Nutrition is one of the most important components of an athlete’s regimen and routine. Without proper nutrition, physical fitness will only take you so far. We know as runners, we all love to talk about carbs, but another macronutrient that’s just as important for those who live to pound the pavement or trails is protein.
Protein is essential for runners. “Running is a breakdown activity, meaning muscle is not synthesized during a run,” explains Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D., a licensed dietitian and nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs and Carnegie Mellon University athletics. “Runners need to keep their bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles healthy, and protein is important for that,” she says.
Why exactly? Well, protein has a long job description in the body: It helps maintain the body’s acid-base balance, it’s crucial for muscle protein synthesis and bone remodeling, it controls chemical reactions and can carry messages from one part of the body to another, and it regulates fluid balance while also transporting oxygen to the body, Bonci explains. “Plus, protein helps to support a healthy immune system, but the effect on performance is more about keeping the body healthy and injury-free,” she says.
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Inadequate protein intake can lead to a handful of issues. For starters, a runner may be at a greater risk for stress fractures or stress reactions and to get ill more often with upper respiratory infections, Bonci says. Another issue the occurs due to a lack of protein: overeating. “They may actually get hungrier sooner and over-consume,” says Bonci. “Protein helps with satiety.”
Protein is important for all runners, no matter your gender, but protein is especially important for women, who implicitly value meat—a common source of protein—less highly than do men, according to a recent study. For females who shy away from meat, other sources of protein such as lentils, beans, and even protein powders can help them reach the daily recommendation.
According to the Institute of Medicine, the dietary reference intakes for protein are 0.8 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. However, endurance athletes may need more since running is a breakdown activity. A 2019 sports nutrition consensus statement released by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) recommends endurance athletes consume between 1.3 to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (0.6 to 1.1 grams per pound). That would be anywhere from 88 to 165 grams total for a 150-pound person.
We know it’s not always easy to get protein in whole food or solid form if you’re running regularly. Eating something like a turkey sandwich or even eggs for breakfast can end up feeling too heavy in your stomach before or after a long run. In these cases, protein powders are a good option. Mixing some protein powder into a nut butter on a slice of bread can be an easy and non-bulky way to replete after long runs, suggests Bonci. And because liquids are often favored by runners because they’re easy to consume and digest, protein shakes are also a great option. “Protein in a smoothie provides protein along with needed carbs from any fruits added, as well as liquid,” says Bonci.
Finding the Right Protein Powder
While it’s always best to try to get your macros from whole foods, that’s not always possible or feasible, especially for female athletes who are always on the go. In these situations, protein powder is a great alternative. Protein supplements can be a non-perishable, versatile, low-calorie, quick to mix into a drink or meal, and a non-bulky way to help to meet protein needs. They are also shelf stable and do not require cooking, says Bonci.
When shopping for a supplement, look for those that are isolates, suggests Bonci. “For example, whey protein isolates are highest in leucine, the amino acid most involved in muscle protein synthesis,” she says. “Also look for unflavored protein, because this can be added to savory foods, not just used for sweet applications.” Soy protein isolates are also good and provide a complete protein. “If one does not want soy and wants a plant protein, look for those that are a mix of both rice and pea or combine pea and hemp protein,” says Bonci. “This way you’re getting a complete protein.”
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Amy Schlinger is a health and fitness writer and editor based in New York City whose work has appeared in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, The New York Post, Self, Shape, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and more; The National Academy for Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer (NASM-CPT) is extremely passionate about healthy living and can often be found strength training at the gym when she isn’t interviewing trainers, doctors, medical professionals, nutritionists, or pro athletes for stories.