85 grams||15 grams|
|Tofu||½ cup||8 grams|
|Lentils||½ cup||9 grams|
|Nut Butter||2 tablespoons||8 grams|
|Nuts||28 grams||4 – 6 grams|
|Spirulina/Seaweed||2 tablespoons||8 grams|
|Edamame||½ cup||8 grams|
Your body can absorb around 25 to 35 grams of protein in one meal, so overloading your plate with tons of protein isn’t going to supercharge your recovery. Your age and size determine how much protein you should consume at a time.
Smaller athletes should aim for 15 to 25 grams, whereas larger athletes should incorporate 30 to 40 grams of protein per meal. If you’re older than 55, you need to eat more protein to maintain the same muscle tone and mass as when you were younger.
Many runners, even if they aren’t vegetarian or vegan, choose to follow the plant protein route. If you choose to do this, choose proteins that mix a few plant proteins to ensure you’re getting all the necessary amino acids.
Plant protein is less digestible than animal protein (whey), so you absorb less protein per gram. The most notable exceptions are pea, hemp, and soy protein powders, all of which contain each essential amino acid, even though they’re a bit lower in leucine content.
Your running protein needs will be properly met as long as you consume higher amounts of plant protein from various sources.
Whey is considered the crème de la crème of protein powders. It comes from cow’s milk and constitutes around 20% of milk’s protein.
Unless you have an allergy, whey is rapidly absorbed and easy to digest. It’s very popular for being the protein source with the largest leucine content. This branch chain amino acid (BCAA) is the anabolic trigger of muscle growth from training and muscle repair.
Casein, which makes up the remaining 80% of the protein in milk, is harder to digest and slow to absorb, so it’s a less effective post-run option. Whey is the way to go.
Best Protein Powder Options for Runners
You should always try to get your protein from food-based sources, whether plant or animal. On the go, protein powders are very convenient, so many runners and athletes rely on them to ensure they have enough protein in their diet.
Protein powders are quick and easy to prepare, can be stored for up to 12 months at room temperature, travel well, and are typically cheaper than food-based sources when compared gram to gram.
You don’t want to give up quality for convenience, so you must understand which protein powder is best for you and your needs. We consider the options below:
|Protein Type||Ideal For||Why|
|Whey Protein Concentrate||Dairy-eating runners on a budget||It contains 70 – 80% protein, some fat, and lactose.|
|Whey Protein Isolate||Dairy-eating runners||It’s the purest protein powder and contains 90% protein with no fat or lactose.|
|Whey Hydrolysate||Dairy-eating runners with sensitive stomachs||It is made from pre-digested whey and breaks down easily and quickly. It has a bitter flavor and can be pricey.|
|Soy Protein||Vegetarians and vegans||It’s a great source of quality plant protein.|
|Casein Protein||Quick muscle repair||Casein bridges the gap between meals but is somewhat harder to digest.|
|Hemp and Pea Protein||Vegetarians, vegans, runners who avoid soy or whey||Hemp and pea proteins are complete plant proteins.|
Most protein powders for athletes have around 20 – 25 grams of protein per serving. This is the standard amount you should look for in a powder, as part of a balanced diet for running.
How To Know If a Protein Powder is Safe
Protein powders aren’t considered food but rather a supplement, so the FDA must evaluate and approve them to ensure they’re safe for human consumption. But you can never be sure what is in each scoop of protein powder.
An investigation by the Clean Label Project found that many products had some contaminants, such as heavy metals, pesticides, arsenic, and BPA. This is just one of the reasons we recommend that you aim to get as much of your protein from food sources as possible.
If you’re going to consume protein powder, you need to find high-quality products that have gone through proper third-party testing. Here’s what to look for:
- Informed Choice logo – this ensures products don’t contain and aren’t contaminated with banned substances.
- NSF Certified for Sport – this means the product has undergone testing for substances and contaminants banned by all major athletic organizations and has been made in a facility that’s audited each year for safety and quality.
- Good Manufacturing Practices – this ensures that integrity and quality have been maintained during the manufacturing process.
Gone are the days of trusting food and supplement manufacturers to have your health as their primary focus. You need to read the labels of any product you buy.
If a product has the words “proprietary formula or blend,” the manufacturer won’t disclose the ingredient quantities. This is a massive red flag, and you should avoid these products. Choose protein powders with natural blends and a short list of ingredients you recognize.
Do You Need a Protein Supplement?
As we’ve covered, it’s critical to include the right amount of protein in your diet based on age, size, and activity level.
To the end, supplements can be a helpful way to bulk up your intake. High-quality protein shakes are very useful in the first half hour after exercise, but protein bars are also a great option for on-the-go snacking.
While you don’t need to use protein supplements, they are very handy to ensure your recovery and muscle development are on track.
When To Eat Protein
Protein is a fantastic way to maximize your recovery and maintain a healthy, strong immune system, but when and how much protein you eat is vital. Here are a few guidelines:
- Start and end each day with around 20 grams of protein during intense training or if you’re struggling with sleep. Protein suppresses the negative effects of cortisol, the stress hormone.
- Ensure every meal has protein and that the portion is appropriate for your age, size, and activity level (20 to 40 grams).
- Skip chocolates and sweets – eat high-protein snacks with 10 to 15 grams of protein between meals.
- Have dairy protein, like cottage cheese or yogurt, before bed. The casein in dairy is released slowly, while the whey is released quickly. This combination stabilizes blood sugar and repairs your muscles while you’re sleeping.
The Anabolic Opportunity Window
In the first half hour following intense exercise, your body is primed to use carbs and protein for muscle repair and recovery. Consuming quality protein after your run can fast-track your recovery.
When your glycogen (energy) stores run low, your body uses protein for fuel by breaking down your muscle tissue. If you don’t fuel with carbs during intense workouts lasting over 60 minutes, you may jeopardize your metabolic system and overall health while unnecessarily breaking down your muscles.
After your runs, consume around 0.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight – preferably as a liquid. Smoothies and protein shakes are great for post-exercise recovery fuel and are quickly digested.
Our Verdict on Protein For Runners
As with most other things regarding the needs of runners, the amount of protein you need is unique to you. Your age, size, and activity level are the main consideration points when determining how much protein you need daily. With the guide above, you can work out your basic needs and adjust as necessary.
When you nail your protein requirements, you’ll notice a massive change in your strength and recovery.