A runner’s guide to protein
By Henry Howard
As runners age, there is a wide range of items they need to add to their to-do list to ensure proper recovery that will allow them to enjoy their passion as long as possible.
Adding a dynamic warmup to one’s pre-run routine is one. Regular foam rolling and massage therapy is another. Proper nutrition becomes even more important.
There are lots of opinions about what exactly consists of proper nutrition. High carbs, low fat. Low carbs, high fat. A vegan diet. A carnivore diet. The list goes on.
While my body has reacted well to my journey to a pescatarian diet and now a plant-based lifestyle, I’ll let others choose what works best for them. I’m happy to answer questions about what it means to be a masters athlete on a plant-based diet.
But regardless of diet, it’s critical to include protein, especially for runners and other athletes.
Here’s a look at why the macronutrient is so important, especially for masters athletes and tips on hitting your daily goal. Please note that the following is not to be considered medical advice. Consult your physician, dietician or other health-care professional for specific recommendations for you. This is intended to be an overview based on my personal research and experience.
7 things you should know about protein
1. What exactly does protein do? Protein is a vital macronutrient as it helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. It also works to keep muscle mass lean while creating enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters. It’s important to note that muscle growth occurs when exercise is combined with protein in one’s diet.
2. So how much protein do I need? My coach, David Roche, recommends 100 grams per day, regardless of an athlete’s age, calories burned and other factors. It’s a simple number to track. Others follow a guideline, based on body weight. This research from the University of Toronto is more than five years old but still offers a good guideline. Researchers concluded runners should aim to consume 1.6 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight on training days. (So a 150-pound person would be 68 kilograms. That would give them a range of 109 to 122 grams of protein a day.) That’s about twice the amount in the Recommended Dietary Allowance for the general population. But, again, athletes need additional protein that is lost during exercise and also to rebuild muscular tissue.
3. That sounds like too much protein. Is there a risk in adding too much muscle which will affect my running speed? No. Think about it like this: bodybuilders who do cardio won’t get fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. The proper protein consumption will help your muscles repair and grow to support your running endeavors. No need to buy skimpy bikinis and start practicing your poses for a body-building competition.
4. I follow a low-carb diet. Does that influence the recommendations for protein intake? It does indeed. A Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study from 2019 showed running on low carb availability increases the amount of protein necessary to be consumed. The reason is that the burn rate for amino acids during a workout is higher when muscles aren’t using carbohydrate stores.
5. How much protein do I need after a workout and when should it be consumed? There are recommendations all over the board for this one. But think about the goal of the protein: muscle repair. I would recommend getting in some protein within the first 30 to 45 minutes after the workout, at the very minimum. And within two hours, I would recommend getting in a total of 25-30 grams. Also keep in mind that the body can only absorb so many grams of protein at a time. So approach your protein goal throughout the day. If you work out in the morning, then a post-workout snack or breakfast would be 25-30 grams, follow that up with another 25-30 at lunch and also at dinner. That plus a snack during the day with a bit of protein will continually feed your muscles and achieve the 100 grams goal. Or adjust based on your goal for daily protein.
6. How do plant-based or vegan athletes hit these protein goals? There are many healthy options for getting proteins by eating plants. After all, that’s where the cows, chickens, fish, deer and other animals get their protein. Legumes and nuts are good protein sources. They also have great amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you won’t find in most meats. And you’d be surprised by how much protein you can get from various fruits and vegetables. Among the best sources: soybeans or edamame, 18 grams per cup; tofu and lentils each have about 8 to 10 grams per serving; black, lima and garbanzo beans range between 6 and 8 grams per serving; and don’t forget peanut and other nut butters, which can yield up to 7 grams per two tablespoons.
7. Are protein powders beneficial? As a supplement to a whole foods, plant-based diet, absolutely. Make sure to get most of your daily protein from real food such as plants, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other sources. And choose your protein powder carefully. Many are loaded with sugar. Aim for one that is high in protein and low in additives and preservatives. I use Gnarly Nutrition’s Vegan Plant Protein. At 20 grams per serving, it is made out of pea protein isolate, chia seed protein and cranberry seed protein. The vegan powder contains zero cholesterol, tastes great and is highly digestible. It also contains all nine essential amino acids and is a rich source of antioxidants, and healthy fatty acids.