What Kind of Protein Should Runners Be Eating?
We asked experts how much protein, and what kind runners should be eating.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
As an ex-gym rat turned runner, protein makes my world go ‘round. I know how important it is to eat the proper amount – an endurance athlete needs approximately 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. If you’re weightlifting like a runner should (except when we skip leg day, oops) that number should increase to about 1.8 grams.
But a day can go by fast and suddenly it’s 5 p.m. and I’ve had a few eggs and a protein bar. According to nutritional running coach, Sarah Cuff, that isn’t going to cut it. So now I know how much protein to eat, but what type is best for runners?
What Type of Protein is Best for Runners?
“What studies show us,” Cuff says. “Is that as long as you’re getting adequate protein, there’s little difference in where it comes from. The protein sources are different, but the amino acids are the same.”
Amino acids are molecules used by the body to make protein, often called the building blocks of protein. Humans require 20 amino acids to function healthily, but nine of those are considered essential and are found in foods like eggs, meat and dairy.
Now this isn’t to say that all protein is created equal. For example, when you eat a piece of fish, it’s almost entirely protein and a little bit of fat. Whereas legumes contain a healthy dose of carbohydrates in addition to protein. Cuff says this is totally fine (we don’t fear carbs here) except for runners who are more sensitive to carbs or have high blood sugar. Plus, runners with sensitive stomachs often can’t digest plant-based proteins like beans, nuts, and seeds.
Cuff says the most important aspect of choosing plant or animal-based proteins is figuring out what works for your body. Here’s what Cuff suggests based on the specific runner:
If you’re focused on shaving your race time down, Cuff says to eat an adequate amount of protein up until tapering time. “You’re going to want to lower your protein intake in the three days leading up to the race and fill up the glycogen storage with carbs,” she says. “It doesn’t matter the type so much – though I’d stay away from fibrous sources.”
For example, you might want to avoid beans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, apples, and vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
RELATED: The Science of Carbohydrate and Protein Supplementation for Minimizing Muscle Damage
Runners with Sensitive Stomachs
Runner’s belly – abdominal cramping, nausea, and diarrhea – occurs in 30 to 90 percent of endurance runners. In one study, 145 endurance runners were surveyed about their training runs over 30 days. Men experienced upset stomachs 84 percent of the time and women 78 percent of the time.
There are many methods to ease the symptoms of runner’s belly, eating a low FODMAP diet is one of the most helpful. But avoiding certain foods may mean cutting out proteins like dairy, nuts, and seeds.
Cuff suggests those who are sensitive to dairy should try whey isolate protein powder and incorporate meat into their diet, mainly white chicken breast. “During a digestive flare-up, keep your food as simple as possible,” Cuff says. “We eat these foods while we heal and then slowly bring in more fibrous foods later on. We all want to be the Scott Jurek, eating all the lentils and legumes, but it may take some time!”
While Cuff says older runners don’t need to eat different proteins, she does find that with age comes a lot of blood sugar dysregulation, so it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on the carbohydrates. “We can eat adequate protein so that we age as older athletes and maintain our strength, fitness, balance, and coordination,” Cuff says. “It’s not necessarily age I focus on, but ‘Do you have any health concerns’ and how can protein address them?”
The Best Protein Powders for Runners
Protein powders are a great way to supplement your protein intake.
You should look for these requirements in a whey powder:
- Made with whey from grass-fed cows.
- Processed via cross-flow microfiltration (low-temperature processing system.)
- Contains only 100% all-natural ingredients with little to no fillers, artificial sweeteners, orflavors.
“My personal favorite is Kaha Whey Isolate because they only use grass-fed New Zealand whey protein,” Cuff says. “And they use monk fruit extract as sweetener and real vanilla or chocolate to flavor their powders.”
You should look for these requirements in a plant-based powder:
- Contains at least 20 grams per scoop.
- Has a balanced amino acid profile and contains all nine essential amino acids in optimal amounts.
- Processed without heat and chemicals.
- Is easy to digest and has high bioavailability. For some, soy protein and pea protein are hard to digest, whereas hemp or seed or sprouted proteins are easier to digest.
- Contains only 100% all-natural ingredients.
“I’ve always liked Iron Vegan brand for a plant-based protein powder,” Cuff says. “The company adheres to the above guidelines I go by.”
Another good option is KOS Organic Plant Protein, which contains organic pea protein, flax seeds and pumpkin seed protein.
Protein Runners May Want to Steer Clear Of
It’s your body, and you know what feels best for it, so Cuff never likes to take specific protein sources off the table. That being said, processed meats like lunch meat, hot dogs, and bacon should be consumed in moderation.
Some people fear red meat, but Cuff says it can be a fantastic source of protein for some runners, especially if they’re iron-deficient.“I know some runners who were iron-deficient and they didn’t want to take iron pills for the rest of their lives,” she says. “So in order to get their iron levels back up, they incorporated red meat into their diet, three to four times a week. It worked tremendously for them.”
RELATED: Are Some of Your Well-Intended Eating Habits a Problem?
Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Protein
1. You’re not recovering as quickly as you should. You don’t feel ready to run again even after a few days’ rest. Poor recovery can be attributed to a dozen things, but generally, if you’re feeling tired and you’re not recovering well, you want to make sure you’re getting that protein.
2. You’re getting sick more often. Protein isn’t made just for making muscle. It’s the building block of our immune system, so if you’re not eating enough protein, you might be run down.
3. Your runs aren’t improving. If you don’t feel like you’re getting faster and stronger, that’s a big red flag that something is missing. Check that you’re getting enough protein and, if you don’t think that’s the issue, try analyzing your sleep quality and carbohydrate intake.