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Running On Food: Why Protein Matters

This article is part of a popular series on Nutrition for Runners.   Heather from the blogTrials of Training, has offered her expertise in Nutrition to runners in the Lounge to pass along information on recipes, nutrition, and running/food related questions.  She has her BS in Nutrition from Penn State, she is currently working to be a Registered Dietician, and loves to help runners with their questions.

Past articles can be found in the Nutrition and Hydration section and Recipe section in the Lounge.

by Heather

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As runners, we constantly hear about the importance of “carb loading”, and making sure we eat enough of those healthy starches. That can be the easy part – pick up a piece of fruit, grab a bagel, munch on a sandwich! 

What about proteins? Do we need protein powder? Is it necessary to get more than the average person (as an avid runner)? How can you tell if you’re getting enough?

Protein is essential for muscle recovery, and it becomes an important source of fuel as our muscles burn through their carbohydrate stores (typically after an hour of endurance exercise). Looking at the big picture, only ~15% of your daily calories should come from protein.  While this will vary by individual, it’s usually not too hard for the average person to achieve this through a normal diet (i.e. without the help of supplements!).

To answer one of those questions – YES, those who exercise and take part in endurance running do need more protein than a “couch potato”. 

Not only does protein serve as a source of fuel, but it also helps with building muscle and repairing muscle tissues after a workout.  The “ideal” post-workout snack revolves around a ratio – four grams of Carbohydrates to every one gram of protein (4:1).  For example, looking at the Nutrition label of an Energy bar – if it has 40g of Carbs (total carbs), it should also have around 10g of Protein. This helps replace the carbohydrates the muscles used, while also repairing the muscles and tissues.

Getting sufficient protein throughout the day isn’t difficult; make sure that each meal contains both carbohydrates and proteins! Examples – chicken and a baked potato, a turkey sandwich, eggs with toast, etc.  Here are some examples of high protein foods that go well with a variety of meals:

  • beans (of any variety!)
  • peanut butter
  • eggs
  • milk 
  • cheese
  • yogurt
  • nuts (all kinds)
  • red meat, fish, and/or poultry

Notice that the list includes items that are vegetarian friendly as well!

A general rule of thumb – we need around 0.8g of protein per kilogram (2.2 lb) of body weight. Assuming endurance athletes need a little bit more to compensate for extensive exercise, a goal range might be closer to 1 g (protein) / kilogram body weight. However, I wouldn’t recommend stressing over exact numbers every day. Include some form of protein in most meals and snacks, and you should easily achieve your goal amounts.

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