The Importance of Protein for Runners

I think most runners know they need protein for good recovery. When we run, we cause micro-tears in our muscles. To put it simply, protein is used to build back the muscles. Recently I’ve learned some things about protein that I thought I’d pass on to other runners interested in optimizing recovery and enhancing performance through good nutrition.

1. It’s difficult to consume enough protein

If I’m not careful, I tend to eat too many carbs and not enough protein. This may be because I have a major sweet tooth and I love carbs in general (bread, pasta, rice, cold cereal, you name it).

I have to be pretty intentional to get enough protein. Consider that at 180 lbs, I need about 2200 calories just to break even if I don’t work out and sit at my desk all day. If I run 10 miles (which I often do on Monday and Wednesday; more on Friday or Saturday), I need to consume about 3700 calories to break even. Runners should aim to consume 20-25% of calories in protein. This means I need around 800 protein calories, or 200 grams of protein after a solid running day.

In order to consume that much protein, I really need to target some high protein foods. 200 grams of protein is equal to:

  • 40 slices of whole grain bread, or
  • 1 2/3 cups of peanut butter, or
  • 31 eggs, or
  • 9 cans of tuna fish, or
  • 2 lbs of chicken breast

You get the idea — it can be a lot of food. Obviously protein comes from several sources, so intake can be spread among the above items and more.

That leads me to another thing to keep in mind about protein:

2. Protein consumption cannot be all in one meal

Studies have shown (or at least one study has shown: Moderating the portion size of a protein-rich meal improves anabolic efficiency in young and elderly) that consuming over ~30g of protein at once won’t really help you replenish muscle. I’m guessing the figure is higher for people like me that weigh more than a typical runner, but even raising the limit to 45g creates some constraints.

Many people consume a large portion of their daily protein during dinner — often in the form of a bit chunk of meat. While meat is a great source of protein, a 4oz piece of chicken breast will get you ~26g of protein, which is near the limit of what your body can efficiently handle in one meal. Combine that with some rice, milk, or beans, and you’ll easily exceed 30g.

What I’ve done to help mitigate this, is to consume more protein for breakfast. I’ve replaced or augmented my bowl of cold cereal with eggs, protein powder, more milk, or protein-packed cereal. Then I have a mid-morning protein snack on heavy running days — often in the form of a 20g or 30g protein bar. I usually have a decent amount of protein with lunch and dinner. Then I’ll also have a protein-packed late snack and maybe a small protein snack (edamame) between lunch and dinner.

Like I said: it needs to be intentional.

3. Runners should consume protein at the right times

There are certain times where it’s particularly important to consume protein. Dinner is usually not one of them. Right after your run is probably the most important. This is when your body is ready to soak up whatever you give it. Of course, it’s important to consume carbs right after running, but fortunately carbs are almost always paired with protein unless you’re just eating plain meat. I like to eat protein right after running, then another protein snack a couple hours later (often a hard boiled egg, a protein bar, yogurt, or some dry roasted edamame).

A big dose of protein right before bed can also be an important, particularly when trying to recover. This is a strategy employed by athletes trying to do races close together that want to speed recovery.

4. My favorite sources of protein

I’ve come to rely on some favorite protein-packed foods. Of course everyone’s preferences differ, but I wanted to outline some of my favorite foods and their pros and cons. Generally, running makes me hungry, and besides that I really like to eat, so often my choices are about getting lots of protein but not going overboard on high-calorie foods.

