How Much Protein Does a Runner Need?

Display of healthy food

By Susan Kitchen. Susan is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon Level II Endurance Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach, published author and founder of Race Smart, a sports nutrition and coaching company.

Nailing your nutrition and fueling strategy is essential to harnessing your potential as an athlete, and protein intake is a key part of the equation. Too often carbohydrates take center stage in performance nutrition and protein’s important role is overlooked.

Protein contributes to your overall health and daily energy management. More specifically, protein improves muscle recovery, boosts strength, assists in forming hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, supports the immune system, increases bone strength, assists hemoglobin formation and meets elevated caloric requirements, just to name a few of the benefits.

A main prepares breakfast before a run

How do you know if you’re getting enough protein?

Pay attention to the following signals from your body that may indicate you need more protein to support your training:

  • You struggle to recover from workouts or build muscle
  • You feel sluggish or experience energy lulls during the day
  • You feel hungry often despite eating enough calories

Protein Recommendations

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH) the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for the average adult is to consume 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for general health.

However, endurance athletes like runners require more protein per day to maintain and build muscle mass. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, runners require 1.4 to 1.7 grams of protein per kg per day, to meet the needs of their training. For example, a 150 pound athlete would need approximately 90 to 120 grams per day.

Animal-based High Protein Food Sources

Food

Amount

Protein content

Cottage Cheese

½ cup

13 g

Greek yogurt

5 oz

11-20 g

Milk

8 oz

8 g

Cheese

1 oz

4-7 g

Beef, chicken, fish

1 oz

7-8 g

Eggs

1 egg

6 g

Ground turkey

1 oz

7 g


Plant-Based High Protein Food Sources:

Food

Amount

Protein content

Tofu

½ cup

8 g

Tempeh

3 oz

15 g

Spirulina (seaweed)

2 tbsp

8 g

Lentils

½ cup

9 g

Nuts

1 oz

4-6 g

Nut butter

2 tbsp

8g

Edamame

½ cup

8 g

A man and two women run together in front of a brick building

Your body can only absorb approximately 25 to 35 grams at once, so loading your plate with excess protein is not going to fast-track recovery .

Your size and age determine your protein requirements and how much to consume at once. Smaller athletes may need only 15 to 20 grams, while larger athletes with more muscle mass and higher energy output can easily incorporate up to 35 to 40 grams of protein at one meal. If you’re 55 and over, you require more protein to achieve the same effect to counteract muscle loss that naturally occurs with age.

To maximize recovery and maintain a strong immune system, the timing and amount of protein you consume are critical. Here’s a general guideline.

  • Begin and end your day with 15 to 20 grams of protein if you are in the midst of a heavy training cycle or if your sleep is suffering. Protein helps suppress the negative effect of the resulting hormonal stress (cortisol).
  • Include protein at each meal according to your size, age and activity level (15 to 40 grams depending on size and age of athlete).
  • Eat protein-rich snacks (10 to 15 grams) to bridge the gap between meals that are more than four to five hours apart.
  • If you don’t have dairy allergies, try some dairy protein before bed like yogurt or cottage cheese. The casein found in dairy releases slowly and whey releases quickly. The combination helps stabilize blood sugar and repair your muscles as you sleep.
A runner drinks from an Amphipod water bottle during a run

Window of Anabolic Opportunity

Consuming high-quality protein within 30 to 45 minutes of a run is crucial for recovery. Why? Long, intense training sessions break down muscle tissue, followed by increased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) over the next 24 hours. Immediately after a run, your body is primed to fast-track protein to repair muscle tissue.

When fuel stores (glycogen) run low, the body burns protein as fuel by breaking down muscle. Failing to fuel with carbohydrates during an intense workout (or one lasting over 75 minutes) will lead to unnecessary muscle breakdown and defeats the workout's intention, ultimately jeopardizing the athlete's health and metabolic system.

Post-workout, aim for 0.25 to 0.30 grams of high-quality protein/kg, ideally in a liquid form, such as a protein shake, to promote rapid digestion. For example, a 150 pound athlete would need 17 to 20 grams of protein post-workout (along with simple carbs to replenish glycogen stores and fuel muscle synthesis).

Protein Sources

Proteins are made up of amino acids which function as a cell's building blocks. Protein is found in many foods like red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes and dairy products.

Plant Proteins

When taking a plant-based recovery route, the best option is to mix various plant proteins since many are considered incomplete on their own. Most plant-based proteins are not complete proteins because they lack some of the nine essential amino acids. In comparison to animal products, plant-based proteins have lower digestibility rates, meaning you absorb less protein per ounce. Notable exceptions are soy, pea and hemp protein powders, as they contain all of the essential amino acids, though they are still lower in leucine content than whey.

As long as consumption is from various sources and consumed in higher doses, an athlete's protein needs can be sufficiently met with plant proteins.

A runner takes a sip from a Nathan drink bottle

Dairy Proteins

Whey, considered the poster child of all protein powders, comes from milk and makes up 20 percent of milk's protein.

Unless you have a dairy allergy, whey is easy to digest and rapidly absorbed. Whey’s universal notoriety comes from having the highest amount of leucine, a branch chain amino acid (BCAA) known as the anabolic trigger of muscle repair and growth in response to training.

Casein accounts for 80 percent of cow's milk protein. It is slow to absorb, can be harder to digest and has a lower leucine content, making it a less efficient post-workout choice than whey.

Protein Powders

As a rule, your source of protein should be food-based, whether animal or plant. But on the go, the convenience of protein powders makes them an easy choice. That's why many athletes rely on protein supplements to ensure they have enough in their diet.

Powders are easy to prepare, travel well, can be stored at room temperature for up to one year and are often cheaper gram for gram. But you don't want to sacrifice quality, so knowing the lay of the protein powder land is key.

Protein Type

Best For

Why

Whey protein isolate

Dairy-friendly athletes

It’s considered the purest protein powder source, containing 90 percent protein and almost no lactose or fat.

Whey protein concentrate

Dairy-friendly athletes on a budget

It contains 70 to 80 percent protein, some lactose (milk sugar) and fat

Whey hydrolysate

Athletes with sensitive stomachs

This whey is pre-digested, so it breaks down quickly. It can also be pricey and has a bitter flavor.

Casein protein

Overnight muscle repair

Casein protein can bridge the gap between extended meals but is harder to digest.

Soy protein

Vegans and vegetarians

Soy is an excellent source of high-quality plant protein

Pea and Hemp Protein

Vegans, vegetarians and those who avoid whey or soy

Pea and hemp are complete plant proteins

Most protein powders contain 20 to 25 grams of protein per scoop. Keep in mind more is not better.

How do you know if protein powder is safe?

Protein powders are considered a supplement, not a food, and as a result, they are not evaluated and approved by the FDA. Basically, you can't be certain what or how much is in each scoop. According to an investigation by the Clean Label Project, a significant number of products contain elevated levels of contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, BPA and arsenic. All good reasons why food should be the first line of defense when seeking protein and nutrients.

If you are going to use protein powder, be sure to find a high-quality protein powder that has gone through third-party testing. Look for:

  • NSF Certified for Sport, which means a product contains what the label says it does, has been tested for contaminants and substances banned by major athletic organizations, and is made at a facility audited annually for quality and safety.
  • Informed Choice logos, which ensure products are not contaminated or contain banned substances.
  • Good Manufacturing Practices ensure the integrity of the food manufacturing process.

Be a diligent label reader, specifically the ingredient list. If you see the term "proprietary blend or formula," this means the manufacturer will not disclose the amount of each ingredient. This should raise a red flag. Look for short ingredient lists and familiar ingredients.

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