- Athletes like runners need more protein per day than the average person, according to a new statement from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
- Protein is necessary for muscle building and recovery, which can improve your overall performance.
- Protein should ideally come from whole-food sources rather than shakes or supplements.
Getting enough protein in your diet is important for everyone—but especially athletes. Along with helping you feel fuller for longer, the macronutrient also helps you build and repair your muscles after a tough run or workout.
But even if you hit the recommended guidelines for the average person, you may not be getting enough protein to fuel your workouts: A new sports nutrition consensus statement released by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism confirms that runners need more than the average daily guidelines.
For the average person, 0.8 to 1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight a day (0.36 to 0.45 grams per pound) is totally fine. That would be 54 to 68 grams per day for someone who is 150 pounds.
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But for anyone who is regularly active—logging long runs, track workouts, and strength training sessions, for instance—the IAAF recommends the following:
- Athletes who have a goal of weight maintenance or weight gain should consume 1.3 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.6 to 0.77 grams per pound). That would be 88 to 116 grams for a 150-pound person. This translates to 0.3 to 0.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per meal—or around 20 grams of protein per meal for a 150-pound person—plus protein-filled snacks throughout your day, too, according to Louise Burke, Ph.D., head of sports nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport and coauthor of the review that lead to the IAAF’s new statement.
- Athletes who have a goal of maintaining their muscle mass should consume 1.6 to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.7 to 1.1 grams per pound). That would be 105 grams to 165 grams for a 150-pound person.
Athletes—whether they’re doing an endurance- or resistance-based workout—need protein during the 24 hours after each key workout to maximize the adaptation and recovery stimulated by the session, according Burke.
“High-quality protein foods turn on the muscle’s protein-building machinery, then provide it with the building blocks to build new and specific proteins that make them better at the exercise they’ve just done—ranging from new muscle fibers that give strength and size to enzymes and red blood cells that promote endurance,” she told Runner’s World.
However, it’s more important to focus on spreading your protein intake out over the day rather than the total amount consumed, Burke said.
“Exercise stimulates the muscle to increase its capacity for building new proteins for at least 24 hours—but to take advantage of this, we need to continually add the further stimulus of dietary protein,” she said. “The best way to achieve this is by consuming protein soon after the workout, then following up again every three to five hours with another protein-rich meal or snack [in addition to your main meals.].”
It’s also worth noting that consuming a very high amount of protein (at least 2.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day, or 1.13 grams per pound) doesn’t offer any more performance-enhancing benefits than consuming the recommended amount. This is because protein synthesis—the process of building muscle mass—is maxed out around 20 grams of protein at one time.
The IAAF’s statement recommends whole-food sources of protein rather than supplements, since not only are they generally less expensive, but they can offer a range of other nutrients.
For instance, you’ll get calcium and antioxidants by making a berry smoothie or omega-3 fatty acids and carbs from tuna on crackers for a fraction of the price of a premade protein drink, Burke said. Additionally, if you only take calcium supplements or only take fish oil supplements, you won’t get any of the other nutrients like carbs or antioxidants.
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But that’s not to say there aren’t circumstances where a protein shake comes in handy and is necessary—it’s better to use them for protein than not get any protein at all.
“If you’re training or competing in an environment where there’s no opportunity to store foods safely or prepare them, the practical solution comes from making a recovery shake from powder and water, or having a tetra-pack drink in your bag,” Burke said.
The bottom line: Consuming about 20 grams of protein per meal—from whole foods such as beef, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, and soy—will help build stronger muscles and help them recover from a workout, and improve your training and racing performance overall.