Why Is Protein an Essential Part of Any Runners’ Diet?
A protein diet is generally associated with people who lift weights and spend some hardcore time at the gym. Long distance runners are lean and don’t want to bulk up for fear it will slow their running. Yet, exercise scientists agree that runners during heavy training require just as much protein per pound of body weight as football players.
On the most basic level, protein is one of the three macronutrients (along with fats and carbohydrates) that is an essential component of a balanced diet. Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids. These nine “essential” amino acids are present in most animal-based protein sources, but not always in plant-based proteins. Although many plant proteins are “incomplete,” there’s a lot of research that confirms eating various plant-based proteins throughout the course of the day is adequate for protein needs. Near the bottom of this article, I list plant-based protein sources.
We may not envision a marathon runner consuming a lot of protein. However, there are plenty of problems that result when runners don’t consume enough protein, including slower recovery from workouts, weaker adaptations to training and increased risk of illness, overtraining and injury. Athletes training for long races like a 10k, half or full marathon, must consume an adequate amount of protein to avoid these pitfalls. Even though carbs have long been seen as the holy grail to fast running, protein is important because it stabilizes your blood sugar and helps you feel fuller longer.
During marathon training, especially after long runs & tough track workouts, my body always feels so much better after I consume a meal with plenty of protein and healthy (not processed) carbohydrates.
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Marathon Training Diet
Dietary experts recommend that the average person should eat 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of their body weight. However, protein needs for long distance runners are higher. Depending on the athlete’s training demands, daily calorie requirements and appetite may be greater. Accordingly, dietitians and healthcare experts suggest that a marathon runner’s diet consist of up to 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight.
Protein is not a fuel source, but instead it is a muscle builder or, in particular for runners, think of protein as a muscle re-builder, re-shaper and even a muscle re-conditioner.
Following ranges are broad, but there’s a wide range of macronutrient percentages that have been found to be effective for many athletes. Runners should test and adjust based on their specific situation. Ultimately, the runner should “fine tune” percentages of carbs, fat & proteins that make them feel and perform best.
What To Eat After A Run
Protein is responsible for healing your body from different injuries & muscle damage. The “good stuff” (building muscle) happens during rest and recovery. The “bad stuff” (muscle damage) occurs during exercise. Rest is an essential part of recovery, but diet with protein helps to speed recovery. Protein aids the healing process of damaged tissues by forming collagen. Amino acids from proteins are the building blocks for the manufacture of new tissue including muscle and the repair of old tissue. They are also the building blocks for hormones and enzymes that regulate metabolism and other body functions.
Recovery Snack Ideas
In my article about wellness habits that improve running, the top of the list included consuming healthy sources of protein. You can accomplish this while snacking.
- Small bag of assorted nuts (cashews, almonds, dried walnuts)
- Smoothie with yogurt and berries
- Crackers with peanut butter + low fat chocolate milk
- Sports drink with nuts and/or crackers with nut butter
How Does Protein Help People Who Are Training For Marathons?
During running, muscle cells are damaged by mechanical stress and oxygen radicals. Also muscle proteins are broken down by hormones to provide a source of energy. These lost proteins must be replaced between workouts. As long as you have protein from the right sources – it is suitable for your body. Some noteworthy benefits of protein for runners include:
Strengthens Immune System
Our immune systems are highly dependent on protein consumption. You need to supply your system with sufficient protein to strengthen the immune system. Protein is known to make antibodies in your system. These antibodies are responsible for protecting your system from viruses and infections that intrude. Your immune system will respond faster and easily get rid of the potential problem.
Balances Hormone Levels
Hormones are chemicals produced by the glands that help you handle different activities throughout the day. An athlete’s body will benefit from having balanced hormone levels. When a long distance runner overworks their body during peak training, they are at risk of having imbalanced hormones. The result can be depression, difficulty sleeping and anxiety. All of these are signs of overtraining. Runner’s need to consume a variety of proteins from sources like whey powder, eggs, lean meats, and even different nuts such as fair trade cashews to help maintain the hormone levels.
