Proper nutrition is extremely important for a running lifestyle and health in general. Protein is the building block for muscle and is therefore essential to an athlete’s diet. All types of intense training cause “micro-tears” in one’s muscle fibers, which the body then repairs and adapts to better handle the stimulus that caused the damage. It is this adaptation that enables one to run longer and faster over time. Consuming protein supports the recovery process by helping to rebuild these tiny tears.
All protein is not created equal however and many athletes don’t fully understand how much of this nutrient they should be consuming. See below for a complete guide to the various types of protein:
Consume a protein-dense snack within 30 minutes of your run or workout to kick your body into recovery and rebuilding muscle.
Not all proteins are created equal. For example, animal protein and plant protein, though both protein, are a bit different. Animal protein is considered complete, while most plant proteins are incomplete. This doesn’t mean that plant protein isn’t important, because it certainly is!
Runners need to consume protein that contains branched-chain amino acids (BCAA's). These acids are key in supporting muscle recovery. Leucine, in particular, helps stimulate protein building after exercise. Animal proteins are some of the richest sources of leucine.
Animal protein is similar to protein found in the human body, so it is used up more rapidly than plant protein. Too much of anything is rarely good, so be aware of your fueling habits. For example, there are risks associated with eating too much animal proteins. It can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, so focus on lean animal proteins. Turkey, fish, or a lean cut of steak would be favorable over a burger or fried chicken, for example.
Non-animal proteins also supply protein in smaller amounts. Eating a variety of these foods will provide a balance of amino acids. If you are a vegetarian, this means you will need to be very aware of how many grams and what kinds of protein you are consuming. Many plant proteins are considered “incomplete,” meaning they lack a few key amino acids.
Vegetable protein are great because they're low in calories and fat, and packed with vitamins and minerals. However, because these proteins are often incomplete, you may need to supplement or be very aware of consuming complete proteins. If you can get your hands on a BCAA-rich drink for post-workout, this can be super helpful.
Endurance athletes tend to get caught up on carbohydrates, and skimp on protein. I suggest tracking your protein intake for a week, making note of how much you consume per day, what type it is, and how much at each meal. Your macronutrients should be divided throughout the day - not all your protein at breakfast and a protein-free dinner that is overloaded in simple carbs, for example. Balance is key.
Each gram of protein contains 4 calories. How much protein you need in a day is a debated topic, and will vary per person based on weight, gender, and training demands. The popular view is 1.2 - 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
For most runners, a balance of animal and plant protein will give us optimal health and athletic performance. Moderation really is key. If you have dietary restrictions, be aware of how you may need to get creative, and listen to your body - it will give you signals, you just need to listen to them.