How much protein do runners really need?
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Ahh, protein. It seems like it gets all the glory. We see "PROTEIN!!" advertised across all kinds of foods at the grocery store - yogurt, oatmeal, granola, milk, cereal, even cookies.
Some athletes eat ALL THE PROTEIN - especially bodybuilders or cross-fitters or those who are into "paleo" or "keto" lifestyles. The idea is that if you want to build muscle, you need to eat more protein. Some athletes eat more protein because carbs are "bad".
Some athletes don't eat a lot of protein. Maybe they don't like many protein foods or they believe that most people eat more protein than what they actually need, so they don't seek it out.
So who has it right?
Protein IS important for athletes and runners to build muscle... and also to repair muscle, produce hormones, grow your fingernails, and give your immune system a boost.
But protein ALONE is not going to cut it. Athletes need carbohydrates and fats in their diets too. In fact, if you eat protein WITHOUT carbohydrates after a hard run, you're not going to repair or build your muscles as much as you will if you DO eat carbohydrates with your protein.
So how much do you actually need??
The recommended amount of protein for endurance athletes is 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds)
That's a large range, so let's break it down a little further.
👟 If you run for fun a few times per week and are more of a "recreational" athlete, you can aim towards the lower end of that range (around 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram).
👟 If you are more of a serious runner who is regularly running several times a week and maybe training for an event, you should be aiming to consume towards the middle of that range (around 1.4 to 1.6 grams per kilogram).
👟 Injured runner? You need more protein, so aim towards the higher end of that range (1.8 to 2 grams per kilogram or more). Some athletes will even need a little more than that.
👟 Working on building muscle? Or losing weight? You should also aim for the upper end of that range - around 1.5 to 2 grams per kilogram or a little bit more.
All this math! Can you break it down into something that I can actually use in my real day-to-day life?!?!
🍗 Make sure you're eating protein throughout the day, not just at one meal.
MANY people tend to eat very little protein at breakfast, a little more at lunch, and a LOT at dinner. This is not optimal as your body needs protein throughout the day and can't absorb a huge amount of protein all at once.
Aim for at least 20-30 grams of protein at each meal and 10-15 grams at snacks. At a meal, your protein food should take up about 25% of your plate. If you're eating meat, it should be at least about the size of a deck of cards.
🍗 Make sure that your post-run recovery meal or snack contains both protein and carbohydrates.
If you eat only protein after a hard run, your muscles are not going to benefit very much - you won't build muscle and will have slower recovery. This is because you need to eat carbohydrates WITH your protein, ideally in a 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. Why? When you eat carbohydrates, your body releases insulin. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning it helps build muscle. No insulin? Then you're not going to build the muscle.
So how the heck do you get that optimal ratio? Good choices include chocolate milk, bananas with peanut butter, Greek yogurt with some cereal or granola, or cheese and crackers. Don't worry if you don't get the ratio perfect. Just be sure you have both carbs and protein.
🍗 Try to get most of your protein from real food sources first.
Aim to get most of your protein from real foods, then add supplements (like protein powders or bars) if you can't get enough without them. Supplements are usually quite processed, and sometimes contain a lot of extra sugar or artificial sweeteners. If you choose to use a protein powder, then look for one that is NSF certified. This means they are verified to contain what they claim to contain, they don't have harmful levels of impurities, and they don't contain any banned substances.
Regardless, real foods have a ton of benefits for your body over processed ones, so be sure to eat a variety of foods.
🍗 You need more protein if you are injured, trying to lose weight, or trying to gain muscle mass.
As you can see above, some athletes need more protein than others. If you fit into one of these categories, then you need to be extra careful to make sure that all of your meals AND your snacks have a good source of protein. Make sure that you're eating 15+ grams of protein within 2 hours of any workout, then at least every four hours while you're awake.
🍗 Know the benefits of both animal-based and vegetarian protein sources.
High protein foods from animal sources include meats, eggs, fish, poultry, cottage cheese, milk, and Greek yogurt for starters. These protein foods will contain all the essential amino acids (EAAs) your body needs - meaning, the ones that your body cannot make. EAAs are what make up the proteins in your body.
Non-animal-based protein foods include nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and some whole grains. Some of these protein sources contain all of the EAAs, but most don't. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, it is especially important to ensure you're eating a variety of protein foods to make sure you're getting all of the EAAs.
Are you are a runner who wants to eat the right amount of protein at the right times so that you can recover faster, feel better, and reach your goals... but you haven't figured out HOW to do it in your life yet? I help runners do this all the time! Schedule your runner's nutrition strategy call to find out how eating better can help you reach your goals.