Maintaining a healthy body weight
I’m not suggesting that marathon runners diet to maintain a lower bodyweight, but in order to maintain an optimal body weight for a long race like a marathon, weight management is important. Eating healthy proteins like nuts and fair trade cashews will reduce your cravings for unhealthy and sugary food. Runners who want to maintain and not gain weight while training should consume lean meats, fish, chicken, and nuts. I also recommend grains like quinoa which also contain carbohydrates in addition to protein.
Reduces Inflammation & supports a healthy immune system
Running for several hours every week can cause inflammation in your muscles. There’s also evidence that runners who are training hard may be at an increased risk of minor illnesses & infections. It’s common in the last week of training for a marathon to catch a cold. Hard training compromises the body’s immune system. Protein & carbohydrates consumed within an hour of high intensity training, helps a runner’s recovery by reducing excessive inflammation and promoting restoration of proper hormone levels.
Protein Requirements for Different Races
As discussed above, different intensities of training require a different amount of protein.
10k to Half Marathon
A good rule of thumb for protein is to consume 1.2 grams to 1.5 grams per pound. On the days you train less, take 1.2 grams of protein per pound and when you train harder, eat 1.5 grams of protein for every pound of your body.
Remember this formula: 1 gram = .0022 lbs. A 125 lb runner should consume between ⅓ lb – .41 lb of protein/day.
Your protein intake should be around 1.4 grams protein per pound to 1.8 grams per pound for a marathon. To determine the right amount of protein for yourself, eat a specific quantity every week. If you are consuming a lot of protein – much more than your body can handle, it will make you feel tired. Women also feel a change in their menstrual period after a change in their protein intake.
Protein Shake After Running
I don’t worry about having a protein shake after every run, but as the intensity of my workouts increases and long runs are 12+ miles, I think there’s benefits to consuming protein shakes within a hour of running. There’s numerous protein powders available on the market. Which one you choose depends on whether you want a product like Whey Protein, which comes from milk, or pea, hemp, soy or other types of protein powders which may be more desirable for athletes who are lactose intolerant or vegans.
Whey is a complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids. This is probably the most extensively researched supplement on the market. While you might have heard people say you can get all the protein you need from diet alone, this isn’t always the case. Whey protein empties from the stomach and is absorbed into the bloodstream from the intestine faster than other proteins. This is why whey is considered to be a faster, better muscle recovery than natural foods.
A 2017 NIH paper recently confirmed that Whey protein supplementation enhances whole body protein metabolism & performance recovery after resistance exercise. Consuming whey protein after exercise accelerated recovery and supported muscle repair, as shown by participants’ ability to perform various physical tests 10 and 24 hours after a hard training session.
Soy proteins are derived from soy. Although it’s a vegetable protein, it’s very high quality. An Ohio State study found that soy protein supplements increased muscle mass in strength training men as much as a whey protein supplement. If you’re a vegan or strict vegetarian, soy protein will work very well.
Consuming protein is a vital part of an athlete’s diet. There are numerous reasons why marathon runners should include a variety of proteins in their diet. First, protein enhances recovery of muscles damaged in training, reduces inflammation, stabilizes hormone levels and supports the body’s immune system which is compromised during heavy training. Healthcare experts recommend that a long distance runner consume between 0.8 to 1.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Remember that this recommendation is completely dependent on your activity level. So to an extent, it’s trial and error to determine one’s precious needs. At Middleagemarathoner.com our runners have access to a registered dietitian who helps provide proper dietary recommendations.
Plant Sources of Protein
- Nuts (almonds & cashews)
- Tempeh & other Soy products
- Chia seeds
- Black beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sweet potatoes
Sources of protein for runners
- Fish (tuna & salmon)
- Low fat milk (including low fat yogurt & skim chocolate milk)
- Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread or pita.
- Protein Bars – seek bars made with whole foods & avoid excess added sugar
- Performance Nutrition for Runners – Matt Fitzgerald, 2006
- Nutrition for Athletics, A Practical Guide to Eating & Driving for Health and Performance in Track & Field – IAAF Athletics, 2011