Endurance athletes usually find themselves in one of two camps when it comes to protein. One camp is all in on protein, making sure they take in plenty at every meal. Their fridges are fully stocked with fancy cuts and varieties of meat, their post-workout go-to is a sugar free protein powder, and dinner usually consists of a big piece of chicken or fish and some vegetables. No such thing as too much!
The other group are the opposite - their meal will definitely have carbs, but protein is more hit or miss. Green vegetable salad? Check. Oatmeal for breakfast? Check. Eggs, chicken, or cheese? Not so much. Runners need carbs, not muscles, am I right?
As you might have already guessed, both groups are missing the mark in some ways. Runners do need quite a bit of protein - in fact, two recent studies came out suggesting that protein needs for endurance athletes have much higher protein needs than previously recommended- as much as 1.65-2.6 gm/kg/day! To put that in perspective, the Dietary Reference Intake for adults is just 0.8-1.0 gm/kg/day. Talk to almost any running coach, and they'll probably tell you that building strength is a major weakness for many athletes, and that a consistent lifting routine can help you see major gains in your fitness. Protein helps us rebuild muscle after a workout or a weight session so we can continue building fitness and strength.
But runners also don't need just protein. You're trying to develop the strength to be quick and stay strong over longer miles, not win bodybuilding competitions! (For the record, bodybuilders also need more than just protein as well). Protein helps restore muscles, but carbs and fat are equally important. All of your meals and snacks should contain a balance of macronutrients. In fact, research indicates that protein is more effectively utilized when it's consumed in moderate amounts, so there's no need to load up on 70-80 gm at a single meal. Just focus on including a good source of protein with every meal and at a few snacks throughout the day.
If you feel like you need more specifics, a good goal to aim for is 20-40 gm of protein per meal, with your overall intake spaced across 4-6 meals and snacks throughout the day. Eating protein after a workout is thought to confer a benefit in muscle synthesis - but since muscles are primed to take up protein for an extended period of time after a strength training session (~24 hours), it's more important to focus on meeting your overall protein needs than making sure you ingest some immediately after a workout. For endurance exercise, I do still recommend my athletes take in carbs + protein shortly after activity to replenish glycogen stores, start the process of rebuilding muscle, and reduce muscle soreness. Given that many athletes exercise daily or multiple times daily, prioritizing intakes right after activity may be necessary to meet their needs!
Need ideas? Here are a few ways to power up your plate with protein at every meal.
Think beyond protein powder in your smoothie. Greek yogurt (15-20 gm/6 oz), milk (8 gm/1 cup), silken tofu (10 gm/4 oz), and hemp seeds (~11 gm/3 TB) are all good ways to add in satisfying protein without affecting the way your smoothie tastes.
Mix up your oatmeal – make it with milk or soy milk rather than water, whisk in an egg before you microwave it, and top it with nuts, sunflower butter, or yogurt for more staying power.
Choose a high protein cereal like Kashi Go (14 gm/cup) and use soy or cow’s milk, then top with nuts or seeds for an extra protein punch.
Put an egg on it! Eggs can go on toast, salads, and even pizzas (breakfast pizza, anyone?), and one whole egg contains ~6 gm of highly bioavailable protein.
Pair cheese (7 gm/oz) or nut butter (8 gm/2 TB) with crackers and jerky (9 gm/oz) for an easy protein packed snack or appetizer. Roasted chickpeas, tuna packets, and hard-boiled eggs also make great grab-and-go snacks high in protein.
Mix beans into your rice dishes, pastas, and soups for a filling ~7 gm protein per ½ cup. Or switch out your usual pasta for one made from lentils or beans for additional protein. Banza’s rotini pasta has 13 gm per 2 oz serving, but there are a few different brands on the market.
If you’re a fan of sweet snacks, try making a cookie dough dip from chickpeas to pair with graham crackers or fruit – this is a fun one with kiddos! (Just google "chickpea cookie dough" for a variety of recipes).
You can also think about consuming protein before you go to bed, which has been shown in some research to promote muscle synthesis overnight and improve fat free mass. Most of this research has been done with casein, which is a milk protein, so think about adding in 20-30 gm of protein in the form of milk, cheese, or yogurt in the evening for a potential benefit. Bonus - a bedtime snack can be a great way to increase your overall intake to better meet your energy needs, too!
Can you get too much protein? There used to be concern that excessive protein intake could harm the kidneys or liver, but the most recent evidence has not shown any harmful effects related to high protein consumption. However, if your high protein intake is preventing you from taking in enough energy from other types of nutrients, your performance and health may suffer anyway. There's also not evidence that a higher-protein diet will improve endurance performance. Remember, a balanced diet with adequate energy is the most important consideration when it comes to fueling!
Is getting enough protein tricky for you? If you love this info and want to learn more, don't forget to join the wait list for my online course for female athletes. We cover macros, nutrient timing, and so much more in this self-paced course.
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