Here are some of my go-to protein foods:

  • Eggs. Eggs are relatively cheap, nutritious, and delicious. My family has a small flock of chickens so we always have lots of eggs. An egg has ~6g of protein and only ~70 calories. I often eat Egg in the Hole after my morning run, with maybe another egg on the side and/or some cottage cheese. Egg in the Hole provides 11g protein if eaten with decent bread, plus some good carbs, all for under 200 calories if you go easy on the butter. Hard boiled eggs are a fairly convenient addition to lunch or make a good snack.
  • Cottage Cheese. I recently discovered cottage cheese and I must say I really like it. Cyndi recommended I look at it since I was talking about how I’m always short on protein, and she’s now annoyed with my new-found obsession. 1/4 cup 2% cottage cheese is only 45 calories with 6g of protein! I like it most on eggs, but it’s also good with black beans or fruit. I even like it plain.
  • Dry, Roasted Edamame. I get dry, roasted edamame from WinCo in the bulk section. It’s super cheap (~$2/lb I think) and packed with protein — 1/4 cup is 130 calories and has 14g protein! It’s my go-to snack at work. I typically eat it in the afternoon, but I try to limit myself to 1/4 cup per day. I’ve found that I can purchase the cheap edamame in bulk at WinCo, then store it in an emptied out minced garlic container for additional flavor (when you’ve used all the minced garlic, wash out the container and fill it with edamame — it will still have plenty of garlic power to flavor the edamame).
  • Peanut butter toast. My main consumption of nuts is via peanut butter on a piece of whole wheat toast. This is just delicious to me and provides some protein, although admittedly it’s not super protein packed. I often eat this as a late night snack when I need more calories and something delicious. Sometimes I eat it for breakfast as well.
  • Chicken, pork, fish, and other meat. Meat is basically just protein and some fat. The leaner the better when it comes to meat. Chicken breast and fish are great, hamburger not so much. We consume a lot of pork in my family (since we raise pigs), so I really like having pork chops for dinner after a hard Monday morning run. Dark meat has the added benefit of providing iron, which many runners are deficient in due to foot-pounding and the need for extra red blood cells.
  • Milk. Lowfat milk is a better source of protein than yogurt, in my opinion. Greek yogurt is a decent source, but it’s also expensive. Low fat milk (1%) has 8.5g of protein per cup, and only 105 calories. That’s a 32% ratio, which is fantastic. Plus, it has calcium and some other good vitamins. Light yogurt ranges from 70-90 calories and usually has 5g protein, but it’s also full of artificial sweeteners. I still eat one 6oz container just about every weekday.
  • Protein powder. Protein powder can be mixed in with milk to provide some extra protein. Generally I use it conservatively, but it can be a great boost to hit a daily protein target. The downside is that it’s pretty pricey and has some funky ingredients sometimes.
  • Protein bars. I love protein bars more than I should. I’ve gotten in the habit of eating a 20g or 30g bar as a mid-morning snack after a tough running workout. They’re often full of weird ingredients, but they have lots of protein and I think they’re tasty. Protein Plus is my favorite brand — they are cheap and have a good calorie/protein ratio. Usually they are ~280 calories with 30g protein or ~180 calories with 20g protein. I eat higher calorie bars when I run more and then lower calorie bars when I cross train or run less.
  • Protein cereal. I really like cold cereal, but it’s not typically a great source of protein (although the milk is). One day I stumbled across Special K Protein cereal. It has 10g protein and 120 calories in 3/4 cup. 33% protein is not bad at all, especially since it will also be combined with milk.

Some other considerations that I don’t think are quite as good for protein:

  • Nuts. Nuts are always referred to as a good source of protein, but I’m not so sure. I mean, nuts are great: they have wonderful nutritional value with their nutrients and good fat and they taste great. I really can’t say that they’re not a high quality food. However, I can eat A LOT of nuts before getting full, and nuts are generally a high calorie food. They are also relatively expensive (with the exception of peanuts maybe). An ounce of peanuts has 7.3g protein, but also 160 calories. That’s only 18% calories from protein. Meh. I eat them sparingly. Like I mentioned before, most of my nut consumption comes via peanut butter on wheat bread.
  • Granola. Don’t be fooled by granola when it comes to protein – yes it’s delicious, nutritious, and usually has good ingredients, but it’s also high calorie and usually has a large dose of sugar or honey. It’s more of a carb food or a good fat food than a protein food.

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