As a runner, you got to pay attention to the foods you eat, if you are serious about reaching your full fitness potential.
The fact is, runners require more protein than couch potatoes to help repair, build and maintain muscle mass after hard training.
In today’s post, I’ll discuss runners protein needs, how proteins help, and how to get the most out of it. I’ll also teach you about the main differences between “complete” and “incomplete” proteins along with a complete list of protein-rich foods.
So are you ready? Then here we go.
Dietary Proteins Demystified
Proteins, along with carbohydrates and fats, are one of the three macronutrients your body needs to function properly. As a runner, you should have a greater portion of this vital nutrient, especially after your workouts than any other time of the day.
Why you Need Proteins
Proteins, as you might already know, are the building blocks of life. These compounds are needed to produce energy, maintain primary biological processes, and sustain life.
More specifically, proteins are primarily essential for building, repairing, and maintaining cells, tissues, and organs throughout your body, but also important for other vital bodily functions, including:
- The production of antibodies that fight infections,
- Immune system integrity,
- Hormonal messaging,
Dietary proteins can also serve as a source of fuel when your glycogen stores wear out (although carbohydrates, stored as glycogen in the liver, muscles, and bloodstream—are still your body’s preferred source of fuel). This is especially the case during long and hard training sessions.
The Exact Chemical Structure
Proteins are macromolecules—or large biomolecules—consisting of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. These macromolecules are made of 22 smaller molecules called amino acids that form the basis of all organic life.
Each protein has a particular, genetically distinct amino acid sequence that defines its unique shape and function.
Then God Said: “Let There Be Protein.”
According to science, the human body is made up of about 100 trillion cells, with each cell housing about 10,000 types of different proteins. Yes, that’s a huge number.
In fact, roughly 18 percent of your body weight comes from protein in the form of lean tissue. Proteins also comprise 10 percent your brain and 20 percent of your heart tissue. Likewise, they are a fundamental component of bone, organs, glands, skin, hair, and bodily fluids—except urine and bile.
Therefore, to refer to proteins as the building blocks of life is no exaggeration. It’s a fact.
Welcome to the Machine
Think of proteins as miniature machines within the cells. They make all living things, whether plants, ants, bears, viruses, bees, trees, and humans function.
Without proteins, life, as we know it, is impossible.
Essential Vs Non-essential Amino Acids
Protein itself is composed of 22 types of amino acids—all of which are crucial for normal functioning.
That said, only nine of them are what’s known as the essential amino acids— the compounds that our bodies need but does not manufacture. Instead, you’ll have to get them from nutrition sources.
Here is a list of the nine amino acids we can get only from diet: isoleucine, histidine, methionine, lysine, threonine, valine, tryptophan, isoleucine, and phenylalanine.
The remaining 13 amino acids are produced by our bodies. For that reason, they are called non-essential since you don’t need to get them through dietary means.
The Process—How Protein Gets into your System
When you consume foods that contain protein, your digestive system juices it in your stomach and intestine, then it’s broken down by your liver into its building blocks amino acids.
Then, once these compounds are absorbed, they are reconfigured and reassembled into different forms of protein that can be used by your body for things like enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
The Complete Vs. The Incomplete
As previously stated, proteins are not created equal. Some are complete whereas others are incomplete.
Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids. For that reason, your body can readily use them for protein synthesis—the process of building and/or repairing of muscle tissue.
Primary sources of complete proteins include animal products. In fact, most animal-based sources of proteins, such as poultry, meat, eggs, and fish, provide all the vital amino acids your body needs in significant quantity.
Incomplete proteins are those that may contain significant quantities of amino acids, but not all the nine essential amino acids, or don’t deliver enough quantities to meet your body’s needs.
As a result, when you consume incomplete proteins, your body cannot fully use them during protein synthesis.
Most plant-based sources, such as vegetables, beans, grains, and nuts are often deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids.
Just because incomplete proteins are, incomplete, doesn’t make them inferior, nor does it mean that you can’t get sufficient complete proteins from a plant-based diet.
All you need to do is combine different plant-based food to help provide provide your body with the proper balance (and amount) of essential amino acids.
By opting for a well-rounded, and varied protein-rich plant-based foods each day, you can increase your chances of getting all the essential amino acids your body needs for optimal functioning.
Here are a few tasty examples.
