Whether you’re running to lose weight, training for your first 5K, or aiming to complete a sub-3 hour marathon, you already know that your body requires more nutrients than the average person.
Overall, most runners focus on getting an adequate amount of carbohydrate in their diet, but protein is equally important. In fact, as a runner—or endurance athlete—protein is integral to your training.
The macronutrient is one of the primary three-four groups you need each day as it helps in tissue repair, immune function, injury prevention, and exercise recovery—I can go on and on, but you get the picture.
But how much protein does a runner need?
Protein intake for runners isn’t rocket science. As long as you’re getting enough of the macronutrient, you’ll be on the right path.
Protein needs vary between runners, largely depending on training goals, intensity, and time spent training.
In most cases, if you’re eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet with plenty of quality protein sources, you definitely are getting enough protein.
In this article, I’ll break down runners’ needs for protein and share a few practical guidelines on making the most out of this valuable nutrient.
Sounds great? Let’s get started.
Let’s start at the beginning – what protein is?
Protein is the building block of muscle. It consists of the amino acids that make up muscle tissue.
That’s not the whole story. The macronutrient is also key for repairing damaged muscle tissue.
It aids in recovery and is a key macronutrient for human survival. Skip on protein, and your body may start eating itself.
Protein can also function as a fuel source, providing about 10 percent of the energy needed to sustain endurance training—like running.
For these reasons—and some more—as a runner, you need protein—and you need it more than the average person.
That’s why if you want to perform your best, you’ll need to add plenty of protein-rich foods into your diet.
Do Runners Need Protein?
Of course, they do. After all, protein is the building block of muscle and all that.
Rich protein foods and shakes aren’t just for strength buffs.
If you engage in any form of exercise that damages muscle tissue, your body will require some amount of protein to repair and recover itself.
Running breaks down your muscle tissue. The longer and/or faster you run, the more muscle damage.
When your muscles aren’t getting enough protein, this can severally limit your ability to get faster and fitter. By consuming protein, you’ll help build that muscle back so you can keep on running your best.
Long distance runners require more protein each day than recreational runners.
Trying to build muscle?
If you’re lifting heavy while sticking to a regular running program, your protein needs will go up. This is especially the case if you’re trying to build muscle.
Not A Fuel Source
Although protein does provide some of the energy burnt during exercise, it shouldn’t be considered a fuel source. Instead, think of protein as a muscle builder, repairer, and re-conditioner.
It drastically helps in muscle damage and reduces the impact of cortisol, the stress hormone which is behind the breaking down of muscles.
How Much Protein Do Runners Need?
Now that you know a thing or two about the importance of protein for runners, let’s get back to the main topic of today’s post – how much protein do you need as a runner?
In short, I’d dare say more than you probably think.
Let’s start with the daily recommended dietary allowed for protein.
The number is around 0.36 grams per pound of body weight.
And yes, this is too low for most adults, research shows.
That’s why the American College of Sports Medicine recommends runners to consume more protein—at least around one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, you’ll need about 70 grams of protein throughout the day to meet your needs.
But is that enough?
Is it a universal rule?
Again the science begs to differ.
Let’s check some of the research on the subject
Another study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported that track and field runners should consume about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for the best training gains.
To put these numbers into perspective, these protein portions are roughly twice the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein guidelines to the general population.
Again, and I hate to sound like a broken record—runners need more protein than the average person.
Here’s what I’d recommend you do to make sure you have enough protein.
If you’re keeping your mileage within the moderate range—as in, running more than a few hours per week (this includes most recreational and intermediate runners), you consume closer to your body bodyweight in grams of protein.
Keep in mind the more fuel you burn in training, the higher your protein needs to prevent your body from breaking down your muscle to fuel your training.
Logging serious miles every week?
Consider shooting for two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
To Sum it Up
Here are the three levels of protein intake for runners
- Low activity – Shoot for 0.8 to 1 g of protein per pound of body weight each day
- Regular runner – shoot for more than 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight reach
- Heavy training – shot for 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per pound each day.
I cannot stress this enough.
Protein Calories in Diet
Protein should make up around 20 to 30 percent of your daily calorie intake. So where should the rest come from?
Overall, carbohydrates should make up to 50 to 60 percent of your daily calorie intake, whereas fat should make up the rest—roughly 15 to 20 percent.
These proportions should be enough to make up for any protein used up for fuel during training as well as support repair and recovery of muscular tissue.
How to know if you’re getting enough protein
Proportions aside, the best way to tell if you’re getting enough protein—or not—is to pay attention to your body.
After all, protein needs vary from one runner to the next, based on weekly volume, training intensity, and non-running elements such as medical conditions that can alter protein intake needs.
For starters, get an estimate of your daily protein needs. Do this by monitoring your daily calorie intake then determining the total protein content as your baseline.
Next, have an honest talk with yourself.
Are you feeling tired all the time? Do you have chronic muscle soreness? Are you gaining any muscle? Or losing it? Go through all bases.
Overall, there are a few warning signs that you might lack protein intake. Some of these include
- Low libido
- Chronic slightness, the laziness of fatigue
- Back of sleep
- Lack of mental focus and weak cognition
- Brittle hair and nail
- Loss of muscle tissue or unwanted changes in body composition
If you notice one more of these symptoms, then you’ll want to build up your protein intake.
Try adding an extra serving of protein per meal, and then see how you feel afterward.
Still in doubt? Consult a doctor or a registered nutritionist to find what works for you.
Can You Have Too Much Protein
Having enough protein is good for you, but, just like anything else, consuming too much can be problematic. Overall, when you eat too much protein than you need, the extra is either burned for energy or stored as fat in your fat adipose.
In general, you risk the following by eating too much protein:
- Not getting enough carbs to meet your fuel needs forces your body to turn to protein as a fuel source, which can be quite wasteful.
- Spending a lot of money since most high-quality sources of protein are expensive
- Urinating more often to eliminate waste products of protein breakdown.
- Increasing calcium loss as research shows that a diet high in protein may cause this.
The Best Sources of Protein For runners
As a general rule, high-quality protein sources include:
- Leans meats, preferably grass-fed
- Low-fat dairy
Overall, animal-based source of protein pack in the full spectrum of amino acids for optimal protein absorption.
For example, three-ounce sirloin steak packs about 23 grams of protein, whereas a cup of Greek yogurt has 20 grams.
On the other hand, plant-based protein foods, such as seeds, nuts, quinoa, leafy greens, contain fewer of the essential amino acids, which makes them less protein-dense.
This might fall short of meeting your body’s needs—unless you’re eating a variety of plant-based food and at a higher amount as well.
Again, you might run the risk of ingesting more calories than you should, but it’s a risk most plant-based dieters are willing to take.
Here are some concrete examples of protein intake.
21 grams of protein is the equivalent of;
- Half a chicken breast
- A 3-ounce serving of lean meat, poultry, or fish
- One small hamburger
- One medium pork chop
7 grams of protein equals:
- 1 ounce of cheese
- One egg
- 1/4 cup cottage cheese
- Two egg white
- Half a cup of cooked beans
- 4 ounces of tofu
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter.
- 8 grams of protein equals
- One cup of milk or yogurt
3 grams of protein equals:
- One slice of whole-wheat bread
There you have it! Today’s post should put you on the right path toward meeting your protein needs while running. The rest is just details.
Thank you for dropping by today.
In the meantime, keep running strong.