Running is one of the most popular recreational activities in the country. According to Livestrong, about 18.1 million people in the United States registered for road races in 2018. There are numerous benefits to running, but one important aspect is ensuring enough protein is being taken in. Just how much protein do runners need?
Generally, runners need about double the amount of protein that non-runners need. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the average person should eat 0.8 g per kilogram a person weighs; runners should eat double, and marathon runners can eat, even more, ranging from 1.0-1.6 g per kilogram in weight.
Learn about protein intake, the best kinds of protein to eat, and whether there are other foods that runners should eat to improve performance or lose weight.
What Type of Protein is Best for Runners?
There are many different types of protein, which can make it difficult to decide which kind is the best for runners. Runners should aim for complete proteins, which means that it contains all nine essential amino acids that are not created naturally in the body.
Protein from animals
Animal proteins, such as those found in meat (chicken, beef, pork, lamb), will provide the proteins the body needs. Dairy products such as eggs, yogurt, and cheese are also great if someone is not a meat eater.
Protein from non-animals
Non-animal proteins such as those found in soy products also give the body complete proteins. Soy milk, tofu, edamame, and soy veggie burgers are excellent choices.
Protein from powders
Protein powders are an easy way to add protein to a runner’s diet and are an integral part of any runner’s day. Some of the best protein powders stimulate muscles and can easily provide complete proteins without eating certain foods.
- Casein Powder: Casein is an insoluble part of milk that digests more slowly, encouraging repair over a longer period. Many runners and experts in the field suggest that casein should be consumed before bedtime.
- Whey Powder: Whey is by far the most popular protein powder, not only for runners but for many athletes. It’s a by-product of the cheese-making process. Runners love it because it is easily absorbed and stimulates muscle-protein synthesis.
- Pea Powder: Pea powder is dairy-free, so it’s great for those with lactose intolerance. It also provides complete proteins so vegetarian and vegan runners can avoid animal products.
- Brown Rice Powder: Brown rice protein is another powder that digests slowly. It helps to build muscle and aid in post-running recovery. Another benefit is that it provides fiber, which also helps with digestion.
- Spirulina: Spirulina is high in antioxidants and is another complete protein powder. It’s very absorbable, but a downside is that a runner would have to eat more spirulina to get the same amount of protein as some other powders.
- Soy: Soy powder is an excellent vegan option. When it’s processed, it can contain up to 90% protein content. It also does not have a strong flavor, so it’s great for mixing drinks or shakes.
What Type of Protein is Best for Vegan/Vegetarian Runners?
More people are choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. While it may seem harder to get the right amount of protein, it’s easier thanks to more options on the market.
Vegetarian runners do not touch meat but dairy products are fine. Because of this, vegetarian runners can eat things such as eggs, yogurt, and cheese. Products such as these provide complete proteins. The only things to watch out for are allergies or lactose intolerance.
In addition, soy products are complete proteins and are easier to digest. Some in the running community think soy has negative effects on health, such as hormonal imbalance and weight gain, but these are unfounded.
One of the hardest things for vegan runners is ensuring they’re getting enough protein, but it can be easier than many think. The key is ensuring that vegan runners get complete proteins in their meals, including pairing incomplete proteins with other foods. A common example is rice and beans.
Other popular forms of vegan protein include nuts, lentils, quinoa, and chickpeas. When paired with whole grains, these become super complete proteins, which some argue are even better than animal-produced complete proteins.
Related: Is The Vegan Diet Good For Runners?
What Type of Protein Supplement is Best for Runners?
Protein powders are a great way to add protein to drinks and smoothies, but some other protein supplements are worth considering.
Protein bars are great for runners because they are smaller and easy to carry around. Most bars only weigh a few ounces and won’t add additional weight while running. Most protein bars will have essential nutrients vital to keeping runners’ energy up and added carbs for energy.
Protein pills are another convenient way to get a protein supplement. They’re not as common as powders, but they’re becoming more popular. Protein pills that have glutamine and Vitamin D are especially important for runners.
Glutamine is perfect for long-distance running because it helps muscle repair and reduces soreness. Muscles are more likely to break down if there’s a lack of glutamine.
Vitamine D helps with bone health. Runners are putting a lot of strain on their skeletal system, so keeping bones strong helps prevent future injury.
When is the Best Time for Runners to Eat Protein?
The “golden time” to eat protein is ideally 30 minutes after an intense run. According to Runners World, 30 minutes is when the body is most primed to use protein and carbs for recovery and muscle repair.
Eating protein can last as long as two hours, but anything after that is not ideal. There tends to be less protein synthesis (cells are not processing the protein as well) and muscle-glycogen storage (the process of muscles recovering). Even though less protein synthesis occurs after two hours, your body will still utilize the protein to recover, just not as efficiently.
Related: Is the Paleo Diet good for runners?
Are Carbs Just as Important as Protein for Runners?
Protein has been talked about a lot, but carbs are another common energy source. Carbohydrates provide the energy runners need to keep their stamina up, so carbs are just as important as protein for runners.
Low-carb diets deplete runners of necessary energy and can cause crashes in blood sugar. Carbs are responsible for converting fat into glucose, the “fire” that your body’s metabolism uses to keep up strenuous exercise.
This is not to say runners can gorge on just any carbs. Whole grains and unprocessed carbs are the best because they don’t have added sugars or preservatives, which are detrimental to anyone’s health.
Related: Is the Keto Diet good for runners?
Does Excess Protein in a Runner’s Diet Help with Weight Loss?
Another popular belief is that eating more protein helps with weight loss. While it’s not guaranteed, studies have shown that eating more protein can help with losing some pounds.
Two main reasons why protein helps promote weight loss are as follows:
- Protein is more satiating than fats and carbs, which helps you keep full.
- Protein takes more calories to burn than carbohydrates and fats (the thermic effect of protein is 30% – for every 100 calories consumed, 30 calories are needed to metabolize protein). This is why protein is used last as an energy source only in dire situations (starvation).
Protein is very filling, Thus it often prevents overeating. Protein also helps build muscle, and having more muscles has been shown to burn more calories throughout the day.
So while there’s no overall study that shows that excess protein helps with weight loss, it can be argued that it doesn’t hurt. Runners need more protein anyway, so increasing it will be beneficial no matter what.
Protein is vital to any runner’s diet to help with muscle building and recovery. The most important thing is to get complete proteins, which can be done by pairing certain foods together, especially for vegetarian and vegan runners.
Don’t neglect your strength training if you’re a runner. Strength training is an important supplement to your training regime. Are you looking for a place to get started? Not only am I a level 2 running coach I’m also a NASM certified personal trainer. check out my post on Weight Training 101 – Certified Personal Trainer Approved!