- Spinach salad with almonds
- Grains and legumes based soups or stews
- Hummus with whole-wheat bread
- Yogurt with Walnut
- Rice and peas
- Brown rice and beans
- Whole grain noodles with peanut sauce
- Legume with nuts
- Yogurt with almonds or sunflower seeds
- Legumes with seeds
- Beans and corn
- Salad made with buts and beans
- Green peas and brown rice
- Legumes with grains
As you can see, there is a wide array of combination out there, so get creative.
The Exact Diet Proportions
Running, and exercise, in general, can break down muscle protein. That’s why you need to pay attention to your protein intake.
Unfortunately, there is no universal rule to determine how much protein is adequate for each and every individual—especially for active folks. The fact is, every body is different, and no two runners have identical nutritional needs and goals.
For that reason, the amount of protein your body requires is shaped by many factors, including your fitness level, training intensity, age, gender, training goals, personal preference, etc.
But, all in all, protein should make 15 to 25 percent of your daily calorie intake.
The Standard Recommendation
According to current guidelines, the average person should aim to consume about 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
So, for instance, if you weigh 160 pounds, you would want to consume about 100 to 130 grams of protein per day.
But you are no ordinary person, aren’t you?
You are a runner. And for that reason, you need more protein than the average Joe and Jane.
The typical proteins suggestions might be suitable for sedentary individuals. But, the standard recommendations are likely not enough to offset the oxidation of proteins during exercise.
The Runners Recommendations
Research shows that athletes require more dietary proteins than their couch-potato peers.
Here are some protein intake suggestions to help guide you in the right direction:
If you do light to moderation training, you’d need 0.7 to 0.9 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Moderate to Intense Training
Once you rack up the miles or do any form of strength training, your protein needs increase.
In fact, prolonged and/or strenuous training may boost dietary proteins needs to as high as one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (or 1.9 grams per kilogram of body weight) per day.
Half-Marathon and marathon runners might need to shoot for at least 1.2 grams of protein per lb. of bodyweight.
The Healthy Range
As a general rule, to determine your daily protein intake, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.6 (or by 1.3 your weight in kilograms) to obtain the number of grams to be consumed each day.
Just don’t get too bogged down by the numbers.
As a general rule, you should aim to stay above the 0.7-gram border. If your protein intake is below that ceiling, chances are you’re not meeting your full protein synthesis needs.
As long as you are aiming to consume somewhere in the region of 0.6 to 0.9 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, you’ll not miss the mark.
Jane is a female runner weighing 150lb. To consume enough protein to support her training, recovery and overall health, Jane would be looking to ingest about 120 to 150 grams of the macronutrient every day.
The 20 grams Post-Run Protein Rule
Consuming the right amount of protein isn’t the only significant factor you need to consider.
Timing is also of the essence if you’re serious about ensuring that you’re getting the most out of your protein intake.
Research shows that consuming protein within the recovery window can speed up glycogen synthesis.
During the recovery window, your muscles are primed to receive and use up nutrients to repair and replenish itself from the damage experienced while running.
In fact, according to research published in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,” consuming a meal or snack containing both protein and carbs post-workout can improve running performance and optimize muscle recovery.
To make the most out of your proteins, most experts recommend ingesting at least 10 to 20 grams of high-quality protein within 20 to 30 minutes of finishing a run.
Scale according to your weight and training intensity/needs.
Listen to your Body
Keeping tabs on your recovery rate and overall health level is one way to ensure you’re getting enough protein.
Here is how.
If you feel great and your recovery rate is fast, then your current protein intake might be ideal.
But, if you are not recovering as quickly as you’d like to, or keep getting injured, you may need to up your protein intake and see if anything improves.
In some cases, consider increasing your protein uptake to 1.3g per lb. of bodyweight.
As previously stated, your daily protein needs depend on your rate of activity, your caloric state, your current weight, your fitness goals, and running goals, amongst many other factors.
So there is a lot to consider.
Too Much Protein
Like anything else in life, when it comes to proteins, you can have too much of a good thing.
Dietary proteins yield four calories per gram, the same as carbohydrates, So, any protein overindulgence can lead to eventual weight gain. And you don’t want that.
Not only that, research shows that protein toxicity—for example, taking too many protein supplements, could even damage your kidneys or liver. And you don’t want that either.
So, as a result, keep your protein intake within 20 to 25 percent of total calories.
The Complete List
If the above intake recommendation sounds like too much, then take a look at the below list and consider how much protein in common foods and dairy products.
