Talk to any athletic population and you will hear the words “protein” as it relates towards the idea of “gains”. However, the running group is special – while they train hard, they also need to keep their total body weight, lean mass and fat mass in check – gain too much muscles and their body weight becomes a burden to carry.
Unfortunately, research with regards to protein and running is not as comprehensive compared to other strength and hypertrophy sports, leaving runners to quite a bit of guesswork. This article aims to shed some light on current research, along with practical recommendation.
Why Would A Runner Need Protein?
Before looking at recommendations, we always boil back down to purpose. In the case of a runner, the goal is usually not to build muscles, but to help existing muscles recover.
After all, runners run a lot, causing stress on the lower limbs, particularly felt on the feet. As the duration increases, the swinging motion from the arms and upper body may also experience soreness.
This is also where protein for runners become a balancing act – you want to recover, yet you only have so much space in your calories, and prioritizing fuel utilization is more important in a performance setting compared to recovery.
Just in case this needs to be answered, yes – protein helps a runner in terms of recovery.
So how much protein would a runner need?
First and foremost, if you are a serious performance runner, are working with a coach and have a training plan, take this with a pinch of salt – A good nutrition plan will periodize with a proper training plan. Of course, if you need a sports nutritionist to help periodize your nutrition with training, do apply here.
We answer the protein question in two parts: How much per day, and how much per meal.
How much protein per day
As far as recommendations goes, the current RDA recommends need a minimum of 0.8 grams per kg in bodyweight (g/kg.bw). This means that you don’t want to eat below 0.8 g/kg.bw of protein.
However, 0.8 g/kg.bw will not adequately be able to meet the protein needs of athletes, runners included. Current recommendation suggest daily intake of 1.4-2.0 g/kg.bw for individuals to adequately fulfill their protein needs as an athlete.
As runners, most of your calories will be focused on fuel sources like carbohydrates and fats in order to ensure that you have the energy to perform. As discussed earlier, there generally also isn’t a need to increase muscle mass unnecessarily. Therefore, if muscle growth is not a focus and you do not have any existing injury, a safe recommendation to ensure adequate protein intake would be at 1.5g/kg.bw.
This would mean that for a 70kg runner, he will need:
1.5g * 70kg = 105 grams of protein per day.
This would also translate to 18 eggs, 4 regular beef steak, roughly 320g of chicken breast, 3L of milk or 5 scoops of protein powder per day.
How much protein per meal
Now, there is no storage space in protein within the body, and so for some, timing is important.
The most important thing to consider is your timing around training. The period after training is the most important window for recovery, and while you do not need to strictly follow nutrient timing, having 20-40 grams of protein post-exercise (ASAP) will significantly help your muscles to recover. Depending on your size as a person, it would therefore be recommended for you to put that amount of protein aside for post exercise.
You will then split the remainder of your protein into equal amounts to spread across your meals. This would usually equate to 20-30 grams of protein every 3-4 hours, allowing the body to adequately recover.
However, it can be difficult to eat every 3 to 4 hours, so always remember that the rule of thumb is to ensure that you meet your total protein needs before you worry about the timing.
Does the quality of protein matter?
The body requires 20 amino acids to build a protein. Of which, 9 of these are essential as the body cannot build them. Some of the best protein sources you will be able to get from food are eggs, milk and beef. Whey protein also ranks high in terms of quality, so they might be a good source to go for.
If you happen to be a vegan/vegetarian, going for a soy based protein, or a mix of pea with rice might be beneficial to ensure that you recover well, but make sure you consume more protein as the body doesn’t absorb plant based protein as well as they do animal.