Protein is an essential macronutrient for runners, along with carbohydrates and fat. And it’s fair to say that protein has been given a lot of media attention lately.
With the rise of protein snacks, protein powders and more and more people exercising and hitting the gym, the buzz word is protein!
With any buzzy thing that comes along, it gets hard to separate what’s fact and what’s fiction.
It can be difficult to sift through this information and understand what advice you should be following as a runner.
We require a lot of fuel to keep us going on those long runs.
No doubt you’re probably very familiar with carbohydrates – a runner’s best friend!
Carbohydrates, along with fat, are your main source of fuel. So what is protein and why is it important for runners?
What is protein and why is it important?
Protein is one of five nutrient groups (the others being carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals).
Your diet needs to be rich in all five nutrient groups, albeit in varying amounts, in order to function properly.
Some of these nutrients are also used for fuel (namely carbohydrates and fat).
The body needs protein primarily to repair and maintain itself. Proteins are essentially the building blocks of life.
Every cell in the human body contains protein. It is a chief component of the skin, muscles, organs and glands, and makes up approximately 18-20% of the body’s weight.
Protein is needed in the diet to help the body repair cells and make new ones.
It’s also important for growth and development during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy.
Simply put, there would be no life without protein.
Water is the only other substance more plentiful in the body.
What are good sources of protein for runners?
Good sources of protein include:
- Turkey and chicken with skin removed.
- Lean cuts of beef or pork (visible fat trimmed).
- Fish or shellfish.
- Pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, split peas and garbanzo beans.
- Nuts and seeds, including almonds, hazelnuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
- Tofu, tempeh and other soy protein products.
- Low-fat dairy products.
Should I be eating protein supplements as a runner?
Despite all the marketing campaigns you see nowadays for protein powders and snacks, a nutritionally balanced diet provides the body with enough protein.
Healthy people rarely need protein supplements.
That being said, protein snacks are sometimes useful to eat if you’re short on time and need a protein-rich snack following a workout or long run.
Smoothies with added protein are also a simple and quick thing to make after a run.
Check out my smoothie recipes for runners for more tips and ideas when aiding recovery.
How much protein should I be eating?
The amount of recommended daily protein depends on your age, health and activity levels.
Two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults.
The recommended serving sizes for protein:
- A portion of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish about the size of a deck of playing cards.
- Half a cup of cooked dried beans.
- One egg.
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter.
The amount of protein required for effective function will vary significantly from person to person.
It’s very difficult to get it right with a simple calculation, and it takes some trial and error and fine-tuning to find what works best for an individual.
In the UK it is often the case that the only decent amount of protein eaten during the day is in the evening meal.
When in fact protein should be a major part of every meal consumed.
A basic starting point to work out how much protein an individual needs is to consider body weight and physical activity levels.
Here are some suggested intakes (set by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)) of grams of protein per day dependent on an individual’s activity type and levels:
- Sedentary adult – 0.8g/kg
- Recreational adult exerciser – 0.8-1.5g/kg
- Adult endurance athlete – 1.2-1.6g/kg
- Growing teenage athlete – 1.5-2.0g/kg
- Adult building muscle mass – 1.5-1.7g/kg
- Estimated upper limits (adults) – 2.0g
When should I eat protein?
As mentioned above, protein should be part of every meal, including breakfast, lunch and dinner.
However, as protein is essential for muscle repair and recovery, it’s good to prioritise protein intake after a workout or run.
You want to be mixing carbs with protein after a run to speed up the recovery process. Aim for a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
Whey and soy protein are both good examples of protein that are rapidly digested by the body. Hence why they are common ingredients in protein shakes and protein powders.
I’m a vegetarian/vegan runner, am I eating enough protein?
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, do not fret! We do not have to eat animal products to get all the protein our bodies require.
As long as you’re eating vegetarian/vegan sources of protein such as tofu, tempeh, beans, pulses etc – you will have more than enough in your daily intake.
Tips on getting enough protein as a runner
Here are some essential protein tips for runners:
- When planning your meals, try and include even amounts of protein in each meal throughout the day. This means including sources of protein in each meal, including breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- To gain the full benefits of protein’s power, eat 10-20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of finishing your run. This is when your muscles are the most receptive to a helping hand.
- If you don’t have the time or inclination to cook a meal following a run, fuel post-run with a smoothie or protein shake.
- Remember to stay hydrated and eat plenty of carbs too. Carbs and protein work together to replenish your glycogen stores more efficiently.