Refer to this list whenever you’re sketching your diet plan to ensure that you’re getting enough sources of protein in your diet.
- 6 ounces of tuna = 40 grams
- 6 ounces of fish, salmon or cod = 40 grams
- 4 ounces of lean red meat = 35 grams
- 4 ounces of skinless chicken = 35 grams
- 4 ounces of lean pork = 35 grams
- 3 ounces of roasted turkey = 26 grams
- 3 ounces of steak = 26 grams
- 4 ounces of trout = 27 grams
- 4 ounces of fresh, Atlantic farmed, salmon = 25 grams
- 3 ounces of lamb = 23 grams
- 3 ounces of salmon = 22 grams
- 3 ounces of pork = 22 grams
- 3 ounces of shrimp = 20 grams
- 3 ounces of lobster = 16 grams
- 3 ounces of scallops = 14 grams
- One ounce of broiled, beef, Sirloin steak = 8 grams
- One ounce of baked, roast, beef = 8 grams
- One ounce of, dark meat, chicken = 7 grams
- One ounce of Salmon = 7 grams
- One ounce of, white meat, chicken = 7 grams
- One ounce of turkey breast = 7 grams
- One large, 50g, egg = 6 to 7 grams
- One ounce of Cod = 6.5
- One ounce of tuna = 6.5 grams
- One ounce of Scallops = 6 grams
- One ounce of shrimp = 6 grams
- One ounce of Flounder = 5 grams
- One slice of roasted turkey breast = 5 grams
- One ounce of smoked ham = 5 grams
- One large, white only, egg = 3.5 grams
- One medium slice of bacon = 2 grams
- ½ cup of raw tofu = 19 grams
- One cup of lentils = 16 grams
- ½ package of tofu = 14 grams
- One cup of black beans = 12 grams
- ½ cup of pinto beans = 11 grams
- ½ cup of soybeans = 11 grams
- ½ cup of lentils = 9 grams
- ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds = 8 grams
- ½ cup of black beans = 8 grams
- ½ cup of chickpeas = 7 grams
- ½ cup of black eyed peas = 7 grams
- One ounce of peanuts = 7 grams
- Once ounce of roasted almonds = 6.2 grams
- One ounce of almonds = 6 grams
- One ounce of flax seeds = 6 grams
- One ounce of Chia seeds = 5 grams
- One ounce of walnuts = 4 grams
- One cup cooked rice = 4 grams
- One ounce of roasted pistachios = 5 grams
- One ounce of roasted cashews = 4 grams
- ½ cup of quinoa = 4 grams
- One cup of cottage cheese = 28 grams
- 6 ounces of Greek yogurt = 18 grams
- 4 ounces of cottage cheese = 14 grams
- One cup of regular, non-fat, yogurt = 11 grams
- One cup of milk = 8 grams
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter = 8 grams
- One cup of skim milk = 8 grams
- One ounce of mozzarella = 7 grams
- One slice of cheddar cheese= 6 grams
Use your Palms
If the above serving sizes seem overwhelming, fret no more.
I got the right solution for you.
Well, the secret to figuring this out lies within your grasp, literally. In fact, keeping tabs on your daily protein intake is quite simple once you wrap your head around serving size.
All in all, one serving of protein is the equivalent of one palm of your hand (or the size of a standard deck of playing cards).
Each palm sized serving—a serving that has the same thickness and diameter as your palm—may provide about 20 to 30 grams of dietary protein. This simple measurement trick is ideal for protein-dense foods, like meat, fish, eggs, beans, or dairy.
Sure, everyone’s hands are different sizes as you might argue.
But according to some experts, that’s actually a good thing since hand size tends to be consistently relative to the size of the rest of your body. Thus, it’s an effective personalized food measurement tool, and should be a reliable way to assess your daily protein intake.
In general, make sure to consume at least six to eight palm sized portions of protein each day, getting two palm-sized portions with each meal (presuming that you’re having four to five meals a day).
To wrap things up, as a runner, your body needs extra protein. No doubt.
Just don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that you should start stocking up on gigantic steaks, mountains of cottage cheese, and gigantic tubs of tofu.
All you have to do is follow the above protein intake guidelines, then re-adjust it according to your own needs and training goals.
As long as you’re taking in sufficient calories to sustain your training and maintain your bodyweight (unless you want to lose weight), and as long as 15 to 20 percent of your daily calories are coming from proteins, you’re probably on the right path.