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This is an installment in our online Ask the Dietitian column with Maria Dalzot, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. Maria is a USATF National Trail Champion and multi-time U.S. mountain team member. You can visit her blog at www.mariadalzotrd.com.
I’m curious about your opinion on how much protein runners really need. I never count calories and never worry about protein, just a back- or middle-of-the-pack ultra-distance guy who’s more concerned with being injury-free and maxing out hours of runner’s high over time.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein for a healthy individual is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. This number is an amount that prevents protein deficiency in an average person; it is not the optimal amount for every individual. The optimal amount depends on many different factors including age, lifestyle, physical activity, body composition, and underlying chronic health conditions.
The average American eats about 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight every day. So the question is not whether we eat enough protein, but whether we’re eating that protein in an optimal way. Research has shown that the amount of protein our bodies are able to use for muscle synthesis and repair is 25 to 30 grams at a time. Any more than this does not result in additional muscle growth, as the body does not store extra amino acids.
So the best way to ensure that your body is getting the protein to build and maintain muscle is to distribute your protein intake evenly throughout the day in 25-to-30-gram doses.
What does 25 to 30 grams of protein look like? It could be any of the following:
- 1 cup of cottage cheese
- 1 cup of Greek yogurt
- 1 can of tuna
- 4 ounces of seafood
- 4 ounces of beef
- 4 ounces of poultry
- 1 cup of tofu
- 1 cup of tempeh
If your protein intake is typically 10 grams at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch and 65 grams at dinner, try to redistribute that protein so that you are eating more for breakfast and less for dinner. If you need more protein overall, add high-protein snacks during the day, rather than adding more protein to each meal; that will optimize its usability to the body.
A steady intake of protein throughout the day will allow your body to more efficiently prevent muscle loss, build and repair muscles and promote healthy aging; it will also improve satiety and help in managing weight.